Despite a sharp conceit, the new Disney feature gets lost in its own plot twists.
The most delightful part of Disney Animation's latest offering, Wreck-It Ralph, may be the 10 minutes that take place on screen before the film even begins, which feature, a la Pixar, a touching introductory short entitled "Paper Man." When Disney acquired Pixar back in 2006 as part of the Mouse's ongoing hegemonic conquest of American childhood, John Lasseter became Chief Creative Office not only of Pixar but of Disney Animation as well. And "Paper Man"—a wordless, elegant little romantic fable set in a Mad Men-y Manhattan—may the clearest sign to date that he is intent on remaking the latter in the image of the former.
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Alas, the entrée does not live up to its appetizer. It's true that Wreck-It Ralph offers about as Pixarishly high-concept a premise as one could ask for. Hulking, titular Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of an early-'80s arcade game, tearing apart a pixelated apartment building while the player joysticks a little repairman, Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), back and forth to undo the damage. After three decades of wrecking, however, Ralph has grown tired of being the bad guy, and so begins jumping from video game to video game, eager to prove that he, too, can be a hero.
So far, so good—but the film never gets much farther. Despite its clever conceit (and promising trailer) Wreck-It Ralph is a substantial disappointment: overplotted and underdeveloped, cloyingly cute for long stretches and jarringly violent for short ones.
Begin with the vocal talent, which also includes Jane Lynch as the hard-bitten sergeant of Hero's Duty, a human-versus-alien-bugs shoot-'em-up. Neither she nor Reilly nor McBrayer is bad, exactly, but all are typecast so meticulously that their performances are largely devoid of inspiration or surprise. (Contrast with, for example, the wittily counterintuitive casting of Casey Affleck and Christopher Mintz-Plasse in ParaNorman.) Rounding out the primary characters is professional provocatrix Sarah Silverman, who voices Vanellope von Schweetz, the gung-ho underdog of a candy-colored car-race game called Sugar Rush. The evident gag here—she has preadolescent potty-mouth!—quickly grows wearisome.
Not as wearisome, however, as the piling on of video-game nods and references, which could astonish even the most jaded specialist in rights acquisitions: Space Invaders, Centipede, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Q*bert, Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, and many others I no doubt missed. And that's before we even get to the confectionary cameos that blanket the landscape of Sugar Rush: Oreos, Devil Dogs, Mentos, Nestle Quik, Laffy Taffy...
The movie's principal flaw, however, is its failure to develop a compelling narrative or genuine emotional connection. Unlike the Pixar films toward which it aspires—which marry sophisticated conceits to straightforward storylines—Wreck-It Ralph consistently gets lost in its own intricate plot mechanics. If a character dies in her own game she can regenerate, but if she dies in another she can't; a character who's correctly "coded" can jump to other games, but a character who's a "glitch" can't; the Cybug monstrosities of Hero's Duty can't destroy their own game from within, but they can destroy others; and who exactly is this mysterious "Turbo" to whom everyone keeps referring? Over the course of its 93-minute running time, Wreck-It Ralph offers nearly as many twists as a full season of Homeland.
The movie is not without its moments, of course, and kids will enjoy some elements that adults may find off-putting—in particular, the alternating saccharine tone and high-fructose velocity of the Sugar Rush portions. But Lasseter, who executive produced, was clearly aiming for a Pixar-level achievement here. And rather than tap the human core of a story about toys or robots, he's delivered a movie with the soul of a video game.