Disney's new videogame themed animated feature Wreck-It Ralph may ostensibly be for kids, but the viewers who will probably enjoy it most are those who were children 30 years ago. At least, that was my experience when I saw the movie with my 5-year-old son; although he mostly enjoyed the misadventures of the title character (voiced to perfection by John C. Reilly), the designated bad guy in an 8-bit Donkey Kong-like arcade game called Fix-It Felix, Jr., it was my inner child -- the one who grew up playing those vintage '80s games -- that was really doing cartwheels. Throughout this delightful cartoon romp, director Rich Moore (making his feature debut after years of working on some of the past animated TV shows around, including The Simpsons and Futurama) pays homage to that formative era of gaming with such affection and wit, it'll make you want to get rid of your Wii and order an old-school, first-generation NES (or, if you're really splurging, a refurbished coin-operated arcade game) off eBay.
The nostalgia kicks in early -- right from the opening Steamboat Willie-led logo actually, which is rendered in classic 8-bit style, complete with tinny, synthesized score. From there, we're invited into the world of Fix-It Felix, where the handy, magic-hammer armed hero Felix (Jack McBrayer) restores the destruction wrought upon a lovely high-rise by the grumpy Ralph. A big hit in its day, Felix has managed to keep its place at Litwark's Arcade, even as other games have and gone. Still, thirty years of being the bad guy have started to take their toll on Ralph's psyche; just once, he tells his bad guy support group (populated by such famous videogame villains as Zangief, Bowser and Doctor Robotnik), he'd like to experience what it's like to be praised instead of feared. When the citizens of his game prove unwilling to accept Ralph as one of them, he decides to prove he has the mettle to be a hero by "game jumping" -- traversing the arcade's electric pathways to end up in more receptive digitally-rendered surroundings.
His first stop outside of his familiar platform game is a first-person shooter called Hero's Duty, where he acquires a shiny gold medal that he carries with him into the candy-coated racing game Sugar Rush. Here, though, it falls into the possession of boisterous young wanna-be racer, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman, whose babyish voice perfectly complements her kewpie doll of a character), who has been blocked from pursuing her life's passion because she's a "glitch" -- a bit of unstable code that wasn't supposed to exist in the first place. You can probably guess where this is going next: outcasts in their respective games, Ralph and Vanellope find friendship with each other, with the big lug helping his irrepressible new pal win the big qualifying race over the strenuous objections of Sugar Rush's duplicitous ruler, King Candy (Alan Tudyk). In the process of making Vanellope's dream come true, Ralph also comes to realize that being a one-man wrecking crew is plenty heroic in its own right.
In terms of its basic narrative as well the morals its seeks to impart (Bullies suck/Being yourself is A-OK/Love makes the world go 'round) there's nothing all that unique about Wreck-It Ralph. But the movie's sense of humor is so lively and the characters so endearing, its familiar lessons and story go down easy. (And let's face it -- all three of those platitudes are lessons worth learning.) The movie's attention to detail is also one of its greatest pleasures. Certainly, Moore and his animators have done a great job working shout-outs to actual classic video games into their fictional universe; from a shot of Street Fighter II's Ryu downing root beers in Tapper's bar, to Ralph finding a Super Mario mushroom in a lost and found box (the gag that most delighted my Mario Kart obsessed offspring) to an applause-worthy reference to the famous NES cheat code, the movie is quite clearly the work of serious videogame fans.
But the movie's original games are equally well-conceived; Sugar Rush, for example, lives up to its name, as the landscape is packed with every kind of candy you can imagine, from candy corn cheerleaders to laughing Laffy Taffy. And within the realm of Fix-It Felix, Jr., the characters move in the same jerky 8-bit manner even when they're not being controlled by a joystick. These games may have been invented for the movie, but they could easily pop up in any arcade or home console and fit right alongside the more established titles. With its obvious affection for the medium of videogames, not to mention its overall sunny disposition, Wreck-It Ralph feels more like the true heir to 1982's Tron -- Disney's first foray into the world of gaming -- than that film's actual sequel, the relentlessly dour and self-serious Tron: Legacy. Like Tron's original creator Steven Lisberger, Moore recreates the joy of getting lost inside a really great game. (In contrast, Legacy managed to make riding a wicked cool light cycle seem like something of a chore.) So yes my fellow '80s gamers-turned-parents, you should absolutely take your kids to Wreck-It Ralph. After all, you'll need them along as an excuse to see it again and again.
Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.