Review: 'Wreck-It Ralph' Mixes Pixels and Pleasure

Wreck-It Ralph

Pixels and binary bits have grown so pervasive over the last 30 years that they’re more or less synonymous with the way digital tools have been used to effect cultural homogenization in the Internet age, but in the right hands, they can produce beautiful works of art -- like, for instance, Wreck-It Ralph, a smart, very funny, and utterly charming paean to good old-fashioned humanity.

Springing from the simple yet powerfully effective premise that video game characters have lives of their own after the arcade goes dark, Ralph stars John C. Reilly as its titular wannabe hero, the 30-year loser of his never-ending battle with the star of his enduringly popular home game, Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer). Despairing of ever being treated with respect in his own console, Ralph sneaks off in pursuit of the glory he feels born to earn, venturing into a horrifically violent first-person shooter where he ditches his unit’s commander (Jane Lynch) to snag a medal of honor before being ejected, bad guy in tow, ending up in a candy-colored racing game called Sugar Rush, and forging a sweetly antagonistic alliance with local outcast Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman).

If it all sounds like the setup for a loose replay of pretty much every kids’ movie you’ve ever seen, complete with an obvious moral about being true to yourself, well, it is -- but the difference here is that Wreck-It Ralph addresses its themes with more honesty and wit than we’ve come to feel we have any right to expect from family-friendly Hollywood. Rather than fart jokes and pat conclusions, it underlines the importance of not only being true to yourself, but understanding who you really are -- a crucial difference that almost always goes unnoticed, and one that’s beautifully underscored by Ralph’s blessedly princess-free final act. (And okay, so there is at least one poop joke. But it’s pretty funny.)

Self-awareness also comes with the graceful acceptance of one’s own limitations and flaws -- or “glitches,” to use Ralph’s terminology -- as well as the ability to discern between a nominal goal (such as, say, the pursuit of a shiny gold medal) and a true calling. It means being big enough to admit that sometimes that calling can feel more like a burden -- and strong enough to search for ways to readjust rather than walking away. And perhaps most importantly, it means understanding that we’re all responsible for other people, whether we like it or not, and being part of a family or a community means weighing one’s desires against the consequences of one’s actions.

Setting all that aside, Wreck-It Ralph is just a really fun movie, one that lives up to the promise of its premise with a brilliant voice cast, a plethora of clever visual touches, and countless callbacks to the glorious 8-bit youth of the parents in the audience -- as well as a marvelously written script that does a more or less flawless job of balancing action, humor, and genuinely affecting drama. Get ready to feel a warm surge of nostalgia for the hours you lost in dark neighborhood arcades -- and even if you never felt what it was like to step out blinking into the bright sunlight a few pounds of quarters lighter, be prepared to exit the theater with a giant grin on your face.

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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