Pixar, Pixar. For something like a decade, every animated film has been inevitably judged by-and found short of-the gold standard set by the computer-animation powerhouse. Even Pixar can't compete, as tepid reviews of films like Cars 2 and Brave attest.
Disney's Wreck-It Ralph was executive produced by John Lasseter, one of Pixar's founders, and it follows the now-familiar narrative blueprint. But it's so fun, touching, and light on its feet that the influence doesn't drag it down.
The idea behind the movie's universe is a beaut: Video game characters are basically actors playing roles. When the arcade closes, they go back to their lives, residing in the artificial world of their game. Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the Donkey Kong-like ruffian who causes a lot of damage in the game Fix-It Felix Jr., which game hero Fix-It Felix Jr. (voiced by Jack McBrayer) has to clean up. Everybody in the game world loves Felix and shuns Ralph, which annoys him because, hey, he's not really a bad guy-it's just a job for him.
In a fun riff on The Purple Rose of Cairo, Ralph opts to leave his game via its power cord and travel to other games. Out there, he hopes, he can win a medal like the one that Felix always gets at the end of his game, and maybe earn the respect of everyone in the land of Felix. And so you have Ralph trying to stay alive in a Halo-like first-person shooter and, later, one of those kiddie kart-racing games.
Wreck-It Ralph most closely recalls Toy Story, with its look at the hidden life of kids' games. (And the road-movie plot has a decent amount of Finding Nemo in it.) The most important similarity to Toy Story, though, is that Wreck-It Ralph has found the absolutely perfect actors to voice the roles, embodying them in a way you can't imagine anyone else doing as well.
Ralph is a burly, awkward guy with a good heart, which describes nearly every character Reilly has played in the last 10 years. Ralph conceived as sympathetic from the start, but Reilly's inherent sweetness turns likable in to lovable. Likewise, McBrayer's Felix is an animated version of his Kenneth character from 30 Rock: a little less of a hick but equally naive and adorable. (Felix even looks like McBrayer with his overenthusiastic chumminess, which is never not funny in the movie.) In a lot of McBrayer's recent film roles, I've been worried that he's never going to do anything other than variations on Kenneth, but Felix repurposes that persona to great effect.
A lot of animated movies, especially out of Dreamworks, have based much of their humor on easy-to-spot pop-culture references. Wreck-It Ralph manages to spoof video game culture without turning it into a crutch. Whether it's the high-tech look of the first-person shooter Hero's Duty or the lovingly retro 8-bit design of Felix, the animation is always precise and consistently funny without constantly poking you in the ribs about it. (And even if, like me, you haven't played an arcade game since Q*bert, the movie doesn't strand you.)
Clever as Wreck-It Ralph is, the storytelling does bog down in minutiae. After setting Ralph up as the main character, the movie eventually teams him up with a spunky little girl named Vanellope von Schweetz to pursue a gold medal in her racing game Sugar Rush. Vanellope has a plot of her own-she's an outcast because she's a "glitch," a game character who doesn't work properly.
Vanellope is voiced by comedian Sarah Silverman, whose body of work has not been especially child-friendly. If Reilly and McBrayer are responsible for the laughs-as is Jane Lynch, who plays a variation of her tough-chick persona as the first-person game's main character-Silverman breaks your heart. It's not new for an animated movie to preach the importance of acceptance and community, but this one does it with rare deftness. Let Pixar be Pixar. This one inhabits its own universe with confidence.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies.