a movie about video games suggested that some semblance of creativity still inhabited the somewhat-down-at-the-heels "House of Mouse." Granted, Tron didn't exactly clean up at the box office, but it has developed a cult following over the years and is now generally respected as a clever effort to exploit a then-hot fad in an ingenious way. Now, with Wreck-it Ralph, Disney Animation is coming at the same fad from a different temporal direction. The home-video consoles from the salad days of the 80s have long since been consigned to rummage sales or to the dump, and the "friendly neighborhood arcade" isn't nearly as common a sight these days, but many middle-aged folks now regard the classic video games of yore with great affection, even as the technology of the video world has moved on. I was certainly never a huge video-game fan back in the day, but even I appreciated and enjoyed this feature-length homage to the vid-industry. Part of the reason why is that -- perhaps due to the assistance of executive producer John Lasseter -- the Disney studio's 3-D department has come through here with its most "Pixar-like" production to date. Indeed, given Pixar's comparatively uneven track record of late, Wreck-it Ralph may be said to have "out-Pixared Pixar" by going back to some of the root principles of some of Pixar's best-loved movies.
In the tradition of such Pixar films as the Toy Story trilogy, Cars, and Monsters Inc., Wreck-it Ralph carefully lays the "ground rules" and parameters for an imaginative fantasy universe -- in this case, the world that literally lurks "behind the scenes" of an arcade -- and then starts exploring the consequences of those axioms. The idea of game-worlds as three-dimensional quasi-dioramas behind the console's glass screen reminded me of Disney TV Animation episodes both irritating and legendary; thankfully, the screenwriters resisted the temptation to allow for communication between the game characters and the human users. The bustling "behind-the-scenes" community of game-characters presented some logical difficulties (wouldn't such a community exist behind the walls of EVERY SINGLE arcade in the world?), but the small details of this virtual village -- the "unplugged" characters who live on the margins, the taboos about "jumping games" or "going turbo" -- were painted in so deftly that their ultimate emergence as key plot points at various moments during the film seemed quite natural. Best of all, rather than simply relying heavily on bought-and-paid-for video-game-celebrity cameos, the writers wisely decided to spend the requisite amount of time developing their original main characters and fleshing out their back stories, motivations, and demons. I loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but for Wreck-it Ralph to have mimicked that movie's cloudbursts of Toon tributes would have been a mistake. For one thing, animated characters are simply better known to the general public -- especially the kids who form a major chunk of the audience for this movie -- than classic video-game characters from three decades ago. Far better, it seems to me, to create a relatively small number of brand-new characters and explore what it might mean for them to play specific roles in their respective fictional (yet canonically "recognizable") game-worlds.
Though he's supposed to be a bad guy, Wreck-it Ralph (John C. Reilly, in a tailor-made "lovable schlub" role) is a sympathetic character from the off. His journey from discontent to self-acceptance has a number of familiar twists and turns -- false moments of triumph that prove hollow, periods of self-deception, alliances with similarly alienated characters (in his case, the cutesy "glitch" Vanellope [Sarah Silverman] from the sticky-sweet kart-racing game "Sugar Rush") that touch both peaks and valleys before the climax -- but we are with him all the way. It's something of a shame that, given the premise of Ralph trying to become a good guy and earn a medal, he wasn't allowed to visit more of the self-contained video worlds during his quest, including worlds with which gamers would be intimately familiar. Instead, we only get a relatively quick glimpse of the violent, bug-infested world of the war game "Heroes' Duty" and then settle in for a very long stay in the candy-coated world of "Sugar Rush." Again, though, perhaps the "less is more" approach was the wise choice; we really get to know the stories behind these games' characters (the "tragic past" of ass-kicking, bug-snuffing Officer Calhoun of "Heroes' Duty" [Jane Lynch] and Vanellope's "true identity" are particular highlights), and so we become much more bound up with their fates than if they had been constantly bouncing from one bizarre world to the next.
Bolt and Tangled -- a considerable feat, given that so many of its characters are so heavily stylized. Cleverly, many of the more abstractly-rendered characters -- such as the pudgy denizens of the condominium of Niceland, whose homes are repaired by Fix-it Felix Jr. after Ralph has wrecked them -- are animated in a staccato, hummingbird-nervous style that parallels their physical actions in their respective games. The humor is decidedly Pixar-like and generally winning, despite the occasional unpleasant detour into thoroughly unnecessary potty jokes, and the voice performances are excellent, with Reilly and Alan Tudyk, who plays King Candy of "Sugar Rush" in a dead-on imitation of Ed Wynn as The Mad Hatter in Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland, meriting particular praise.
Wreck-it Ralph is preceded by Paperman, an animated short rendered in a black-and-white, somewhat sketchy style that reminded me of a cross between the 101 Dalmatians theatrical feature and a NEW YORKER cartoon. The effects are lovely; the content is not nearly as memorable. Here is one area in which Disney (ironically, given its history) still has some catching-up to do when it comes to matching Pixar.