November 05, 2012

MOVIES: Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012)

Disney's animated film Wreck-It Ralph is set inside the world of video games, where Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the bad guy in the "Fix-It Felix" game. Ralph wrecks the building, Felix (Jack McBrayer) fixes the building. That's how it's been every day for 30 years, and Ralph is starting to get tired of being the bad guy.

His quest to become a good guy takes Ralph into some of the arcade's other games. In "Hero's Duty," a violent alien-killing game, he joins the troops of Sgt. Calhoun (a perfectly cast Jane Lynch), a tough commander who can't figure out why one of her soldiers suddenly seems so incompetent.

We spend much of the movie inside "Sugar Rush," a candy-themed race-car game, where we meet Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a little girl who dreams of taking part in the game's daily races, but is constantly thwarted by the ruling King Candy (Alan Tudyk). The candy puns and jokes fly fast and furious in this part of the movie (there's a quick Oreo joke that is one of the movie's highlights), but they never overwhelm the story.

And a surprisingly compelling story it is, too; writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston have given all of the main characters goals that are big enough to keep us involved in their quests, and those stakes are elevated by genuine danger, because if you die outside your own game, you don't regenerate. Things that seem at first to be simple throwaway gags come back later in the movie to pay off in beautiful ways.

The animation is skillful, and the mix of different game/animation styles is effectively played for laughs; watch the reaction of 8-bit Felix when he gets his first look at high-definition Calhoun. And the voice performances are terrific. I was very pleasantly surprised by Silverman, who I usually find unbearable; she's toned down her usual obnoxiousness to just the right level for the cloyingly cute Vanellope.

Wreck-It Ralph is preceded by an animated short, which has not been the norm in recent years for Disney's non-Pixar releases. It's called "Paperman," and it's a sweet bit of romantic magical realism, in mostly black and white (with one crucial pop of red) and without dialogue. The main character has a marvelously expressive face, and it's a charming short.

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