Anyone who grew up on Maui during the 1980s remembers The Fun Factory, the glorious arcade that used to be nestled on the bottom floor of the Wharf Cinema Center. It housed dozens of video games, rows of skee ball and was an obsession of many of my classmates. One of my favorite games was “Rampage,” in which, for a mere quarter, the player could become a giant wolf man, lizard or gorilla and destroy buildings and eat people for points.
The spirit of that game is very much in Wreck-It Ralph, the title figure of the new Disney CGI comedy. Ralph (voiced perfectly by John C. Reilly) is a video game character whose villainous reputation is at odds with what a lonely, unhappy guy he is. Every day, he and his cast of characters put on a good show for the kids in the arcade but, when the lights go down and the arcade closes, Ralph is left out of the nightly after parties. Seeking acceptance, Ralph ditches his world and seeks acknowledgement elsewhere, as he travels inside the pixilated worlds of the different games throughout the arcade.
This passable Disney film starts off promisingly, appeared to be headed for classic status but, like Meet the Robinsons, winds up being just pretty good. Ralph’s unlikely friendship with a cute outsider from a children’s game, voiced by Sarah Silverman, offers a solid message (outsiders need to stick together!). There’s also plenty of entertainment value and dazzling animation that cleverly gives each character different looks and movement, depending on how advanced their game programming is.
It’s in 3D but the imagery already pops off the screen, as the action and characters have the bouncing, exuberant quality of pop-up book illustrations. Longtime gamers will enjoy cameo appearances by Sonic the Hedgehog and, in the film’s best running joke, an out of work Q*Bert. The filmmakers of Toy Story were once famously turned down by the makers of Barbie for her to appear in the first movie. Disney had no such troubled this time, as there are countless references to old and new video games, as well as some shameless product placements.
From the start, the whole thing is more amusing than funny and relies on nostalgia for video games to carry much of the first hour. The story has blatant steals from Toy Story (the video game characters break character whenever humans aren’t looking) and Monsters Inc. (from the game doorways to the touching final closing shot) but, despite being produced by Pixar head John Lasseter, never achieves Pixar brilliance.
It’s also an iffy bet for small children, as some scenes are scary or mean. The humor is often edgy but also questionable at times, as some of the presumably ad-libbed dialog by Silverman and Jane Lynch are cringe inducing. I kid you not: at one point, Silverman’s character snuggles on her bed and coos “I’m all wrapped up in a blanket like a homeless woman.” Excuse me?
While this and other disagreeable moments will likely go over the heads of some kids, their parents will notice how the film tries to please every age group but is too uneven and plot-heavy. It’s always fun to look at and, thanks to an enjoyable soundtrack, a pleasure to listen to, but it really needed more heart and genuine laughs to work.
The closing scenes tie things up nicely but the recent, underrated TRON: Legacy actually had real substance, ambition and depth, in addition to dazzling graphics and a fetish for old school video gaming. I still play old school arcade games and have a fondness for much of what the movie is about but it aims to do for video games what Toy Story does for toys and doesn’t get within Pac-Man’s reach of a power pellet.
★ ★ ★
Rated PG / 108 Min.