After years of getting its hand-drawn butt kicked in theaters by the Steve Jobs-owned upstart Pixar, Disney finally bought the computer animation studio in 2006. Since then, the children’s entertainment behemoth has kept the Pixar brand separate from its own “classics” lineup, though I wonder if that’s about to change. With the release of Wreck-It Ralph — a colorful, computer-animated romp through the arcade that’s as inspired by Toy Story as it is by Halo — under the Disney moniker (and with high-profile Pixar names in the credits), the company seems to be conceding that the future has arrived, and it looks far more like Buzz Lightyear than Snow White.
Voiced by the inimitable John C. Reilly, Wreck-It Ralph is a big galoot (think Donkey Kong cross-bred with the gorilla from Rampage) who specializes in reducing an apartment building to rubble with his jackhammer-like ham-hands. After decades grinding it out on the job (destroy building, watch nemesis Fix-It Felix — voiced by Jack McBrayer as though still in character as 30 Rock’s Kenneth — repair the damage, get thrown off the roof by the tenants, repeat) Ralph is sick of being the villain. If Fix-It Felix can repeatedly win adulation for his efforts, why can’t he?
The big guy decides to ditch his game and head for “Game Central Station,” a terminal that allows access to any game in the arcade. Ralph enlists for a few rounds in a shooter called Hero’s Duty, featuring Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch, very droll), a comely soldier with a Playboy-inspired body, Veg-O-Matic haircut, and grim yet darkly hilarious backstory. After making quite a mess, Ralph lands in Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart-like racing game ruled by the secretive King Candy (Alan Tudyk), where he befriends Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), an outcast like Ralph who just wants her chance to race. Too bad Ralph transported one of Hero’s Duty’s insect baddies into this sweet new world, putting the whole game in jeopardy.
Though it sticks well within the standard arc of previous Disney efforts (misunderstood character goes on an adventure before earning the acceptance of those who formerly shunned him), Wreck-It Ralph shines with creativity in the way it weaves 35 years of video game history into the fabric of the movie. Mere minutes into the flick I was hooting at references to personal favorites Street Fighter II, Tapper and Sonic the Hedgehog. There’s enough cleverness on display to entertain game-savvy parents in the audience (I ate it up), though Wreck-It Ralph never transcends the kiddie genre like the best of the Disney canon.
Wreck-It Ralph is good, clean fun that will likely spawn all manner of spin-off (games, TV, more movies, etc.). It will also likely be a big hit that will keep the Disney brand relevant for at least a little while longer. But in a world where Disney has to basically rebrand what’s essentially a Pixar movie as a “Disney classic” to get a hit, I have to wonder if Wreck-It Ralph isn’t game over for the house that Walt built.
Note: Wreck-It Ralph is preceded by the delightful short “Paperman,” which plays like a low-key outtake from Fantasia. “Paperman” is that rare treat that will appeal to the parents more than their kids, and that’s high praise indeed.