Friday, November 2, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph: A sweet surprise

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for kid-level rude humor and mild action/violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.2.12

I haven’t had this much fun since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit blended classic Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon characters in a similarly madcap adventure.

After crashing his way into the candy-laden realm of the game Sugar Rush, the clumsy
and destructive Ralph only wants to retrieve his hard-earned gold medal. Alas, impish
Vanellope von Schweetz has her own plans for that medal, and they involve her own
desire for "street cred" among her peers.
Wreck-It Ralph, like numerous fantasies before it, concerns the activities of playthings after pesky humans have gone to bed (or otherwise departed the scene). Pixar owns this sub-genre most recently, with its Toy Story franchise, but the concept is much older, dating back to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet and Victor Herbert’s 1903 musical, Babes in Toyland. Both have been staged and filmed many, many times.

To my knowledge, Wreck-It Ralph is the first such storyline set in the world of arcade gaming. It boasts a sharp script by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston, the latter responsible for writing last year’s delightful Cedar Rapids. Most crucially — and as is the case with the Toy Story films — Wreck-It Ralph takes place in a colorful world that is laden with goofy characters, but includes plenty of droll and clever dialogue.

The result: It will delight both youngsters and their parents, and the latter also will recognize all sorts of inside jokes and familiar references.

The action unfolds at Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade, where — as longstanding tradition demands — local kids reserve next-play status by lining up their quarters. Game choices include everything from the cutesy-poo, animé-flavored Sugar Rush, where players race adorable girl avatars through a track bordered by gumdrops, cotton candy and all manner of sweet stuff; to the hyper-realistic, first-person shooter thrills of Hero’s Duty, a nightmarish storyline right out of Starship Troopers, where a combat platoon battles scary cy-bugs that threaten to annihilate the universe.

Somewhere in between is the retro appeal of Fix-It Felix Jr., a 1980s game mildly reminiscent of Nintendo’s original Mario Bros. (whose characters, perhaps tellingly, are not in this film). The game’s villain, Ralph, is a 643-lb. man monster who is determined to destroy the apartment building that the game’s Nicelanders call home. Players (in our real world) control plucky little Felix, whose magic hammer repairs all the damage. Successfully completing the level means that Ralph gets tossed into a nearby mud puddle.

Unhappily, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is a sensitive soul, and has grown tired of always being the bad guy, and of living his off-duty hours alone in a brick pile. He even joins a support group, Bad-Anon, where familiar villains from various games (Street Fighter, Altered Beasts) share their tales in sessions hosted by Clyde, the orange ghost from Pac-Man.

The gimmick here is that — after hours, when the arcade is closed — these characters both enjoy the companionship of their regular colleagues, and can visit other games via the central power strip hub known as Game Central Station. The latter also has become the sole refuge of homeless characters, such as the weird little critters from Q*bert, whose games have been unplugged.

With his uncomplicated approach to life — when in doubt, break stuff — Ralph decides that earning a game medal would make him a more desirable after-hours guest with the Nicelanders. He therefore pays a visit to Hero’s Duty, and immediately runs afoul of Sgt. Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the baddest space marine in all of gamedom. One klutzy skirmish later, Ralph crash-lands a hijacked spaceship into the frosting-laden, 1990s-style cart-racing realm of Sugar Rush.

Unknown to Ralph, one ferocious, hitchhiking cy-bug burrows beneath the marshmallow hills and chocolate lakes.

Now stuck in a realm where everything is too soft to be pulverized, Ralph runs into scrappy Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a pixelating programming “mistake” who often fuzzes out in an excited electronic glitch. Like Ralph, Vanellope is a misfit who desperately wants to be accepted by the other characters in her game; alas, this realm’s King Candy (Alan Tudyk, doing a perfect imitation of the long-gone Ed Wynn) and rival racer Taffyta Muttonfudge (Mindy Kaling) want nothing to do with her.

