Certainly, in some quarters, anticipation for Disney‘s “Wreck-It-Ralph” was high. With Pixar stuck in sequel mode, and with their original story “Brave” underwhelming this summer, many wondered if the Mouse House would step it up where their colleagues dropped the ball. With a seemingly fresh premise, new tunes by Skrillex and Owl City pimped on the soundtrack, nostalgia for the adults and a glossy adventure for the kids, the ingredients all seemed to be in place. Which makes it that much more frustrating that once you pop the quarter into the machine of “Wreck-It-Ralph,” it reveals itself to be nothing more than a familiar formula dressed up in 21st century clothes.
As we said, the concept is compelling. Set in an arcade (though one wonders if pint-sized kids actually know what that is), the story follows the titular Ralph (John C. Reilly, in some pretty spot on voice casting), who has spent thirty years in the still popular “Fix-It-Felix” video game, playing his part dutifully as the bad guy, but getting weary of living in a trash pile in the offscreen world (instead of the apartment building he “wrecks” in the game), and not getting any appreciation for his work. As he tells his support group populated by other game villains, he just wants to be a hero for once. And he soon sees an opportunity to do just that.
When the arcade closes, the video game characters are free to roam, with the power bar used to connect their machines serving as a Grand Central Station of sorts, with the electrical plugs the portals into each game (again, clever stuff). So one evening, Ralph is knocking back a few at the bar in “Tapper” when he runs into a shell-shocked character from the futuristic, first person shoot ’em up game “Hero’s Duty.” Determined to finally be the good guy and win himself a much-coveted medal, he stuffs the man in a closet, steals his uniform and game jumps, a very risky thing to do. Why? If you die outside your own game, you don’t get regenerated. And while he survives his stint in “Hero’s Duty,” his actions throw the whole arcade out of whack, unleashes a deadly virus, and soon he’s in the (literally) candy constructed, “Mario Kart“-style racer “Sugar Rush” while “Fix-It-Felix” is in danger of going Out Of Order (i.e. unplugged and discontiued from the arcade) without him. And this is where the movie takes a sharp downward town.
For anyone hoping that “Wreck-It-Ralph” was going to be some kind of geek friendly, video game jumping blast, they are in for a major disappointment. The first third of the movie offers up the bulk of the requisite video game cameos — Q*Bert! Pac-Man! Ryu! Sonic The Hedgehog! — and has the most fun of just living and breathing inside the games and game world. But once the story settles in, it’s the same conventional Disney stuff we’ve seen for decades. Perhaps in an effort to make sure both boys and girls can be involved in the movie, the rest of the film takes place in the very pink, chocolate, candy cane and sweets world of “Sugar Rush,” a racing game with a team of girls as the drivers. As Ralph tries to fix the mess he’s created, he becomes involved with the “glitch” Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), an outsider in “Sugar Rush” who is not only forbidden to race but also to leave the game. All while trying to get the bottom of the scheme that flamboyant King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is so eager to protect.
It seems once this storyline started up, the screenwriters grew decidedly less inspired. Plainly put, Vanellope is annoying, and while she’s supposed to be a thorn in Ralph’s side and get under his skin, she’s not supposed to get under ours. And it certainly doesn’t help that Silverman at one point is reduced to doing an extended sequence of “dooty” jokes. Seriously. But perhaps most dispiriting is that the narrative ultimately reveals itself to be yet another princess story (and this is not a spoiler, this is all set up fairly obviously early on). For all of the effort put into the gimmicky format, “Wreck-It-Ralph” is simply a variation on the same fable Disney has told over and over and over for decades. There is none of the story invention Pixar does at its best, instead it’s the standard learn-to-embrace-who-you-are message with a dollop of princess magic, in addition to a throughly distateful product placement for Nesquik (Disney should really be ashamed).
Undoubtedly, the movie looks great. The videogame stuff, particularly power bar center where all the characters meet, is really inventive and fun (and frankly, a story more focused in that inbetween place between games would have made for a far more interesting movie). And the cast — including Jack McBrayer (brisk and perky) as Fix-It-Felix and Jane Lynch (authorative), as the damaged and tough as nails sergeant from “Hero’s Duty,” who team up to find Ralph — are the rare example of celebrity voices suiting their roles. As for the 3D presentation, perhaps the best compliment that one can give is that it wasn’t distracting, but it’s not necessarily special either. Overall, the technical accomplishment has been achieved at a high level, but the rest of the movie doesn’t match it.
Perhaps “Wreck-It-Ralph” marks a half step out of the comfort zone for Disney. It’s certainly atypical in many ways for the studio, with some pretty heavy gun violence and intense scenarios that we’d wager will frighten smaller children. And yes, the idea is unique. But they aren’t quite ready to shake off what has worked for them for years — namely making girls want to be special and popular, and boys strong and heroic. But that old fashioned approach distinctly clashes in the forward-looking “Wreck-It-Ralph,” with Disney’s classical thinking chafing against a concept that begs to be expanded to more than just a few winking nods to parents. “Wreck-It-Ralph” is diverting enough in the moment, with the originality of setting at carrying much of the weight, but once the credits roll, you won’t be in a rush to select Continue. [C]