"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.
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