Put in a quarter and 643-pound, 9-foot-tall bad guy Ralph will tear down an apartment building as its residents holler, but nimble-fingered game players can animate the sprightly Felix, who repairs the damage with his magic hammer. If Felix makes it to the top of the building, he gets a medal. Ralph gets tossed over the side into a mud puddle.
It’s been going on like this for 30 years in the arcade game Fix-It Felix.
No wonder Ralph wants a break.
Ralph is describing his unhappiness at a Bad-Anon meeting, a support group for video game villains whose credo is “I’m bad and that’s good; I will never be good, and that’s not bad.”
That’s just not working for Ralph. He wants friends, he wants pie, he wants to be the guy who gets the medal sometimes. We’ve met him in other movies – think of the green ogre Shrek and Beauty’s Beast, although he reminded me most of Andre the Giant’s wonderful, big-hearted character Fezzig in “The Princess Bride.”
It’s that way all through “Wreck-It Ralph” – a fun and brilliantly designed derivative treat that we’ve seen in other shapes for years. Ralph (loudly voiced by John C. Reilly) is on a quest for respect and affection, so he travels among video games old and new to win his prize. Adults will have the most fun recalling their Pac-Man days, trying to speak Q*bert and spotting Montana Smith from Temple Run in the crowd of avatars at Game Central Station.
To get validation in his own game, Ralph heads out to win a medal to show he can be a good guy, too. His visit to the dark armored war game Hero’s Duty snaps him into the aggressive reality of today’s gamers – “When did video games get so violent and scary?!” he yells as he’s pummeled by vicious mechanical bugs and shots fly around him. That’s also where we pick up tough-as-nails and curvaceous as doughnuts Sergeant Calhoun (looking and sounding like Jane Lynch), who pursues Ralph to the Sugar Rush game to keep the giant bugs from taking it over.
When Ralph crashes into Sugar Rush, a pervasively pink Candyland car race game, he hooks up with another outcast, the glitchy little Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a pixielike – and pixilating – nasty-mouthed minx who wants to win the big race so she, too, can be validated.
From here, the movie is a pileup of odd rules that amount to nothing (“if you die outside your game you don’t regenerate” is repeated, but is never a threat); other bizarre characters, including King Candy, a mashup of the Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka wearing the face of Ed Wynn; and the most bizarre use ever of Mentos and Diet Coke.
The real drama, and danger, comes from outside the games, in the arcade where they are housed. Without Ralph, Fix-It Felix is declared – gasp!– “out of order.” If a game can’t be fixed – especially a little-played, decades-old “classic” – it is unplugged and its characters become homeless. We see some of them panhandling in Game Central Station.
Will Ralph get his medal? Will Venellope win her race? Will Sergeant Calhoun overcome being programmed with “the most tragic back-story ever?” Is Fix-It Felix destined to spend the rest of his days in a closet next to old Space Invaders consoles?
After a lot of very silly name-calling and childish fun with the word “duty” (or “doody”) it all gets resolved, one way or the other. If you are worried about how, just remember the first name you see in this movie – Disney – and put your fears to rest.