The best eras of animation occur when filmmakers are encouraged to follow their muse. Think of how many different ways a shortsighted modern studio head might shoot down “Fantasia” or “Wall-E” if given the chance.
If there were focus groups involved with “Wreck-It Ralph,” it doesn’t show in the finished product. The Disney tribute to arcade gaming is delightfully off the rails, offering a grown-up-friendly tone and merge of visual styles that are reminiscent of the studio’s 1988 animated homage to film noir, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
This film lacks the expert pacing of “Roger Rabbit,” but it gets the details right. Powered by nostalgia while throwing out most of the rules, it’s rare that a minute goes by without at least one inspired moment.
Wreck-It Ralph is a character in an early 1980s Donkey Kong clone called Fix-It Felix Jr. After being thrown off his blocky retro animated building and into the mud one too many times, he tells a support group of video game villains that he doesn’t want to be a bad guy any more. The resulting hero’s journey takes Ralph through the arcade, settling in a modern racing game called Sugar Rush — where he mentors Vanellope von Schweetz, a character whose “glitch” properties have made her an outcast.
The similarities to “Monsters, Inc.” and the “Toy Story” franchise — particularly the recent animated short “Small Fry” — are obvious on the surface. (Pixar’s John Lasseter executive produced “Wreck-It Ralph.”) But the style and tone are unique, with a frenetic pace and a lowbrow humor that separates it from its Pixar cousins.
The comedy is often slapstick and occasionally base, but it’s not cheap. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman (as Ralph and Vanellope) are allowed to bring enough of themselves to the roles, that their potty humor banter never seems forced or gratuitous. Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston keep an edge to the comedy throughout. Q-Bert is homeless in “Wreck-It Ralph,” and the send-up of the shapely female space marine leader from the fictitious “Hero’s Duty” game is vicious in its hilarity.
As much as the dialogue, the visuals offer enjoyment, especially for geeky older viewers who once made an arcade their second home. Residents of the retro “Niceland” all move in simple almost teleported jumps. (An exploding cake creates a blocky 8-bit mess.) Characters from the newer games have their own modern neuroses, victims of too much adrenaline and an almost gross sexuality. Someone at Wellesley College is going to write a really great term paper about the deeper meaning of this film.
Action, nostalgia and humor power the movie until the final act, when the filmmakers’ penchant for rewriting the rules as they go becomes a liability. The story twists may be too convoluted for even the adults in the audience. Given the excellent opening — maybe the best first 20 minutes for an animated film since “Up” — the big finish feels underwhelming.
But like a good arcade classic from the 1980s, much of the enjoyment is in the experience, not the critical analysis of the plot. “Wreck-It Ralph” is a rush. If it’s not the Pac-Man of animated movies, it’s definitely in Dig Dug territory.