If the original run of films through Walt Disney’s life from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves through 101 Dalmations or so was the company’s golden age and the silver age was the late 80s (most would say beginning with The Little Mermaid or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though I would argue The Great Mouse Detective was the first big sign of progress) and running through around Lilo and Stitch, then one would have to say the Mouse House is entering their bronze age.
Beginning with the deeply flawed but sometimes brilliant Meet the Robinsons (a movie that cried out desperately to be traditionally animated in a flat, stylized UPA manner) and continuing through films like Princess and the Frog and Bolt, John Lasseter’s term in charge of the Disney Animation department has seen a steady uptick in the quality of it’s films over time, culminating in the release of Tangled, a film that somehow managed to capture the magic of the oldest of old school fairy-tale Diz, while managing to somehow be modern without ever crossing over into the snarky pop culture tripe that Shrek kept mining until the vein petered out (sadly, long before the series was over.)
Wreck-It Ralph may not surpass Tangled, but it is in every way its equal while also being completely different. There are definitely a lot more pop culture gags here, nearly all of them video game related, but they are so fluidly integrated into the story that it never feels out of place. The director here is a Futurama alum, and the feeling and pace of the jokes really reflects that. The current generation of parents will get the jokes about Ralph taking the cherries from a game of Pac-man. The kids will find it funny for different reasons. The only real worry is whether kids today, practically born with a console controller in their hands, will understand just what an arcade is. (If the film causes a resurgence in them, it can only be a good thing.)
The story, in a nutshell, is that Ralph is the baddy in a classic arcade game, Fix-It Felix, Jr. Over 30 years, he has become dissatisfied with his lot in life, with the other characters in the game treating him like he really is a bad guy when he’s just doing his job. Thinking that if he can prove himself to be more than an engine of destruction he will be more accepted, he begins hopping to other games in the arcade, looking for a medal to prove his valor.
At a glance it would seem like Wreck-It Ralph, with its look into the “secret life of video games” is more of a traditional Pixar film than a Disney film and that description would not be inaccurate.
For one thing, it is a film that feels like 3D computer animation is truly the best medium for it, and it’s not just because it has become the industry standard thanks to the declining fortunes of the more mediocre hand-drawn films of recent years. It makes absolute sense that a movie filled with computer generated characters would be generated by a computer.
Another positive about the film is, despite a lack of straight up voice actors in the cast, this isn’t a film cast with “stars” to cash in on a name. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman obviously aren’t slouches, but one could hardly call them box-office draws. Instead they seem to have grabbed people with fantastic voices, perfect for the parts they are playing. Reilly puts layers of fed-up subtext into his performance, while 30 Rock’s Jack McBreyer is so spot-on as the voice of Felix that one would hardly know who else could possibly fill the part. Throw in Alan Tudyk doing what is an oddly original version of what could easily slip into being merely an impression of Ed Wynn’s classic Mad Hatter from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland in his role as King Candy from a sweets-based racing game, and you end up with a cast of character actors that creates the feeling of the era when Disney used to cast strong radio personalities. (One of the reasons their early films have endured, in my humble opinion.)
All this would be moot if the story were awful, but it’s big, bold and emotional. The only downside of the film is that it could absolutely be described as predictable and a bit paint-by-numbers as well, but most folks should be having such a good time watching it unfold, that only the worst cynics should whine about it.
With Wreck-It Ralph, Disney can put another feather in its cap. If they continue to put out entertainment on this scale, they may find themselves considered the equal of their stablemates Pixar again.
(Four out of five stars)