Spoiler Level: Safe
These days, I find my enthusiasm for American animated films has two levels: there's the great excitement I reserve for all Pixar movies—or at least the ones that don't feature Larry the Cable Guy as an anthropomorphic tow-truck—and then there are the comparatively low-expectations I have for most everything else.
There's no question that Disney has been showing signs of new life since 2006, when it absorbed the Trojan Horse of Pixar and gave John Lasseter the creative reins of the company. Since then, the Mouse has produced some very respectable work under its venerable banner, including the old-school, hand-drawn film The Princess and the Frog, and the surprisingly enjoyable 3D feature Tangled. Still, there is an emotional depth and imaginative vigor in the Pixar films that has yet to infest the Disney-branded films: one can't help but suspect that the real visionaries are safely housed up in Pixar's Emeryville, CA studio, while the reliable and the competent toil away downstate in Burbank.
Wreck-It Ralph, the latest entry from the So. Cal crew, feels like it's trying to clear the bar that Pixar so unfairly raised, and that ambition bodes well for Disney Animation: there is some energy here, and some fresh ideas, that make the film both perfectly respectable and entirely enjoyable. Unfortunately, there's also a flatness of character, and a shallowness of emotion, that separates Ralph from being the computer-game version of Toy Story that it so obviously and desperately wants to be. It's entertaining enough: it's just not magical.
Wreck-It Ralph stars John C. Reilly as the titular character, the lumbering villain of an 80's-style arcade game called Fix-It Felix. For 30 years Ralph has been wrecking a building just so the do-gooder hero Felix (Jack McBrayer) can fix it, but Ralph has grown tired of his one-note role, and bitter from watching the residents of the building shower hero Felix with medals and adoration. As he tells the other villains in his "Bad-Anon" support group, "I don't wanna be the bad guy anymore."
Ralph's quest for a fresh-start leads him to abandon his game: first to jump to an ultra-violent first-person-shooter called Hero's Duty, dominated by the tough-as-nails Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and then to a (figuratively and literally) saccharine go-cart racing game called Sugar Rush. It is here—in this brightly colored confection of a game—that his quest becomes mixed up with that of Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a wide-eyed computer glitch who dreams of being a racecar driver like Ralph dreams of being a hero. Meanwhile, back in the arcade, Ralph's absence from his own game means that the owners could pull the plug, condemning Felix and the other residents of Fix-It Felix to a life of homelessness.
The central conceit of Wreck-It Ralph—that arcade characters have independent lives, form communities, and can meet each other across the power cords—is a fun one, and delivers most of the pleasures to be found in the film: audience members who (like me) frequented video arcades in the 1980s will enjoy spotting cameos from such arcade staples as BurgerTime, Joust, and Dig Dug alongside better-known figures like Pac-Man and Q-Bert. (With all the dozens of video game cameos throughout the film, perhaps only Fix-It Felix’s most obvious inspiration—Donkey Kong—is conspicuously absent.) The sound effects and video game quirks that accompany these characters are appropriate and amusing, even if I could quibble about their consistency. (I like that the minor 8-bit characters in Ralph's building all have jerky, glitchy movements, but why don't Ralph and Felix move the same way?)
But in such a rich and promising world, first-time feature director Rich Moore (a veteran of animated TV shows like The Simpsons and The Critic), and Wreck-It Ralph’s screenwriters (Phil Johnson and Jennifer Lee) find too little real originality or wit: they settle everywhere for the shallow interpretation and the obvious jokes. (The cops in the candyland of Sugar Rush, for example, are donuts, and they use Devil Dogs to pursue escaped criminals.) The cultures of these games are not explored in particularly clever ways, and the characters from the games are more or less exactly who you'd suppose them to be, without any nuance or idiosyncrasy. It's an unfair comparison (which I'll keep making), but the toys in the Toy Story movies have full, complicated personalities that are not necessarily obvious from their archetypal molds; the same can be said of the monsters in Monsters Inc., and even the fish in Finding Nemo. In comparison, the video game characters here are flat and uninteresting: there are no surprises, as if the storytellers simply never took that extra step necessary to go beyond their two-dimensional descriptions and bring them to any kind of textured life.
This includes, unfortunately, Ralph himself, who—apart from a desire for the respect of his peers—is exactly the rather simple-minded lout his programming suggests. Vanellope is the heart of the movie, and Silverman alone manages to bring a little real soul and affection to her character. In real life, Silverman's comedy plays on the tension between her innocent, little girl mannerisms and her acerbic, mean-spirited content, but it was clever casting to allow her to reverse this formula here and play a genuinely sweet little girl with a bratty exterior. Though completely predictable in every one of its beats, I found myself actually caring about the relationship arc that develops between Ralph and Vanellope.
This relationship—and the perfectly competent animation—is enough to make Wreck-It Ralph an enjoyable, occasionally amusing, 93-minute confection, but it's not enough to make it more than that. One can't help but wish that the promising template of this film had been handed to the Pixar studio, so that Ralph's resentment could have the depths and shades of Woody's in Toy Story, or so that his child-inspired redemption could have the weight of Sully's similar arc in Monsters Inc. (The one moment in the latter film, where Sully sees himself on camera and realizes what it really means to be a monster and scare children, has more genuine poignancy that anything in Wreck-It Ralph.)
Not every animated film will be, or needs to be, an instant classic, of course, or make the adults laugh and cry right alongside the children: there is certainly room for the mid-level cartoons that will allow parents to kill a couple of hours with the kids without throwing up. In this respect, Wreck-It Ralph is a better-than-average bit of fun, one that should entertain the kids without rotting their brains, and one that will keep the accompanying adults reasonably, nostalgically entertained.
There's nothing wrong with that, but if John Lasseter (who executive produces here) wants to make Disney Animation more than Pixar's underachieving sibling—let alone restore it to its former glory—he's going to need to insist on more. The Disney filmmakers will need to remember—as Pixar's do—to take as much care with the characters and storytelling as they do with the animation. They will need to remember the words of Walt himself, who said, "You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality."
Wreck-It Ralph builds a marvelous world, but its characters are never quite real enough, or rounded enough, to make the dream come alive.