It’s easy to be giddy about Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s answer to Toy Story for those whose toys are virtual. It involves being a kid, or at least an ’80s kid, with eyes wide like quarters, muscle memory zippy from years of gaming, and hearts young enough to embrace animation, arcade games, and snarky neon pipsqueaks with names like Vanellope von Schweetz. (There are lots of them; the movie rode the nostalgia wave to high box-office grosses and an early HD release next month.) It’s equally easy to be cynical. It helps to be a critic. It helps to have any of the following: ready arguments about Disney vs. Pixar; an instinctual distrust of nostalgia and memes; cascading visions of Fix-It Felix Jr. arcade games in theme parks once the Angry Birds midway games go stale, Felix ports for Xbox and PS3 and PC and iOS and garage-door clickers, puffy Ralph plushies and Vanellope-shaped fondant trinkets multiplying everywhere. Either stance is fine, though this film rewards the easy route.
Wreck-It Ralph, fittingly, is structured like a game. The hero (of sorts) is Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly, in wry mode), an intermittently villainous bad guy who resembles an inflatable Kiddy Kong. His days consist of smashing up buildings and being chucked into the mud for it; his nights are spent alone in the village landfill. The villagers hate him, partly because of his vague rage and partly because he spends his days smashing up their buildings. The game’s hero, Fix-It Felix, is cordial enough to Ralph when he’s not getting medals for thwarting him, but this cordiality doesn’t extend to party invites. Ralph guilts his way in to one, and after some faux pas and fracas he gets an ultimatum from one of the crabbier guests: sure, you can hang out in the penthouse—in the impossible event that you’re a good enough guy to get your own medal. Ralph takes this literally, and thus commences the antihero’s quest: He starts on the world map (an obvious Grand Central analogue) and progresses through the shoot-’em-up Hero’s Duty (think a cragged-out Call of Duty or Metroid) and Sugar Rush, the result of dipping Mario Kart in frosting and adding a gumdrop grin. (Or perhaps a Mentos grin; they, Nesquik, Laffy Taffy, and Oreos all get cameos.) There are subquests, most involving glitchy racing hopeful Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman in the sort of addled squeal that might result from snorting coke and cake mix). There are non-player characters (NPCs), like the conspicuously badass soldier Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch). There are breaks for platforming and cutscene diversions. There’s a minigame, called a minigame in-story. [...]