Busting Thumbs for the Bad Guys

Nerd culture is hard to get right in mainstream entertainment. When there isn’t enough respect for the characters, it can feel like a bully picking on the high school nerds one last time via the big screen. When it’s too pervasive, it can be inaccessible to anyone other than the most hardcore gamer. So it means a lot to say that “Wreck-It Ralph,” the latest 3-D CGI Disney spectacle, has such a surprisingly subtle touch that it manages to appease both sides of the cinemaplex.

In video games, you never question who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. You can identify the good guy because his name is the title of the game and he has a magical hammer that can fix anything. You can also tell who’s the bad guy because he’s the one who’s nine feet tall with massive fists and an uncontrollable temper. Felix (“30 Rock”’s Jack McBrayer) and the denizens of the popular arcade game “Fix It Felix Jr.” know Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the bad guy because he comes and does his job every day, but that doesn’t make him a “bad” guy. Deep in his heart (or is code more accurate?), Ralph knows he’s capable of more, so he sets off on his own hero’s journey to prove to the arcade that Ralph has it in him to be a hero.

On his quest, Ralph stumbles his way into a hyper-realistic shooter called “Hero’s Duty,” but the bulk of the movie takes place in the candy-coated wonderland of “Sugar Rush,” a kart racer akin to “Mario Kart 64.” It’s a shame that so much time is spent in a generic fairytale landscape when there is so much fun to be had in game jumping, but the movie does a good job of playing with its surroundings in more ways than just candy puns. In “Sugar Rush,” Ralph finds himself stuck with a loveable tramp named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitch of a character trying to make her way into the big race. The odd couple is a familiar trope of animated kids’ movies, but Reilly and Silverman share a connection that keeps their scenes feeling fresh and energetic. Silverman in particular isn’t known for her sincerity, but Vanellope is the most endearing character to be found in a movie full of them.

The abundance of delightful crossovers in “Wreck-It Ralph” means that you can see space marines going out for a beer in the classic bartending arcade game “Tapper” and “Q*bert” as a homeless panhandler. Being the star, and even a bit player, in a video game is akin to a nine-to-five job. And like everyone else with a less-than-fulfilling day job, Ralph isn’t happy. Director Richard Moore’s experience with “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” brings that same quick-witted, slightly edgy, mile-a-minute humor and sincerity to a film that is all about bytes and pixels and glitches and hax0rs, but also more generally about being a part of something larger than yourself.

“Wreck-It Ralph” is unlike other Disney and DreamWorks animated features. Aside from some regrettable music choices, “Wreck-It Ralph” is a modern, witty and original tale that does away with some of the corny Disney trademarks and the empty pop-culture referencing found in DreamWorks movies.

Arcades are a special place where you can have a special connection with the game. There’s a beautiful simplicity to these arcade games, one that gets lost in the current generation’s pursuit of the greatest, most realistic graphics. That simplicity makes its way back into the movie through the ways in which the characters move and speak. There are some hills and valleys that bring “Wreck-It Ralph” to a lull that keep it from being a must-see, but few animated films nowadays handle their respective subjects this well, making those only minor concerns.

The little townspeople who populate the game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” move in the same 8-bit movements even when animated in 3-D. The authenticity given to these characters continues throughout the movie, and that’s what makes it special. These aren’t little animated playthings, designed for mass-market consumption to sell toys and product placements. They’re real (virtual) people, with real (virtual) feelings. So when you go home and boot up “Zombie Apocalypse 34,” maybe you’ll think twice about feeding that poor zombie a couple of extra shotgun shells to the face, and maybe you can give him a cookie instead. (B)

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