By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Disney’s laugh-out-loud funny, candy colorful and completely charming “Wreck-It Ralph” is one of the best animated movies of the year. This bonus-level winner is worth a stack of quarters whether you are a present-day videogame fanatic or haven’t set foot in an arcade since “Pac-Man Fever” was on the radio.
Just as Woody and friends in the “Toy Story” trilogy came to life when nobody was looking, it turns out that videogame characters are active even when no one is playing. One who is frustrated with always being a bad guy is massive-fisted Wreck-It Ralph. After battering the same low-res apartment building for 30 years in a game named for good-guy Fix-It Felix Jr. (“30 Rock”‘s Jack McBrayer), Ralph is tired of being an outcast and wants to be a hero.
John C. Reilly is terrific as Ralph, a secretly gentle giant who attends therapeutic “Bad-Anon” meetings with other conflicted villains. Characters can mingle and visit other machines, with one dangerous drawback: If they die outside their own game, they won’t regenerate. Ralph is so desperate to win a medal he risks permanent game-over status by sneaking into a state-of-the-art first-person shooter called Hero’s Duty. Comparing that brutal science-fiction war zone to his cartoonish 1980s-era game, the overwhelmed Ralph wonders “when did videogames become so violent and scary?”
Jane Lynch voices that game’s ridiculously tough Sergeant Calhoun, who is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.” (Let’s just say she had a bad wedding day.) The movie’s ingeniously crafted screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee eventually puts Calhoun, one of her world’s monstrous “Cy-Bug” creatures, Ralph and Felix inside a girly-sweet anime-style candyland game called Sugar Rush.
That’s where we meet the scene-stealingly hilarious Vanellope von Schweetz, a shunned little tomboy “glitch” who wants to be one of her game’s race-car drivers. Normally not-safe-for-kids actress/comedian Sarah Silverman may be the most unlikely Disney cast member ever, but her sarcastic silliness turns out to be perfect for her captivatingly cocky character.
Vanellope has enough Silverman-style political incorrectness to seem both childishly innocent and yet surprisingly edgy. She wonders if Ralph is a hobo, and thinks it’s a hoot that he was in a game she calls Hero’s Doodie (“What did you win the medal for, wiping?”). She blames her unstable image on “pixlexia,” and says that when she sleeps in candy wrappers “I bundle myself up like a homeless lady.”
“Why are you so freakishly annoying?” Ralph asks her at one point, but he’s as powerless to resist her as we are. Believe it or not, the smart-alecky scamp might even make you cry. Director Rich Moore (“The Simpsons,” “Futurama”) expertly juggles the movie’s mix of heart, humor and some genuine action-adventure thrills.
There’s enough of a resemblance between lovable sad-sack Ralph and Reilly, and smirkingly goofy Vanellope and Silverman, that the characters seem to have been written and designed specifically for them to play. Ditto Lynch as the centerfold-buff but easily recognizable Sergeant Calhoun, and McBrayer as the country-boy wholesome Felix.
“Wreck-It Ralph” is so interesting, unusual and packed with clever details that it’s hard to believe this Disney delight isn’t a Pixar production. It seems to have been switched at birth this year with Disney-subsidiary Pixar’s more traditional and princess-centered “Brave.”
In addition to original games and character names, “Wreck-It Ralph” features cameos from several real-world arcade classics such a Q*Bert (who speaks in punctuation-mark gibberish) and Pac-Man (whom Ralph amusingly refers to as a “cherry-chasing dot muncher”).
The movie is preceded by a sweetly romantic short called “Paperman” about a love-at-first-sight office worker who uses paper airplanes to get the attention of his dream girl. Wordless, mostly black-and-white and with a hand-drawn look, it packs a surprisingly emotional wallop and has an excellent score by Christophe Beck.