Confirming that cooler (better) heads can prevail, Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph proves the House of Mouse’s wisdom beyond the financial to not only purchase Pixar outright, but to install Pixar’s Creative Director, John Lasseter, as the parent company’s Chief Creative Officer in 2006. Since then, the Disney which, just prior, had seen its rote attempts to duplicate a Little Mermaid here and a Beauty and the Beast there saw increasingly diminished results—both critically and commercially—has slowly begun to steer its trajectory back toward the Second Star to the Left.
That Disney’s in-house effort mostly plays like an actual Pixar film is a fine compliment. While Rich Moore’s feature directorial debut is certainly no Toy Story, Finding Nemo or The Incredibles, it comes the closest to finding real heart within its many plot points, delightfully realized setting, and handful of thrilling set pieces. Wreck-It Ralph has more going for it than just dewfall from the magic Lasseter tree—Moore may be a newcomer to directing feature-length animation, but his TV credits include a murderer’s row of many of The Simpsons and Futurama’s best half hours, including classics like, “Marge vs. The Monorail” and “Roswell that Ends Well,” respectively. (The latter netted him an Emmy in 2002.)
The film introduces audiences to a video arcade that houses a fictitious game, Fix-It Felix, Jr., in which the titular character (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the Donkey Kong-esque villain. Decades of playing the same role while being spurned by the “good guy” inhabitants of both his game and those of the others in the arcade, have finally compelled Ralph to “Go Turbo.” Despite the warnings, he game-hops to earn a medal and, thus, the respect of the good guys. His single-mindedness in pursuit of his goal leads to chaos that threatens certain doom to any sprite unlucky enough to be stuck in their cabinet when it’s shut off.
The plot reaches dizzying momentum fairly early, introducing myriad world-building rules, character threads, and a slew of in-jokes for the parents whose children are too young to remember the many classic games referenced. (Side note to parents of young children: this movie contains a couple of nightmare-worthy moments—your kid’s sensitivity may vary.) The emotional core of the story is anchored by the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a potty-mouthed brat existing as a glitch inside the kart racing game of Sugar Rush. The casting of Silverman proves a particular stroke of genius; the character synchronizes perfectly with the comedienne’s brand of childish humor. More impressively, she (and Reilly) really hit their marks in character building, instilling their toons with the deep-seated sorrow wrought by their respective isolation.
The world of Sugar Rush itself merits some mention, too. Deliriously inventive and pulsing with life, it almost seems a shame a real video game wasn’t developed from its blueprints; it’s a world in which one wants to linger. This is additionally noteworthy, in that Disney’s marketing machine of years past had baked-in product from the exhilarating kart race sequence with which one can imagine they’d be happy trying to wag the dog. Instead, the semi-climactic sequence flows in earnest from the story.
For anyone looking for a sign that the studio’s post-Pixar shift in direction is a good thing for the company’s animation efforts as a whole, the best evidence can be found here. Wreck-It Ralph suggests that Lasseter’s stewardship is dissolving the remaining separation between what separates a Pixar movie from Uncle Walt’s. The Disney that had become characterized by a pissing contest between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg—resulting in Katzenberg’s departure to start DreamWorks—might still be visible, but with the emergence of crackerjack fare like Ralph, the best place to see the old Disney may be in the rear-view mirror.
Director: Rich Moore
Writers: Jennifer Lee, Phil Johnston
Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBreyer, Jane Lynch
Release Date: Nov. 2, 2012