"Wreck-It Ralph" Is Too Cute

God bless the parents that’ll be dragging hordes of sugar-addled kids to screenings of “Wreck-It Ralph” in the coming weeks. The film itself is like ingesting concentrated Pixy Stix®, so adding soda and candy to the proceedings is likely to cause something just short of a national sugar coma. You see, “Wreck-It Ralph” (easier to say than it is to type) is the type of shrewd, universal filmmaking that Disney animation has been trying to re-capture since they lost their spark in the late 90s. Ever since, they’ve weirdly been in competition with themselves (Pixar) and have failed to deliver anything that could be considered a smash hit across the board – either critically and commercially, among both kids and adults. This might be that film. It hits every checkmark across the board, and while it definitely suffers from nearly endless overstimulation, it’s really clever – almost too clever – and should appeal equally to boys and girls, a feat in its own right.

The last five years have seen an incredible resurgence in all things 80s, from shutter shades to synth lines to 8-bit everything. In that way, it’s stunning that nobody thought of this particular storyline before – what really happens when an arcade game is out of order? The titular Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the hulking bad guy from a classic 80s video game (which shares many similarities to the real-life Donkey Kong), Fix-It Felix, Jr. Ralph is fed up with his lot in life, jealous of Felix (Jack McBrayer) and all the pomp that comes with being a pixelated hero. He tells his support group that he might be a bad guy, but he’s not a bad guy, and when he realizes that winning medals could be his ticket out of villainy, he does what no video game character is ever supposed to do. He game-jumps. Ending up in the Halo-esque “Hero’s Duty,” we discover that Ralph’s not the tough guy he thinks he is, but he meets an incredulous solider, Calhoun (Jane Lynch), which sets the narrative in motion.

Unwittingly, our hero releases a giant, bloodthirsty insect into the “wild” that is Game Central Station (the characters travel through power cables into surge protectors), and Ralph and the bug end up in Sugar Rush, a girly cart racing game. Here, he befriends a precocious but mischievous little girl, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), and the rest of the film is spent trying to fulfill her dream of being a successful racer (while retrieving a medal for Ralph). The story is surprisingly dense for an animated film, and it begins to drag around the hour mark. Thankfully, the voice actors are all game and keep things as peppy as possible. The screenwriters strike the appropriate balance between standard kids fare and more thematically rich material. But, I wish the film were funnier and more substantial. It’s chuckle-worthy in a lot of places, but big laughs are nowhere to be found. The screenplay also leans heavily on its cleverness, riding its admittedly high concept into the ground.

The world of Sugar Rush is where the hyper-stylized look of the film becomes a burden, and the 3D only adds to the overstimulation. Half of the film is an unavoidable ad for video games (including welcome cameos from Sonic, Bowser, Pac-Man, and others), but the other half is an ad for all things cavity-inducing. A joke about Nestle Quik-sand is cute until the crassness of the product placement sets in. The same goes for an amusing but obvious Oreo gag. A film full of Ralph’s game-jumping would have been wonderful, but being stuck in this world of pastels – gumdrops and candy canes and gummy worms – is tiresome and detrimental to the narrative. The movie ends up stalling just before it takes off, and anyone who has seen “The Nutcracker” or played Candyland has seen much of this before. The picture is wildly imaginative except where it counts – in its storytelling.

Most of the film will be catnip to gamers, though. The best parts are the most game-centric and the 8-bit-ness of the project is roundly enjoyable. I’m not confident it will translate to many viewers born before 1970 or after 1990, but for anyone that’s ever spent time in an arcade or gathered around the family TV for a Mario Kart marathon, “Wreck-It Ralph” is a love letter to many of your best memories. In that respect, I appreciated the movie more than I liked it. In theory, I should have loved it rather than merely liking it, but its shortcomings are undeniable and frustrating. Its visuals are so sharp that they practically smother the rest of the film. For agreeable family entertainment, you could do a lot worse, but like a meal of cotton candy, you’re like to leave unfulfilled. However, if the film does as well as I think it will, the filmmakers will have the opportunity to fix things in time for the implied sequel. And who better to call than Fix-It Felix?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 2, 2012
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Rich Moore
Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee, Phil Johnston
Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Mindy Kaling, Adam Carolla, Horatio Sanz, Dennis Haysbert, Edie McClurg, Roger Craig Smith, Gerald C Rivers, Rachael Harris, Stefanie Scott, Reuben Langdon, Kyle Hebert
MPAA Rating: PG (for some rude humor and mild action/violence)