Friday, November 2, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Review by Pete Roche

Nintendo unleashed Donkey Kong on the world over thirty years ago. 

The Era of Atari is gone, and with it quarter-munching joystick giants like Pac-Man and Frogger.  But video game programmers tweaked their graphics (and sophistication of play) for the Nirvana set in the Nineties.  Computer processing took a quantum leap forward, allowing sledgehammer-wielding Mario to appear in a slew of sequel titles on home platforms like Sega, Wii, X-Box and Sony Playstation.

But let’s face it:  Our kids are more familiar with Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Lego Batman than Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Centipede.  I loved it when Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) made a Galaga reference in MARVEL’S AVENGERS this summer—but my kid didn’t get the joke when an operative was shown surreptitiously playing the Midway fixed shooter aboard SHIELD’s Helicarrier.  I’m guessing few moviegoers under 25 did.    

You’d think the optimal marketing window for an animated movie based on characters from classic 8-bit video slammed shut around the time Sting left The Police. 

Walt Disney Animation Studios thought otherwise.

WRECK-IT RALPH’s warm-hearted lesson in friendship and diversity so effectively closes the generation gap that it won’t matter if Junior recognizes Dig Dug or Q*Bert in the cast of electronic extras.  But parents should prepare for a bona fide Nostalgia Encounter of the Namco Kind.

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the hulking antagonist of Fix-It-Felix, the oldest arcade cabinet game at Litwak’s Family Fun Center.  His job is to stop do-good contractor Felix (Jack McBrayer) from repairing the damage he's wrought on a building facade.  Ralph knows the drill and loses faithfully (albeit reluctantly) whenever a human “moppet” plays the game.  Then he’s unceremoniously tossed from the roof—just like the Pauline-snatching primate in Donkey Kong. 

But Ornery Ralph, finicky Felix, and the other characters exist in a world independent from our own behind those flickering screens, one that survives the dreaded flashes of “Game Over.”   They conduct their personal affairs when Litwak’s lights go dark (much like the dolls in TOY STORY that spring to life in Andy’s room when no one’s looking), and it turns out their emotional circuitry is every byte—ah, bit—as complex as our own.

Yeah, it’s preposterous.  And yeah, the notion that electrical cords and surge protectors are really subway systems for polygonal pixel people is silly.  You just go with it.

Ralph’s tired of literally living in a dump, sleeping under a blanket of bricks, and being subject to scorn while Felix enjoys the spotlight.  He reasons he’s just as good at his job—being bad—as Felix is at portraying the protagonist, but group therapy with other video villains like Clyde (the orange ghost from Pac-Man), Doctor Eggman (Sonic the Hedgehog), and Zangief (Street Fighter) doesn’t pay off.  So Ralph decides to “go turbo,” quitting his game via the outlet to find his fortune (and self-esteem) elsewhere.  But he unwittingly triggers a chain of events that jeopardizes everyone when he dons a Metal Gear Solid suit and swipes a gold medal from Hero's Duty, a spacebug shooter with arachnid attackers straight outta STARSHIP TROOPERS. 

Ralph’s Gulliver-like travels plop him goo-deep in Sugar Rush, a candy land populated by cutesy creatures and pint-sized peppermint people (a la BRATZ and STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE) where trees billow with cotton candy and Mentos stalactites hang over broiling lakes of Diet Coke.  There, he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a plucky brunette who dreams of kart-racing with the other girls.  But the Mad Hatter-like King Candy (Alan Tudyk) won’t let Vanellope join any reindeer games because she’s a “glitch” who endangers everybody with her electronic hiccups.  Or so he says. 

Vanellope would be relegated to the Island of Misfit Toys were this the Rankin-Bass’ universe of Christmas puppets.  So she gets on well with Ralph, whose bull-in-a-china-shop demeanor comes in handy (er, fisty) when it comes to making dreams come true.  Naturally, their bond is tested, with Ralph forced to choose between true, lasting friendship and the blind adulation normally afforded cult figures in celebrity-worship societies.

And Felix—who joins femme fatale Sgt. Tamara Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in a search for his prodigal foe—realizes he needn’t be so two-dimensional, even if he is just an arcade avatar.  One funny scene has Calhoun slugging Felix in the face repeatedly to get some Laffy Taffy giggling.  The handyman doesn’t mind; his magic hammer heals his wounds instantly.        

Reilly and Silverman imbue Ralph and Vanellope with an impetuousness befitting their bleeping Technicolor environs.  Kids will identify with the purity of the bond between the adorable outcasts and blanch when the friendship is strained.  Without knowing precisely why, they’ll sympathize with roughshod Ralph’s thirst for attention and vivacious Vanellope’s desire to simply fit in (see Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs).  Their hyperkinetic exchanges, lighthearted insults, and bathroom banter will tickle funny bones (especially if you’re like, in second grade) and their can-do attitudes may get you believing there’s a little hero—or princess—inside all of us.    

Henry Jackman’s frenetic score fittingly incorporates the bleeps and bloops associated with the golden age of video games.  There’s even a new song from Buckner & Garcia—the guys behind the 1982 novelty hit “Pac-Man Fever.” 

Not a bad first outing for Futurama director Nick Moore.  2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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