Nostalgia can only get you so far, and the makers of WRECK-IT RALPH know this. The trailers, posters, and spots have been full of video game references and characters, but it was important for Rich Moore and the animators and writers to make WRECK-IT RALPH not just a movie where in-jokes and beloved video game characters dominate, and that was a smart move. When those moments come (and they come fairly quickly), they're genuinely funny but they don't take the movie off track.
That's a good thing, because the story of WRECK-IT RALPH is compelling without all that nostalgia clogging up the works. Ralph (John C. Reilly) is getting a bit tired of his role as a villain in his game, Fix-It Felix Jr. Everyday, he gets up from his stump and pile of bricks that he calls home. goes to destroy the apartment building that forced him to move, and Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) repairs all the damages and goes home to celebrate every night with the denizens of the apartment building. Ralph never gets to go inside and join in the fun, and he's got a serious complex about it, as he shares his woes with the other bad guys in the arcade. All he wants is to be recognized for his role in things, but it's not his place to question it, but to go on with his life.
It's the 30th anniversary of FIX-IT FELIX JR, and Ralph decides to go to the party in the game's honor, but the apartment dwellers don't want him there. He lives a solitary life - if only he could get a medal, like all the heroes do, maybe people will credit Ralph for his contributions. So Ralph breaks the cardinal rule of the arcade - no gamejumping - to join Hero's Duty and win a medal, and maybe then he'll be taken seriously. Through a series of misadventures, Ralph loses his medal and winds up in Sugar Rush, a kiddie racing game, and meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). They end up making an arrangement - if Ralph can help her win the race, Vanellope will help Ralph get his medal back. But things aren't as they seem in Sugar Rush - King Candy (Alan Tudyk) rules that land, and wants to do everything in his power to keep Vanellope from racing. Meanwhile, Felix and Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the leader of Hero's Duty, have to find Ralph and bring him back before his bumblings undo all the games in the arcade. Ralph must learn what it really means to step out of his place and become a real hero.
The visuals of WRECK-IT RALPH are beautiful, especially in Sugar Rush, which is practically visual diabetes with all the confections and sweets on display. Moore and the animators do a terrific job in backgrounds and characters, even in the little ways they move. The Pac-Man ghosts can only travel in straight lines, for instance, and the people of Fix-It Felix Jr move with a jerky motion that suggests they're simply not programmed to move fluidly. Again, the video game references are funny, but they don't overpower the movie. Even subtle little moments recall earlier Nintendo games - my favorite involves something that METAL GEAR SOLID fans will appreciate, and I'll leave it at that - but Moore keeps the material moving.
Everyone gives great vocal performances, especially Reilly, who puts all the angst and humor he can in Ralph. Sarah Silverman gives Vanellope that bubble-gum spunk that at times makes the character a little ingratiating, but she's going to be a big hit with the kids, I'd imagine. My favorite character, though, has to be Jane Lynch's Calhoun, who has been given "the most tragic backstory in videogames" - a tough-as-nails fighter who hides some inner pain and loss. Lynch is funny and moving, and Lynch and McBrayer riff off each other in terrific ways.
If there are any complaints on my end, it's that I wish the filmmakers had figured out a way to explore their universe a bit more - for the most part, we only see three game worlds, and i would have liked to see that opened up. We spend a lot of time in Sugar Rush, and the color palette and scenery is a bit aggressive but the animators keep coming up with clever imagery and ideas to keep that section of the movie visually interesting. The pacing of WRECK-IT RALPH slows a bit once we go into Sugar Rush, but the movie is never dull.
I can easily see this becoming another franchise for Disney, especially with all the possibilities of different games interacting with each other. Not just for nostalgia's sake, but I would have really liked going into Street Fighter's world. There are a ton of Easter Eggs in WRECK-IT RALPH - this is a video game movie, after all - and much of the fun is trying to spot all of them. WRECK-IT RALPH is cute and fun, and while I don't think it's the best animated movie of the year, it's going to please most everyone who sees it, especially if you've grown up during that wonderful time of arcade games.
Finally, "Paperman" is one of the most beautiful bits of animation to ever come out of Disney Studios. I know that's saying a lot, but I could have watched "Paperman" on a loop for two hours. Easily worth the price of admission. It's really that good.