The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is so cute that I’m kind of amazed nobody has thought of it before: A video-game villain tries to become a good guy by taking his talents to other video games in the arcade. It’s a licenser’s wet dream (many favorite games are name-checked here), and it initially makes for some reasonably entertaining antics as well, thanks in part to the vocal efforts of John C. Reilly. The actor has always been good at playing the proverbial bull in a china shop, a guy whose awkward, klutzy frame betrays his soft, somewhat dim personality. As you might expect, he’s more of a physical force this time, visually rendered in a mixture of high-end modern CGI and the retro-cubist stylings of the classic arcade games of yore. But at heart he’s still the old softy. Ralph has been smashing things for three decades, and he joins a “Bad-Anon” meeting to commiserate with his fellow video-game villains (including the ghost from Pac-Man) over his life choices.
A short-tempered but ultimately kind-hearted lug who destroys things in order for his nemesis, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), to repair them, Ralph decides that he might be able to gain newfound respect in the eyes of his video game’s inhabitants, the Nicelanders, if he can gain a medal elsewhere in the arcade. So he travels into a first-person shooter, and then into a stylized racing game, where he finds himself first at odds, and then allied with, a mouthy young girl voiced by Sarah Silverman who wants to compete in one of the races. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix also leaves his own game and makes the cross-arcade trek looking for Ralph.
It’s all mostly predictable stuff — think Toy Story meets Shrek meets Scott Pilgrim. And the script gets about as mileage as it can out of the notion of a video-game universe where characters have some of the same everyday concerns as your average working stiff; we’re reminded at one point that a steady villain gig is “nothing to sneeze at.” But it’s mostly enjoyable, thanks to the likable cast and the visually engaging idea of blending a broad range of video-game imagery into one eye-popping mash-up: hyperdetailed CGI warrior chicks living alongside 8-bit simpletons, and so on and so forth. There’s some real style here, too. Without overstating the case, Wreck-It Ralph manages to use the arcade ethos to a somewhat interesting artistic end; director Rich Moore mimics the speed and pace of a video game, where tiny gestures can have enormous consequences. Still, it does eventually become a bit tedious, and for all the breathless kineticism of the film’s second act, you may find yourself twiddling your thumbs. It’s a cool game, to be sure, but watching someone else play it gets old after a while.