The characters in Wreck-It-Ralph all have day jobs: They just happen to be characters in video games, re-enacting the same roles in the same universe over and over again, like stock players in a theatrical company. Some, like Mario and Pac-Man and Sonic are heroes; others, like the hulking but kind-hearted Ralph (John C. Reilly), are bad guys, relegated to smashing and destroying buildings and public property of a popular vintage arcade machine until the player runs out of quarters.
But at night, when the arcade closes, these pixilated creatures don’t switch off. They lead lives outside of their respective games. The good guys throw parties and romp and celebrate. The villains attend BaD-Anon meetings, which are like AA sessions to help them deal with the strain of having to be bad all the time. The unfortunate characters whose games fell out of fashion and are no longer active hang around like vagrants, begging for food. But by morning, when the arcade reopens, everyone is back in their places, ready to be manipulated by joysticks and trackballs and buttons.
Part of the fun of Wreck-It-Ralph is discovering how much meticulous detail director Rich Moore has brought to his imaginary world of electronic characters (here, truly, is a computer-animated movie that makes sense, because its characters all exist on motherboards). An old 8-bit character stares in awe at a modern, high-def warrior in all its glossy, shiny detail. There’s a war-themed first-person shooter shown from the inside out that will tickle anyone who has ever spent time playing Call of Duty. Cameos abound around the edges of the frame: The filmmakers have as much affection for popular games such as Frogger as they do for less-known titles such as Burgertime.
Wreck-It-Ralph was executive produced by John Lasseter, the former Pixar honcho who now oversees all of Disney’s animation. His presence is felt in the film’s sense of humor and the tactile reality of its imaginary world. But aside from the nostalgia factor, Wreck-It-Ralph is aimed primarily at kiddie audiences, with Ralph sneaking into a Candyland-themed racing game to help a glitchy outsider (Sarah Silverman), who has been brushed aside by her mean-girl competitors, become an option kids can choose while playing the game.
The movie doesn’t resonate the way the best Pixar and Disney movies do, and the humor is broad and pitched to young viewers. But the visuals are never less than eye-popping, and the video game theme will hold the attention of older viewers even when the story doesn’t. Wreck-It-Ralph is a gorgeously rendered story that will play just as well to children as to their parents, albeit for different reasons. Playstation and Xbox junkies will be equally pleased.