For a clever, funny movie that makes skillful use of an 8-bit sentiment, see “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.” Disney seems to have sensed in “Scott” a winning formula for turning video game fans’ nostalgia into cash, as manifested in their newest film, “Wreck-It Ralph.” While the film has its share of funny moments and charm, a video-game aficionado would be hard-pressed to find an original idea, and from shameless product placement to a less-than-stellar script, “Wreck-It Ralph” has a shiny exterior but little substance.
Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is an arcade game villain tired of Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) getting all the glory for repairing what Ralph smashes. When an AA-style support group for bad guys—featuring familiar faces like Bowser and Dr. Eggman, as well as, inexplicably, Satan—fails to dispel his feelings of resentment and inferiority, Ralph resolves to travel into another game and win a medal there to prove to himself and others that he too is a hero. He soon gets sidetracked by helping the glitchy reject Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) win in the candy-themed racing game called “Sugar Rush,” and like most Disney movies, the fate of their world somehow hangs in the balance.
Among the cast, including McBrayer was a good call: the movie’s humor is at its best with Felix, whose goofy innocent voice pairs well with lines like “That’s not blunt force trauma, ma’am, that’s just the honey glow in my cheeks.” Felix bears an uncanny resemblance to McBrayer’s better-known role as Kenneth from “30 Rock,” from his wholesome haircut to his Southern accent and religious bent—if I were Tina Fey, I might be a little ticked off. Calhoun is little more than a souped-up Sue Sylvester from “Glee.” Is this type-casting or merely laziness? Whatever it is, Disney hardly scores points for originality. The choice of Silverman was particularly mystifying, even though the intended audience hopefully isn’t familiar with her profane comedy style. Her character’s cutesiness was disturbingly incongruous with the other things that come out of her mouth during the film.
The movie does succeed in its animation. Disney’s pattern of having humanoid characters with disproportionate features can feel stale, but in “Ralph,” they switch things up with a throwback to the days of Gameboy Color, with curves that are rendered with pixel-sharp edges. The movie is full of passing winks at video games, as when rifling through a lost-and-found box Ralph tosses aside a Super Mushroom. “Sugar Rush” has candy cane trees, gumdrop stones, and chocolate rivers, rendered in luscious detail.
But even here, the sense of wonder at the artistry Disney’s animators have achieved is cut short by the fact that the movie is packed with product placement, which is neither subtle nor redeemed by irony. As the movie goes on, it starts to feel like you’re watching an advertisement for the refreshments stand in the theater lobby. There are two doughnuts named Winchell and Dunkin’, vines of Laffy Taffy hanging from tree branches, and to top it all off, a mountain called Diet Cola—as if the addition of the word “diet” would mask the fact that the ground is literally covered in sugar—that just happens to be in the shape of a vintage Coke bottle.
Script-wise, “Wreck-It Ralph” understandably caters mostly to little kids—with numerous puns on the word “doody”—but attempts at profundity to cater to adults fall flat. At one point, Felix notes, “A selfish man is like a mangy dog chasing a cautionary tale,” a line that was clearly intended to be a deep statement. Elsewhere in the movie, Ralph calls “Sugar Rush” a “candy-coated heart of darkness.” Somewhere in England, Conrad is turning in his grave.
No one walks into a Disney movie expecting the philosophical depth of Bergman or Godard. People go to laugh, to see pretty things, and to communicate a neat little moral lesson to their child. In that respect, “Wreck-It Ralph” is successful, as the message of “Anyone can be a hero” comes across clearly. But Disney’s classics possess something more than just that: they have an enduring power to provoke wonder and joy. “Wreck-It Ralph,” for all its 3D finery and star-studded cast, lacks this essential quality. What’s left is a movie that seems to assume that throwing enough money at something will somehow lead to quality. In that sense, the only thing that’s missing is a Romney 2012 sticker.