WRECK-IT RALPH may be set in the world of video games, but its conceit is set firmly in the most classic of paradigms, the Hero’s Journey. The mythic realms are made of bits and bytes, but the landscapes are just as magical, just as forbidding, and the tasks nothing short of Herculean. Not that any of this is stuffy or pedantic. Far from it. This animated tale has a playful streak underlying its wry and puckish sense of humor, neither of which are the least undone by film’s huge heart. There is also a creativity that includes a clever way to get characters from one game to another without fuss, and a painless way to introduce the tykes in the audience to the philosophical constructs of the existential crisis.
The hero is the eponymous Ralph, the bag-guy character from a vintage 8-bit arcade game called Fix-It Felix. After thirty years of destroying the same building with his massive fists and even more massive temper, he’s tired of always being the villain, a feeling that comes to an unfortunate head when he’s not invited to the party the game’s character’s are throwing to celebrate their three decades of fun. Maybe it was seeing Pac-man gobble the shrimp cocktails, maybe it was how he was commemorated in cake, but whatever the reason, a drinking bout at Tapper convinces him that the only way he can make his life better is to win the medal offered in HERO’S DUTY, the first-person shooter game that’s only a tram ride away via Central Station, or, as it’s known to the real world, the surge protector.
Brilliantly ill-suited to that game, and getting on the last nerve of its corpse-slapping commando (Jane Lynch), Ralph even less prepared for Vanellope Von Scwheetz (Susan Silverman), the outcast glitch in SUGAR RUSH, the Japanese-style racing game where everything is made of sugar and spice, but the nefarious doings of the residents are not nearly so nice.
Eventually characters from all three games find themselves struggling with the candy-coated crisis in Sugar Rush, leading to a edge-of-your-seat final race through obstacles rife with both danger and empty calories, and on whose outcome depends more than mere happiness.
Puns may be the lowest from of humor, but when handled with the visual verve found here, they undergo an apotheosis. The same wit is applied to the character development, with has sophistication as well as originality. Ralph is preternaturally self-aware, even if he doesn’t quite have the vocabulary to express it. Vanellope has a poignant vulnerability to her annoying impishness. Even the almost one-note character of Felix himself (Jack McBrayer‘s succotash voice), a perpetually perky handyman with an interesting take on foul language, does more than merely foil Ralph. His very optimism and sense of fair-play become key elements of the story for reasons that don’t follow the usual arc for this kind of character.
WRECK-IT RALPH is emotionally action-packed from the first frame. Inventive, intelligent, and wildly fun all at the same time, the only thing wrong with it is the violent craving for cupcakes that is will induce the viewer. It’s a small price to pay for a great film that is even better in its third viewing (all those inside jokes and sight-gags) than it was on its first.