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This hasn’t been the best year (or three) for Pixar, but that doesn’t mean their parent company, Disney, can’t swoop in with another animated surprise (though Pixar bigwig John Lasseter is the executive producer on this gem). A shoe-in for Best Animated Feature, “Wreck-It Ralph” is the most fun at the box office right now. Get ready for some of the most excessive classic and modern video game nostalgia you’ll ever experience as an overly-pixilated villain searches for a new identity beyond his software parameters.
After 30 years in the arcades, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the Donkey Kong-esque villain of “Fix-It Felix, Jr.”, tires of playing the villain. But no matter how much they remind him that “he’s a bad guy, but not a ‘bad’ guy,” his villain support group — featuring a slew of familiar nemeses of Sonic, Pac-Man, Mario and others — can’t help him through this slump. Just as Jessica Rabbit was drawn bad, Ralph’s bad by narrative design. Every game needs a villain, but what if that villain just wants a friend. But rather than accept marginalization by the other characters in his own game and villain-profiling by the authorities in the terminal station that connects all arcade games, Ralph goes “Turbo” — meaning he leaves his digital home in search of a new identity in another. Unfortunately, in so doing, he threatens the entire existence of “Fix-It Felix”. If he doesn’t work through his issues quickly, the arcade will disconnect the “glitchy” game forever.
Video games have long been cursed when they transition to the big screen: “Doom”, “Prince of Persia” and that awful “Mario Bros.” film starring Bob Hoskins, to name a few cinematic blemishes. In the wake of such un-inspiration, “Wreck-It Ralph” is every gamer’s dream. Finally, a video game film that does more than rely on superficial nostalgia to fill seats. But there’s still plenty of nostalgia since it features countless classic video game characters from Bowser and Sonic to Q*bert and Pac-Man, along with parodies of “Call of Duty” (in the form of a game called “Hero’s Duty”) and various racing games. It pays to have Disney backing when seeking copyright permission. If only someone could create a good video game movie about an actual video game (though the free “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” app is rather fun).
Surprisingly, “Wreck-It Ralph” isn’t very funny, but its visual splendor and creative narrative more than compensate. And while Ralph spends some time game jumping, the majority of the film remains in the candy-land, kart racing game “Sugar Rush” (an original creation for the story), which features fun elements like two donut cops named Wynnchel (Adam Carolla) and Duncan (Horatio Sanz) and Oreos that guard the candy castle chanting “Oreo” similar to the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz”.
Give it up for a solid screenplay by virtual unknowns, Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, and director Rich Moore’s freshman feature film. Known for his long resume of work for “The Simpsons” and “Futurama”, Moore proves a steady guiding hand in digital feature form. The comic timing feels more subtle than most animated features, much like an average episode of “Futurama”, but Moore creates an engaging tale with compelling characters.
Contrary to cliché opinion, video games don’t always wreak havoc on youthful gaming minds; at their best, they create imaginative worlds that challenge us to see things anew. “Wreck-It Ralph” taps into this creative process, both showing us where we’ve gone and what video games can do next. This is a unique film for its ability to allow reflection and engagement on a different level, by forcing us to reflect on the games we play. Of course this only works for those who actually remember the original Nintendo, Sega Genesis and Atari, along with the newer consoles. Luckily, we’ve come to a point where this audience is no longer just teens.
“Wreck-It Ralph” is a great adventure story with a dash of comedy (there’s even some unexpected plot twists). There’s plenty for kids to enjoy (did I mention how marvelous and intense the animation is?), but the best audience member will remember playing “Asteroid” in an arcade or “Mario Bros.” on the 8-bit graphics Nintendo, not the app download on Wii. Sure, the storyline does just fine if you don’t know or care about video games, but it’s that much more entertaining if you do — it just might motivate you to visit a few pixilated worlds yourself.
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