LOS ANGELES — Guided by executive producer John Lasseter, Walt Disney Animation Studios has clearly devoted significant resources and talent to “Wreck-It Ralph,” recruiting a top-notch cast and a diverse array of animation, visual effects and lighting artists to contribute to the distinct and varied vid-game styles. With a mix of retro eye-candy for grown-ups and a thrilling, approachable storyline for the tykes, the film casts a wide and beguiling net.
Emulating a lo-res ‘80s video game, “Wreck-It Ralph” envisions the titular character as the short-tempered, sledgehammer-fisted, 600-pound bad guy competing against goody-good nemesis Felix in a game located in Mr. Litwak’s (Ed O’Neill) video arcade that’s known as “Fix-It Felix Jr.” As Ralph (John C. Reilly) tells some fellow evildoers at his first “Bad-Anon” meeting, he’s a reluctant villain, tired of always being the culprit who tears down the apartment building inhabited by the Nicelanders who worship Felix (Jack McBrayer) for his superior repair skills.
After 30 years of taking the blame, Ralph’s ready for a change - he thinks maybe if he can earn a medal, the Nicelanders might give him some respect and invite them to one of their frequent cocktail parties. Traveling through the arcade’s power cords and surge protectors, Ralph journeys to Game Central Station, the gateway to every game in the store. Hearing that first-person shooter challenge “Hero’s Duty” awards a medal for bravery, Ralph suits up to join no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun’s (Jane Lynch) platoon to battle the Cy-Bugs, a nasty computer virus in the form of cyber spiders.
Escaping hi-def “Hero’s Duty” with the coveted service medal, Ralph crash-lands one of Calhoun’s spaceships into “Sugar Rush,” a Candy Land-styled race-car game, after he’s attacked onboard by a massive Cy-Bug. He quickly loses his citation to pint-sized Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a little girl determined to compete in one of “Sugar Rush’s” prestigious races. Her bratty attitude and refusal to return the medal, which she can use to stake her spot in an upcoming competition, enrage Ralph, but he’s powerless to force the girl to do his bidding.
Following an unpleasant encounter with “Sugar Rush” dictator King Candy (Alan Tudyk), Ralph allies himself with Vanellope in a plan to recover his medal and help the kid win a spot in the race. But first they’ll have to in break into the King’s specialized factory and build a competitive race car - and it might be a good idea for Vanellope to actually learn to drive it. Meanwhile, Felix has abandoned the “Wreck-It Ralph” game and the Nicelanders, joining up with Calhoun on a quest to retrieve his friend and protect “Sugar Rush” from the Cy-Bugs before the game gets flatlined.
Although the script is an original by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, with its tortured toy characters facing obsolescence and searching for freedom and meaning, it bears a distinct Pixar DNA signature. Johnston and Lee don’t stray too far from the Disney template, however, and although the characters are digital, their emotions are very recognizably human. Since Ralph and Vanellope are both outcasts, their struggles for acceptance are comfortably similar and familiar.
Making his feature film debut, Emmy-award winning director Rich Moore (“The Simpsons”) ably manipulates the action by tantalizingly shifting the characters between game worlds. Effortlessly orchestrating a dizzying variety of visual elements, Moore consistently manages to keep the focus on Ralph and his comrade’s multiplying perils. Visually, Pixar’s influence is also evident in the level of detail lavished on the wide range of quirky characters and nearly every setting and background scene. Fortunately the more sugar-coated sentiments are mostly dialed back in favor of genuine character development and rousing, digitally realistic 3D action.
The audience’s POV is occasionally represented by a girl who frequents the “real world” of Mr. Litwak’s video arcade, where she interacts with all of the games depicted in the film. Game-play visual elements are used to enhance the impression of actually playing the arcade consoles, which can sometimes get distractingly disorienting as the narrative slips in and out of the video arcade setting.
An enthusiastic cast lends voice to the characters, led by Reilly, capably evincing the role of Wreck-It Ralph. His sad-sack sentiments, however, are frequently overshadowed by the hyperactive and super-snarky Vanellope. Silverman fully inhabits the character, marvelously calibrating her voice’s volume, insinuating tone and emotional impact to match the character’s antic facial expressions and unpredictable behavior. Tudyk is ridiculously over the top as the punning Mad-Hatter meets Wizard of Oz-like King Candy, while McBrayer and Lynch add surprising dimensionality to the increasingly smitten pair of Felix and Calhoun.
Editor Tim Mertens modulates the sometimes frenetic pace with brief interludes of introspection and camaraderie that help fill in the characters. Henry Jackman’s lively score is supplemented by musical selections from R&B star Rihanna, electronica artist Skrillex and classic Kool & the Gang, among others.