"Wreck-It Ralph" could have easily turned into "Video Game Reference: The Movie."
Director Rich Moore, a former director of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," went berserk loading up his first feature film with recognizable characters and situations from dozens of classic game machines. For a while it's almost overwhelming, even considering the movie takes place in an arcade.
But a funny thing happens during the course of the movie -- Wreck-It Ralph, himself an original Disney creation who's more of a big lug than a true villain thanks to veteran character actor John C. Reilly, grabs your attention among all the cameos and chaos as he starts to question his purpose in life.
When the cameos drop away almost entirely after a half-hour or so, you might be too invested in Ralph's struggles to prove himself to notice their absence.
For a film that seems to celebrate the bright color and dazzling action of video games with plenty of humor, Wreck-It Ralph's core is surprisingly down to earth and tinged with sadness. Sure, Disney's dealt with longing before, but Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, et al. have all been young, innocent and optimistic as they rush off to discover themselves for the first time.
Ralph's been beaten down by 30 years of a dead-end, thankless job, and his quest feels more like a last-ditch attempt to escape his burdens before they crush him. It's not quite up to Pixar's level of character creation, and things get overly sappy at the very end, but you can't help but root for the guy as he starts to get his first taste of appreciation.
Every day, Ralph serves as the building-bashing antagonist for Fix-It Felix Jr. ("30 Rock's" Jack McBrayer), a gee-whiz handyman who soaks up the adoration of the Niceland Apartments residents while Ralph sleeps in a pile of bricks.
In his off-hours Ralph can get away to Game Central Station -- a sort of connecting ground for all the video games in the arcade, but root beers in Tapper and bad guy group-therapy sessions in Pac-Man can't wash away his frustration.
Eventually, Ralph flees his machine for new horizons, such as Hero's Duty, a gritty sci-fi shooter headed by tough-as-nails Sgt. Calhoun (Glee's Jane Lynch), and Sugar Rush, a literally candy-coated go-kart racer inhabited by the bratty Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). He begins to find appreciation he's never experienced before, but his actions start to cause glitches that could permanently shut down the arcade.
Reilly's blue-collar everyman approach to Ralph manages to thread the needle between wisecracks and empathy. For the most part, his dramatic moments seem like true moments of character growth rather than plot points or reactions to set pieces, of which there are many.
McBrayer and Lynch bring fun liveliness to their characters, but they seem to be pretty much reprising their roles from their respective TV shows. Close your eyes during their shared scenes and you can almost imagine a "30 Rock" and "Glee" crossover fanfiction.
But the true revelation is Silverman. The comedian may be best known for her adult raunch, yet her performance evokes the quintessential kid sister you want to hug and strangle at the same time. Vanellope manages to become an equal part of the movie's emotional drive as she and Ralph bond in the later half.
The animators did a fantastic job replicating the wildly different art styles from game to game, as older characters move with an 8-bit stiffness while Hero's Duty and Sugar Rush bring you scene after scene of inventive new vistas to gawk at.
Although uncomfortably hyperactive movies can earn the slur "like a video game," this video game movie keeps its movements lively but measured most of the time, making the energetic action sequences feel like earned moments of release.
Sure, there's loads here to tickle video game geeks. But even if you don't know what sound an exclamation mark makes -- that's a borrowed gag from Metal Gear Solid -- there's still plenty here to enjoy.
"The Paperman," a Disney short about an office worker trying to communicate with a woman in the neighboring building with paper airplanes, plays before "Wreck-It Ralph." It's moving and hilarious, and though it's computer-animated, it has the look of a classic, hand-drawn cartoon. Blasts from the past The main characters in "Wreck-It Ralph" are all original Disney creations -- Ralph and Felix weren't actually in a 1980s video game. But the movie makers borrowed all kinds of real game characters to make the setting feel real. If it's been awhile since you've dropped some quarters in an arcade, here's a refresher on some of the cameos.
Zangief (Street Fighter II, 1991): This Russian wrestler in the therapy group is feared for his piledriver move in one of the first smash-hit fighting games. You might also spot his opponents Ken and Ryu in the red and white martial arts uniforms, Chun-Li in the blue Chinese dress and M. Bison in the red dictator's uniform with a cape.
Clyde (Pac-Man, 1980): One of a quartet of ghosts who chase Pac-Man as he chows down on dots, Clyde's the one leading the bad guy therapy group.
Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic The Hedgehog, 1991): Most hedgehogs are pretty pokey, but this cobalt-blue speedster is the fastest video game character out there. His villain Dr. Eggman, the bald, mustachioed and egg-shaped mad scientist, is seen in the therapy group.
Bowser (Super Mario Bros., 1985): Mario's longtime nemesis, a cross between a dragon and a turtle with a shock of fiery red hair, is also part of the therapy group, though Mario himself is a no-show.
Frogger (Frogger, 1981): Blink and you'll miss the eternally endangered amphibian as he hops away -- complete with the game's original jump sound -- in Game Central Station.
Kano (Mortal Kombat, 1992): The mercenary cyborg fighter is also in the therapy group, and he even pulls off one of the famously violent game's fatality moves on a zombie who's none the worse for wear afterward.
Bartender (Tapper, 1983): This unnamed slinger of root beer has to move fast to satisfy his customers, but here he's got a little time to console Ralph.
Q*Bert (Q*Bert, 1982): The unintelligible orange thing with the big schnozz used to hop around pyramid-shaped cubes with purple snake Coily, but now they're both homeless in Game Central Station. 'WRECK-IT RALPH' Cast: (voices) John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Sarah Silverman
Theaters: (3-D) AMC Southroads 20, Cinemark Tulsa, Cinemark Broken Arrow, Starworld 20, RiverWalk, Owasso, Sand Springs; (2-D) Eton Square, Moviestar Cinema, Admiral Twin Drive-in
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Rated: PG (some rude humor and mild action/violence)
Quality: 3.5 (on a scale of zero to four stars)
(c)2012 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.)
Visit Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.) at www.tulsaworld.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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