12:59 PM EDT, November 1, 2012
"Wreck-It Ralph," the exhaustingly dazzling new Walt Disney Animation Studios feature, qualifies as the most manic baby sitter in town, clever and detailed in its kaleidoscopic depiction of the private lives, seething resentments and yearning dreams of video game characters both "Donkey Kong" retro and "Call of Duty" modern.
Certainly 2012-era moviegoers of a certain age who blew a fair number of hours playing "Donkey Kong" or "Centipede" (I liked "Centipede" for the richness of the character development alone) represent a ripe market segment for "Wreck-It Ralph."
But there's enough firearms fetishism and splattery violence on display to interest preteen gamers whose adult guardians are stupid enough to let them agitate their nervous systems with M-rated first-person shooter games. (I am one of those parents.) Also, the film visits a "Candyland"-inspired game world evoking a female-driven unofficial sequel to the Disney's "Cars" and "Cars 2." This movie can't lose.
The story's nominal arcade setting, as critic Eric Kohn observed recently in an Indiewire review, already marks "Wreck-It Ralph" as a period piece, a trip back to the days when kids didn't hunker down in a dark basement and kill, recreationally, while in physical isolation.
Our antihero is the title character, the adversary in a herky-jerky, eight-bit 1982-era arcade game called "Fix-It Felix Jr." Wreck-It Ralph is weary of his prescribed lot in life: He destroys so that the arcade customers, controlling Felix Jr., can rebuild. He's not a bad guy, he figures. So why is he the bad guy?
Through the dense convolutions of the script, the Hulk-like hulk teams up with a snark-filled, digitally glitchy heroine, Vanellope von Schweetz, as he strives for victory in battle in the bug-infested shooter game "Hero's Duty" (there's a gold medal he wants to win). Meantime, the anime-styled Vanellope prepares to enter the "Sugar Rush Speedway" rally up against a passel of mean girls who want nothing to do with a "glitch."
We're in "Toy Story" territory here, with more than a dash of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" as the gaming worlds collide and mix it up, with often sinister results. The movie asks the question: What happens to the video game characters we know and love when we're not calling the shots? John C. Reilly makes an apt and expressive Ralph; Jack McBrayer, from "30 Rock," puts the "gee" in "gee-willikers" as can-do Felix; Jane Lynch is tougher than granite as the "Hero's Duty" commander; Sarah Silverman is better than her material as Vanellope.
I found the first 30 minutes of "Wreck-It Ralph" a lot of fun, the second and third 30 minutes progressively more routine. Also, I found the crucial friendship between Ralph and young Vanellope to be a sketchy thing, crowded by too much head-bonking slapstick (with weirdly realistic sound levels) and a formidable array of visual worlds competing for attention.
The cleverest and best idea in "Wreck-It Ralph" is the simplest: the notion of Reagan-era eight-bit characters guided by variations on stop-motion animation, while the newer creations, such as the Lara Croft-esque "Hero's Duty" protagonist, photorealistically maneuver through whatever world she's in at the time. Directed by Rich Moore ("The Simpsons") and written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, the movie imparts an insular "Tron"-y claustrophobia, with all its talk and imagery involving coding and power surges. You'll either love it or you'll admire it, while wishing it would calm down and, I don't know, maybe pick up a book for a while.
For some of us, the highlight will be the beguiling opening animated short, a late-1940s-set romance titled "Paperman," taking place in a black-and-white urban wonderland (with a smidge of red). And what do you know? The kids at the screening the other night applauded it.
'Wreck-It Ralph' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for some rude humor and mild action/violence)
Running time: 1:41
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