It goes without saying that movie animation owes practically everything to the Walt Disney Co. For the first 75 years of studio movies, nobody else was even consistently in the game. But after surrendering the mantle to its subsidiary, Pixar, Disney has been content to offer up cartoons like Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled. They're fine. They don't redefine anything and they aren't going to stand the test of time, but they're good enough.
That brings us to Wreck-It Ralph. Funny, nostalgic and rippling with imagination, Wreck-It Ralphis an animated film good enough to be branded Pixar, which in this field is as strong as a compliment can get. The film's modernity—it's all about video games—certainly doesn't seem like the fairy tale theater Disney commonly engages in; the dialogue and some of the game-play violence is certainly a small step beyond the fun-for-all-ages attitude that Walt's World usually delivers; and the animation is so strong and compelling—in fact, so wild at times—that it seems like John Lasseter's Pixar crew has engaged in a hostile takeover.
Ralph (voiced exquisitely by John C. Reilly) has spent 30 years busting up high-rise apartment buildings. He's a bad guy in the arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr., using his colossal meat hooks to bash in windows and walls, only to see Felix (Jack McBrayer) save the day. For 30 years, it's been the same old thing. None of the characters in the game like him or respect him. And at night—while every other character gets to sleep in the comfortable, rebuilt high-rise—Ralph has to live at the dump. And he's had enough: It's time to be a hero.
After discussing his feelings at BadAnon, a help group for video game villains that includes a ghost from Pac-Man and two characters from Street Fighter, Ralph decides to jump into another game to transform himself into a good guy. It's tricky: Unlike in Fix-It Felix Jr., if Ralph dies while he's in another game, that's the end of the line for him. He chooses, appropriately enough, a first-person shooter game called Hero's Duty, but is quickly shot out of that universe when he can't control a space ship. Careening off course, Ralph winds up in the candy-coated world of Sugar Rush, a Japanese racing game where everything is made of sweets.
Disney heroes seldom go it alone, and Ralph crosses paths with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a scatter-brained wanna-be Sugar Rush racer who also happens to be a glitch in the game. If Ralph helps her win, he could finally be the hero he thinks he needs to be.
If we're being honest, this is essentially just Toy Story all over again. It's just pushed forward a generation so that the kids of 30 years ago can now reminisce about the toys they used to play with as they embark on a wild animated adventure. It was cowboy and spaceman dolls for kids of the 1960s; it's Pac-Man and digital heroes for the Gen-Xers.
Animation is often a mixed bag. You'll get blistering originality—and it's usually from Pixar—but the majority of the films are uninspired or they get the look right at the expense of everything else or vice versa. This is a rare treat: a movie with beautifully developed characters, a strong, smart sense of humor and a unique approach to the visual world it's creating.
It doesn't have the dramatic heft of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, of course, but within the really simple Point A to Point B model Disney has leaned on tirelessly over the years, Wreck-It Ralph is remarkably fresh, undeniably assured and endlessly entertaining.