Indeed, they’re so cruel — so needlessly nasty — that Ralph rises above his own problems. After all, friends can be found in the most unlikely places.

All this chaos is well orchestrated by director Rich Moore, a longtime veteran of TV’s The Simpsons and Futurama. Animation is all about timing, and Moore and editor William J. Caparella deftly alter their game, depending on setting. Time spent in Hero’s Duty has the frantic, scary intensity of a horror film, while events in Sugar Rush display the soft edges of Smurf and Care Bear cartoons ... a sickly sweet atmosphere that Vanellope mercilessly lampoons, in Silverman’s hilariously snarky tones.

Indeed, the voice talent is sensational throughout. Silverman is simply perfect as the impish little Vanellope, but Lynch blows everybody off the screen. Lee and Johnston give Sgt. Calhoun the same sort of waspishly caustic dialogue that has made her such a standout on TV’s Glee, and the fit is perfect; we expect a bug-hunting soldier to behave in such hard-bitten fashion.

Reilly is appropriately woeful as the forever put-upon Ralph. Although most frequently known for slapstick comic turns, we must remember that Reilly snagged a well-earned Academy Award nomination as the cuckolded Amos Hart in Chicago. That character’s solo lament, “Mr. Cellophane,” could apply equally to poor Ralph here; Reilly delivers just the right blend of angst, wounded pride and — eventually — heroic determination.

Jack McBrayer, well known as NBC page Kenneth on TV’s 30 Rock, is a stitch as Ralph’s goody-two-shoes nemesis, Fix-It Felix. Their apparent antipathy exists only during game time; after hours, Felix is a concerned peacemaker who loyally tries to help his oversized colleague, even if he doesn’t understand why Ralph is unhappy. As is the case with Kenneth on 30 Rock, McBrayer gives Felix an overstated wholesomeness that never wavers, no matter what the danger (or insult).

Viewers of a certain age may recall Jim Nabor’s Gomer Pyle, similarly unruffled in the face of Frank Sutton’s red-faced, short-fused gunnery sergeant. Felix is just as improbably (and hilariously) composed, despite all.

Other incidental characters are funny merely for their names and/or appearance, such as King Candy’s donut henchmen (Wynnchel and Duncan) or the blocky, pint-sized window dwellers in the apartment building forever bashed by Ralph.

The animation style cleverly varies as well, depending on game and activity. During arcade hours, Ralph, Felix and the Nicelanders are depicted with the primitive, 8-bit pixelation typical of 1980s games; during down time, their animated selves are more rounded and dimensional ... but the Nicelanders still walk with jerky staccato movements and turn at perfect 90-degree angles.

The attention to detail also affects how the same elements differ, from land to land. Cascading water looks far different in Fix-It Felix Jr. than in Sugar Rush or Hero’s Duty.

The sight gags and one-liners frequently are to die for. Pretty much everything Lynch says is side-splitting, but you’ll also laugh over quick bits such as King Candy’s Oreo cookie guards, who assemble outside their castle in a scene lifted right out of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, complete with ominous chanting (albeit with slightly different words!).

Veteran gamers also will chuckle when King Candy enters a secret vault by hitting a button sequence well remembered as the infamous “Konami code” that gave players power-ups and unlimited lives in all sorts of video games.

And, needless to say, it’s fun to see familiar characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Frogger, Dig Dug, Peter Pepper, Root Beer Tapper and cute li’l Q*Bert, the latter able to “talk” only in punctuation marks.

Composer Henry Jackman wraps everything up with a dynamic orchestral score that riffs many of the classic sounds and themes from much-loved arcade games.

The smart script, well-cast vocal talent and rich animation notwithstanding, Wreck-It Ralph gets most of its appeal from the excellent use of its clever premise. In that respect, it follows the long-successful Pixar model, and no surprise: John Lasseter serves here as executive producer.

Like a great arcade game, Wreck-It Ralph will encourage repeat business; I predict a long and happy run, both in theaters and (later) in home libraries.

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