Wreck-It Ralph | B+
Even as Disney expands its fearsome magic kingdom by engulfing more and more cherished media properties (Marvel, the Muppets, Star Wars, etc.), there is still the vital business of creating its own fresh, marketable characters to be exploited for decades to come, so that, someday, today's kids can grow up and be disappointed by what's become of their beloved old favorites.
Wreck-It Ralph somewhat awkwardly attempts to bridge the gap between past and future nostalgia, by evoking echoes of the heyday of coin-operated video games, while introducing lovable new friends ready made to be molded into action figures, back packs, toothbrushes, etc, etc.
Wreck-It Ralph (warmly rendered by John C. Reilly) is the villain of an old-school Donkey Kong-like arcade quarter-gobbler, named after Ralph's perennial rival Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer). For the last 30 years, these two have been battling it out over the same high-rise apartment building known as "Niceland", which the hulking Ralph instinctively smashes with his huge fists, while cheerful handyman Felix promptly sets about repairing the damage with his magic hammer. Both are dedicated working stiffs, but at the end of each identical day, when the arcade shuts down, heroic Felix is toasted and cheered by the game's resident "Nicelanders" while dejected Ralph is left to go sleep off his aches and pains in a rubble pile. Drudgery can wear on a fella, and the oafish, but generally amiable Ralph attends a support group to commiserate with other video villains, including bruising Street Fighter Zangief, a generic zombie and the ghosts from Pac-Man, who are all "bad guys," but not really bad guys. He also likes to drown his sorrows down at Tapper's bar with other sad sack sprites, like Sonic and Dig Dug, and the down on his luck Q-Bert who has been reduced to panhandling.
Ralph, longing to change his image, jumps ship through a network of connected power cords, and enters "Hero's Duty" a clone of hyperviolent shoot-'em-up games like "Gears of War." This very modern, very different realm is home to a crew of shell-shocked, bug-zapping future soldiers and their ball-busting Sgt. Callhoun, voiced with great gusto by Jane Lynch. War ain't all it's cracked up to be, and our gentle lug soon hops over to a candy coated racing simulator called Sugar Rush. It's here that the movie ditches most of the parody elements and settles in for a second half loaded with eyeball-rattling, color-soaked chase scenes cut with a healthy dose of the typical "Be true to yourself" Disney mantras and a pinch of anti-bullying moralizing.
Ralph finds a foil in a cloying, unctuous little brat called Vanellope Van Schweetz, voiced by Sarah Silverman with her trademark love-it-or-leave-it cutesy-raunchy delivery. Since this is a PG flick, the most Silverman gets away with are some giggles about the word "duty," but her persona is pretty much intact. Vanellope is considered a glitch by her fellow racers, and needs to win a big race to regain her status, while also helping Ralph and his pals make video game land safe from a spreading virus of nasty creepy crawlies.
Wreck-It Ralph is bright, fun and seldom dull, and the action-packed later third is a visually dazzling display of the craftsmanship we've come to expect from Disney and Pixar (animation guru John Lassiter served as producer), though without quite the same emotional punch of such classics as Wall-E and Toy Story. There is a bit of a disconnect between the heart-tugging of the second half with the winking satire of the cameo-filled first half, and when the film's bet gag involves Oreo cookies, the gap between the whims of imagination and the needs of commerce becomes as plain as the obstacles that video game heroes are always jumping over.