Monday, December 2, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

I'm becoming increasingly bored with computer animated films. I can barely even watch the trailers anymore. Should be fun for when I have kids! It's difficult to get engaged in what often seem like big screen video games, beyond a few minutes of "wow" visual appreciation. Even some titles by Pixar (who I usually champion) such as BRAVE, while still bringing a lot of soul and some clever plotting to their films, suffer from a certain artificiality. Something about it all is so patently cold and unnatural, very much unlike the two dimensional features of yesterday.

2012's WRECK-IT RALPH, a Pixar co-production, did not tempt me out to the multiplex. And its plot involved video games. So this time at least, it made sense that the film was computer animated.  I was interested to learn that retro arcade legends like Q-Bert were part of the plot, but it wasn't enough.  Friends (mainly parents) on Facebook raved. So imaginative and fun is this movie! Turns out, they were right. This would've been a worthwhile big screen adventure.

But the imagination, so visually ample, unfortunately did not infuse the screenplay. While the idea of video game characters interacting with each other and having lives outside of their games is intriguing and ripe with potential, WRECK-IT RALPH reveals itself essentially to be another "outcast overcomes the odds to save the day and gain the acceptance of those who cast them out" story, sticking close to the playbook.  Too close.

Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) is the villain of a long-time popular video game, the Donkey Kong-like "Fix-It Felix". And he's tired of it. He's efficient as he smashes the windows of an apartment building, as much so as Felix, who repairs them with a magic hammer. Of course Felix is the hero to both patrons of Litwak's Arcade and within the game itself. The game's residents invite Felix to after hours parties in the penthouse, long after the arcade closes. Ralph is banished to a garbage dump each night. He does not improve his lot when he crashes one of those soirees (where Felix is to receive a medal) and makes a big mess, leading one of the game's other characters to call him a loser.

A dejected Ralph determines that if he can get his own medal, he'll be the new hero, and sets out to get one. This will involve traveling out of his artificial world into the others in the arcade, right through the electrical cords! Ralph meets tough female Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in the war game "Hero's Duty" where he correctly predicts he can grab the coveted medal, but as he exits he also piggybacks a nasty cyber bug that threatens another machine at Litwik's: "Sugar Rush", a trippy, multicolor car race game that will give viewers' rods and cones a serious workout. It is there that Ralph meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a cheerful but sad little girl who has been forbidden from participating in the kart races because she is a "glitch".  Ralph finds a fellow outcast in his new friend.

Meanwhile, "Fix-It Felix" has been unplugged by the arcade owner as the star villain is now absent, setting off a pursuit by the game's hero (Jack McBrayer), who's like a cousin to Andy of TOY STORY (and may have a romantic interest in that tough Sergeant!).

Once WRECK-IT RALPH settles into its oft told tale of acceptance and redemption, the fun drains a bit. Still, there is always another visual, a clever idea to distinguish the movie from hundreds of others. My favorite involves a pool of cola invaded by Mentos stalactites, though I also liked the laughing tree tentacles (and Calhoun's response to them when they get a bit mushy). The actors are as perfectly cast as could be possible, their unique personas very well suited to these characters. Director Rich Moore (also co-screenwriter) has given grumpy 40-somethings a reason, besides that of their arm tugging offspring, to plunk $$ on an animated feature.

But next time, guys, give the frontal lobes some extra push and dazzle us with the sort of innovation expended in the eye candy.

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