"What's the first rule of Hero's Duty?"
"No cuts, no buts, no coconuts?"
In the past couple of years, something interesting has happened at Disney. Their in-house animation department was taken over by Pixar co-founder John Lasseter in an effort to revitalize it and make it the pinnacle of the industry again. In that time they've produced a rather impressive lineup that includes Bolt, The Princess & The Frog, Tangled, Winnie The Pooh and now Wreck-It Ralph. In that same period, Pixar films have actually gone down in quality in some respects, focusing their efforts on sequels, prequels and sub-par originals like Brave.
Wreck-It Ralph is a very good Disney animated film, but not one that's going to revolutionize the animation genre in any significant way. It's thoroughly clever, and the voice cast is brilliant, but I hate to say that it fails to bring anything new to the table. That's not reason enough to dismiss the film outright, especially when compared to the dearth of quality animated films that have been released this year, but I did find myself wanting there to be just a bit more to the film than was offered.
Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of an old school arcade game by the name of Fix-It Felix Jr, a hybrid of Rampage & Donkey Kong, and thirty years of being a villain has taken its toll on poor old Ralph. He longs for friendship, compassion & a taste of the glory that's lavished upon the hero Felix (Jack McBrayer), and sets out to Game Central, the hub where all the video game characters hang out, i hopes of finding a game he can jump into and transform himself into a hero. If he can return to his game with a medal, than he's sure to find acceptance among the denizens of his game.
His game jumping adventures take him first to a game called Hero's Duty, a sort of Halo-esque shoot-em-up game, and then to Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart derivative, where he runs into a fellow outcast by the name of Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). Vanellope's dream is to win the race in Sugar Rush, but she is not allowed to participate in the game because she is a glitch that's not supposed to exist in the game world. When Ralph uncovers a nefarious scheme to keep Vanellope from racing, he sets out to help her fulfill her dream of winning the race, even though his own game is in jeopardy of being shut down for good due to the absence of both him and Felix, who has left in search of Ralph.
The film is full of inspired bits, such as Ralph's visit to the saloon from the game Tapper, but others feel derivative, such as the bad guy support group that Disney beat themselves to the punch with, with their short "Small Fry" that played before The Muppets. The design of the film is gorgeous and wonderfully textured, creating several beautifully realized worlds, and I loved the convention of having the minor characters in Ralph's game move like badly rendered 8-bit characters. The use of 3D was also very good, particularly when you would see the games from the perspectives of the characters as they pulled back from the arcade screen. It was an ingenious use of the technology.
The voice cast was also phenomenal. John C. Reilly has one of the best voices in the industry, and he is able to infuse his character with a ton of pathos, and make you genuinely care about Ralph and his plight. McBrayer is an actor I don't care for outside of his role as Kenneth on 30 Rock, but I thought he was used brilliantly here. Silverman is also used to great effect, and my daughter Clementine was thoroughly enchanted with her character. Alan Tudyk also does great work as King Candy in Sugar Rush, and Jane Lynch is at her Jane Lynch-iest as the battle-hardened commander from Hero's Duty.
There were ultimately two major gripes that I have with the film which kept me from loving it. First, they spent entirely too much time in the world of Sugar Rush. Unless there's a sequel, and we get to explore the other video game worlds in more depth and detail, it was a missed opportunity to focus almost the entire last hour of the film in this one video game world. Don't get me wrong, it was fully fleshed out, and the design of the game world was inspired, but it almost felt like a bit of a cheat to hint at all the other worlds out there and focus almost exclusively on this one.
My other complaint involves a minor spoiler, so beware if you haven't seen the film yet, but the climactic moment of the film was such a blatant rip-off of The Iron Giant. Granted the outcome is different (this is Disney after all), but everything from the composition of the shot, to the character's recitation of his lesson learned, really made me cringe at how thoroughly it was ripping off another film, and a pretty great one at that. In the end, it wasn't a full-on deal breaker for me, but it did make me wish they had gone down another road.
As I said earlier, Wreck-It Ralph likely looks and feels like a much better movie than it is because there have been very few quality animated films this year, but it could have been so much better than it is. In all honesty, if it weren't for John C. Reilly, I don't think I would have liked the movie as much as I did. It's a worthwhile film for children and is full of great messages for them like the power of friendship, believing in yourself, and questioning authority, but it's greatest faults lay in its unlived potential. I liked it a lot, but I really wanted to love it.