As producers of animated films pander shamelessly to parents in an effort to sell tickets, it's easy to turn cynical when presented with a movie that wears its retro-gaming influences as proudly as Rich Moore's Wreck-It Ralph. Yet lest aging gamers grow wary at the thought of filmmakers exploiting their nostalgic love of arcades to keep the Hollywood gravy train rolling, it pays to note that Wreck-It Ralph tells its warmhearted story with a healthy dash of knowing humor and a keen eye for detail -- making it both a colorful adventure with a positive message for kids and an enjoyable trip down memory lane for parents.
Wreck-It Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) is the archnemesis of Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), one of the most beloved video-game icons of all time. In a noble bid to prove he is more than the sum of his programming, Ralph sneaks away from his cozy retro home into a highly advanced combat game featuring battle-hardened soldier Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and strives to prove his bravery by winning a medal. In the process, however, Ralph accidentally frees a swarm of rapidly multiplying bugs that threaten the existence of the entire arcade. But all hope is not lost, because if Ralph can just convince unpredictable go-kart racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) to help set things right, perhaps he can finally unleash his inner hero and save the arcade from certain destruction.
At some point or another in their lives, regardless of how successful they are in their chosen fields, almost all adults have felt as if they're powerless to transcend the labels placed on them by society. It's just a part of growing up, and the way we deal with it can often be a good indicator of our maturity; the more childish among us may simply kick and scream that we're unable to affect any real change in our lives, while the more practical may view that realization as an opportunity to try to get to the place where we feel like we need to be. By fashioning their story around a nine-foot-tall, 600-pound video-game villain who longs to break out of his bad-guy role, Wreck-It Ralph screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston endear us to a character whom almost everyone can relate to, and they send him on an adventure that's visually dazzling yet also richly textured in both narrative and emotional terms. Ralph may be a bit of a brute, but he's a teddy bear at heart, and for that reason we want to see him succeed at proving that his job does not define his entire life. Meanwhile, as Ralph attempts to help Vanellope realize her dream of becoming a bona fide race-car driver, the screenplay's astute observations about chasing our goals even when others strive to convince us that they're impossible actually resonate. These valuable lessons are delivered in a vibrant, colorful context that's a visual treat for audiences of all ages (even if the 3D isn't very effective), and if the screenwriters seem to fumble a bit by having Wreck-It Ralph return home one too many times when he should be moving forward, they can be forgiven because they balance these scenes well with an important side plot involving Felix and Jane Lynch's haunted first-person-shooter hero Calhoun while delivering big laughs and genuine excitement.
Speaking of Lynch, Wreck-It Ralph features a supremely talented voice cast who all fire on full cylinders while bringing their characters to life. Multi-talented Reilly makes his short-fused protagonist a lovable hulk whose unwavering loyalty to Vanellope reveals his true depths, Silverman effectively straddles the line between annoying and endearing as the little racer who could, and McBrayer succeeds at making the love-struck Felix more shortsighted than bigheaded as his adversarial relationship with Ralph evolves into something a bit more amiable. The supporting players all bring energy and enthusiasm to their performances as well -- especially in the case of Alan Tudyk's ostentatious King Candy, whose determination to ensure that Vanellope doesn't race may not be as benevolent as appearances suggest.
Through it all, the animators fill Wreck-It Ralph with playful sight gags (such as the stuttering movement of 8-bit characters) and smart video-game references that will delight savvy viewers, but aren't so inclusive that they can't be enjoyed by non-gamers. It's as much fun as a childhood trip to the arcade, and it may even open the door to a few rounds of classic gaming with the wee ones who think that a trip to the arcade is all about winning tickets. So should you happen to find yourself instinctively reaching into your pocket for another quarter when the credits start to roll, don't be ashamed for wanting the fun to continue.