Donkey Kong was a revolutionary game. Shigeru Miyamoto began working at Nintendo and noted that most video games were simply lines and dots. He asked the all important question that changed everything: "Why can't we use video games to make characters?" The result was Jumpman (later renamed "Mario") and the barrel-throwing bad guy, Donkey Kong.
Why am I bringing this up? Because the unspoken truth behind Wreck-It Ralph is that it is actually Donkey Kong: The Movie. This Disney Animation harkens back to the old Looney Toons short "Book Revue" where after the book store is closed, the characters from the books come to life. In Wreck-It Ralph, when the video arcade closes, it's quitting time for the characters in the arcade. Like Toy Story, it taps into that secret suspicion of youth that all of our playthings had a life of their own when we weren't looking.
Our central character is the eponymous Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), who is the bad guy in the DK-esque Felix Fixit Jr. Ralph's job is to wreck the apartment building in "Nicetown" and Felix is the "Mario" who fixes the damage and gets a medal for his reward. After the game is done, the people of Nicetown settle into their nice apartments with their friends and families while Ralph must sleep at the dump. His only recreation is when he leaves to visit other game characters through the power chords. Particularly, he meets up with other "bad guys" who deal with their similar situation "one game at a time."
Things change when Ralph is not invited to a 30th Anniversary party for his game being thrown by the other characters. Complaining that he never gets a medal like Felix, Ralph is then offered a deal: if he gets a medal, he can move out of the dump and into the penthouse of the Nicetown Tower. The problem is that there is no way for him to get a medal in his own game.
So Ralph decides to sneak into other games in order to win a medal. Game jumping, or "Going Turbo" as its called in the movie (which is explained why later in the film), is dangerous because if you are killed outside of your game, you die. Also, with Ralph gone, the children in the arcade think that the game is defective. If the game is removed from service, then the occupants of the game would become homeless, like the old characters from Q-bert.
Ralph encounters rough and violent games like "Medal of Heroes" and crazy racing games like the candy-themed "Sugar Rush." In the latter, he forms a friendship with a misfit "glitch" named Venelope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) who wants to compete in the races but is being prevented by the leader "King Candy."
I've spent a lot of time explaining the plot because the world they make is a bit complicated, but not difficult to follow. They spend a good portion of the first act setting up all of the rules so that in act three all of those rules come into play. That is part of the joy in the film. It is incredibly well-plotted. I always find it rather annoying when a movie sets up plot points early in the movie that end up going nowhere or have very little impact. But the establishment of the rules is not an end in itself. It needs to move the story. In the case of Wreck-It Ralph, there are a lot more rules as well as plot twists and turns that are surprising, yet feel inevitable.
Ralph's journey is handled very well. We understand him the entire time and we go along with every decision he makes, even if they don't feel right. He wants to be accepted and he wants to do the right thing, but those two things aren't always compatible. Venelope plays the quircky outsider who brings out the good-guy in Ralph. It was very smart to make her a small child and not someone Ralph's age because there would be too much romantic tension, which would distract from the point. Ralph's friendship with Venelope motivates him to pure selfless-ness, like Sully and Boo from Monsters Inc. And this is the internal struggle between his self-interest and his love for his friend.
The supporting characters are also wonderfully vivid. Felix is a nice guy who can't quite doesn't treat Ralph like he should in order to keep the peace in the game. Calhoon is a hard-edged commander in "Medal of Heroes" and she has "the most tragic backstory ever written in video game history." This makes the budding romance between her and Felix all the funnier. It would be like Master Chief dating Ms. Pacman.
The animation is beautiful. Director Rich Moore (who directed the funniest episode of The Simpsons ever "Cape Feare") infuses so much epic energy into this game. It is a visual feast of color and movement with lots of hidden cameos and Easter Eggs. I especially liked how a lot of the simplifies the animation on a lot of the older game characters to make them feel dated while looking sleek. He also gives Wreck-It Ralph its most important quality: its heart.
This movie has a lot of heart. Disney Animation has taken a cue from PIXAR and built their wondrous animation around a deep emotional core. It is also an interesting commentary on how video games have changed over the years and what that says about us. But Wreck-It Ralph is not a message movie. It simply wants to tell a good story. Disney Animation has almost cracked the PIXAR code entirely to make their movies on par with theirs (they even open with a shot film "Paperman" which is simply heart-warming with a great score). They fall just a little short. The second act drags just a little bit and the jokes don't always land with as much humor as they could. There were plenty of opportunities to explore more of this video game universe, but it felt like they were being confined to only a few games.
That is a small complaint though in what is an excellent movie. If you like PIXAR-esque movies and love video games, Wreck-It Ralph is the movie for you.
4 out of 5 stars