Aiming for a modern update to the "Toy Story" fantasy, "Wreck-It Ralph" takes place in a world of videogame characters residing in the contained universe of an arcade where each game links to the rest by way of surge protectors. As with "Toy Story," the stars of the show are little more than animated corporate objects: To the legions of young gamers in the arcade, the games present little more than transient entertainment, while the diverse ecosystem of pixelated characters on the other side of the screen exists solely to please its consumers.
In the pantheon of Disney movies, this is a rather tragic implication, although the movie leaves it mostly untouched in favor of another one: the plight of a bad guy, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly). For Ralph, both fate and lines of code mandate that he must regularly endure humiliation at the hands of Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer), the hero of the 8-bit arcade game the duo have inhabited for 30 years.
One day, Ralph decides to quit, steals away to contemporary first-person shooter "Hero's Duty," and nabs the medal he always wanted to win. Chaos ensues all across the gaming world: "Fix-It Felix Jr." faces extinction when the arcade owner considers unplugging it, while its hero chases down Ralph in the hopes of bringing him home in time. Ralph, meanwhile, winds up ensnared in the teeny bopper racing game "Sugar Rush," where he joins forces with a hyperactive adolescent (Sarah Silverman) who has been relegated to outsider status in the game due to her glitchy code. Together, the duo attempt to enter the race and win the trophy that Ralph desires so badly.
Beneath the pixelated gags, the stakes are relatively familiar. However, much of the humor in "Wreck-It Ralph" riffs on the nostalgia associated with real games. Early on, we see Ralph attend a support group for disgruntled bad guys, which includes "Super Mario Bros." villain Bowser and Clyde, one of the dangerous floating orbs in the original "Pac-Man." In the way station that connects various gaming worlds, Sonic the Hedgehog appears on large monitors, a giant of the gaming world just as he is outside of it, warning inhabitants to watch their step outside their own games lest they risk dying without the power to respawn. Q*bert, the long-nosed star of the 1982 puzzle game, huddles in the waystation with his colleagues begging for change, his game unplugged long ago.
The viewer capable of recognizing these reference points — predominantly those reared on mainstream games released in the eighties and nineties — will enjoy the movie's wry acknowledgement of gaming history. Director Rich Moore's bright, playful storytelling approach syncs with the jittery mentality associated with these quarter-chomping classics. But it also reflects an outmoded idea of gaming as a discardable pastime that some contemporary gamers may resent.
As gaming technology has evolved, so has game design. Nevertheless, the only modern day game glimpsed in "Wreck-It Ralph," the slick sci-fi military shooter "Hero's Duty," shows off contemporary graphics advancements but otherwise gives the impression that gaming remains comprised of rudimentary tasks: running, jumping, shooting and so on. However, the movie contains no mention of the open worlds that have enabled the gaming experience to evolve in truly startling fashion. Beyond those ginormous undertakings, however, games made on the cheap by DIY developers have already directly inherited the mantle from the public arcade depicted in "Wreck-It Ralph." The movie's very setting makes it something of a period piece.
Incidentally, the release of the perceptive documentary "Indie Game: The Movie" on several VOD platforms this month provides the opportunity to explore the expansion of gaming beyond the mainstream world of "Wreck-It Ralph." In "Indie Game," which premiered at Sundance this past January, documentarians James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot follow a pair of indie game designers working on innovative platform games set to be released on Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade.
Both games featured in "Indie Game," the amusing "Super Meat Boy" and dimensionally-confounding "Fez," display the mentalities of gamers reared on games rendered with 2D graphics. Building on those reference points, they utilize the gaming technology of the last 20 years while pushing it in new directions. As it goes with any art form, independent developers free gaming from the shackles of commercial expectations. That trend can be traced back at least to "Braid," the 2008 puzzler that appropriates side scrolling technology for a more intellectual approach that allows the user to control time.
Watching "Wreck-It Ralph" with an awareness of the complex dimensions that gaming has developed over the years, one can see how much the movie reflects a disconnect between the commercial industry and its more advanced corollary. Whereas the aging games in "Wreck-It Ralph" fear abandonment, "Indie Game" proves that the appeal of such experiences has migrated to a realm that has enabled them to evolve as an art form in the hands of designers with no agenda other than their own particular visions. Perhaps in another few decades, "Wreck-It Ralph" will need a sequel.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A family-friendly Disney movie generating solid word of mouth, "Wreck-It Ralph" is destined to perform decently when it opens wide this Friday and maintain solid business into December.