You can’t fake heart. You can ape aesthetics or story structure or character beats, but heart is something intangible, a semi-magical conglomeration of aspects of a movie that brings a warm smile to your face and just maybe a lump to your throat. Wreck-It Ralph is swimming in heart.
The new film from Disney Animation is obviously heavily inspired by peak-era Pixar. If we were to be uncharitable we would describe Wreck-It Ralph as Toy Story With Video Games. After all, it’s a story about the secret, hidden world of video game characters and what they do at night, after the children have all left the arcade. Storywise, Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t really have much in common with Toy Story, but heart-wise they’re in just about the same league.
Yeah, I said it. Wreck-It Ralph compares with the Toy Story movies. There’s some story slackness heading into the third act that keeps the movie from being as truly great as the first two Toy Storys (it’s as good as the overpraised, repetitive third film, though), but Wreck-It Ralph is the equal to those films in terms of joy, character, sweetness and, like I said, heart.
The conceit is simple: Ralph is the bad guy in a video game called Fix-It Felix Jr. His job in the game is to destroy buildings and try to keep Felix from repairing the damage. But the conditions of his job don’t dictate the conditions of his soul, and Ralph is a sweet guy, lonely because he’s forced to live on his own in the junkyard. Every night for thirty years he’s been forced to watch the local digital populace celebrate Felix’s day of repairs while ignoring Ralph’s contribution to the equation.
One day he decides that what he needs is a medal, like real heroes have. And so he begins a quest, heading out of his game and into Game Central Station - the power strip that connects all the cabinets in the arcade. There he discovers FPS game Hero’s Duty, where players are rewarded with a medal for defeating the Cybug invasion. From there he finds himself in the kart racing game Sugar Rush, where he meets a fellow outcast - a glitched character who is not allowed to race.
Sugar Rush is where the movie gets a little bogged down - there’s an almost endless succession of candy-related jokes and puns (most of which really work, but there are so many of them) - but it’s also where the movie really comes alive. It isn’t until Ralph meets the glitch Venelope Von Schweetz that the film’s heart comes into play; their friendship is sweet and true and touching. And yes, that’s even with Sarah Silverman in the role, and even with her making poop jokes.
The world of the video game characters created in Wreck-It Ralph is so vibrant and fun that I almost resented the movie spending so much time in Sugar Rush. After all, there are dozens more sorts of games out there, and I would have enjoyed seeing Ralph visit them all. But that isn’t the purpose of this film - by staying in Sugar Rush the movie allows that friendship to really deepen and grow into one of the fullest relationships I’ve seen between two animated characters since... well, since Toy Story 2.
The movie has plenty of great video game jokes, often pitched at older gamers (how many 8 year olds in the audience will get Q-Bert references?), but you don’t have to be a gamer to really get them. The jokes about FPS games - including the hilariously ‘dark’ backstory to main Hero's Duty character Calhoun (played by Jane Lynch) - work whether or not you’ve ever played Gears of War. They’re jokes that just speak to the modern coarsening and grittening up of our pop culture, something we all recognize.
John C Reilly is fantastic as Ralph; he brings something of the overgrown adolescent from Step Brothers to the character. There’s an anger in Ralph, but it’s not cruel or terrible - it’s the anger of someone misunderstood and ostracized. He’s joined by a host of modestly hip comics, like Jack McBrayer as Felix and Mindy Kaling as Taffyta Muttonfudge, but the film’s secret MVP is probably Alan Tudyk, doing an impeccable Ed Wynn as King Candy, ruler of Sugar Rush. Tudyk has so much fun, and brings so much energy, to the role that I could watch a whole movie about King Candy.
Silverman might be the biggest surprise, though. I like her - or did, before her schtick became ossified - and she brings enough edge to make Venelope feel different from other Disney characters without going too far into pandering Dreamworks territory. There are bad pop songs and references in the film (and as I said, some poop jokes - but they’re pretty good), but Silverman overcomes this stuff and makes Venelope feel alive and real and relatable in a way that few female animation characters have been. Her final decisions almost made me cheer.
Wreck-It Ralph is a joy. It’s a movie that’s warm and funny and has a perfect, ideal message at the end, clearly communicated without being cloying. The design and animation is gorgeous (and fun - the herky jerky 8-bit movements of Fix-It Felix’s townsfolks is especially delightful - and most of all, endlessly imaginative. The world and the characters are wonderful, and if the story is a little less focused than a great Pixar film, it’s still better than recent Pixar outings. Between Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney Animation is showing that it’s more than willing to compete with the most vaunted animation house in the world - and that they might just win.