Usually, when a film gets stuck in Development Hell for a couple of decades, the final product is bound to be disappointing. Mediocre, if not actually terrible. Speed Racer comes to mind, as does Superman Returns and what might be the ultimate example, last summer’s John Carter. (If A Confederacy of Dunces ever makes to the screen, it’ll probably be pretty bland.) This is partially because of accumulated fanboy expectations, but also mostly because the damn thing in question has been fussed over so many times it’s lost its original juice.
There are exceptions, however. As with Lord of the Rings, some properties are merely waiting for technology to evolve enough to comprehend their original vision. Such a film is Wreck-It Ralph. Conceived way back in 1986 when the first arcade boom was just starting to wear off, it was greenlit thanks to the success of the original Tron. But that movie had to go through an arcade sequel and its own 20-year reboot before Ralph finally got made.
The wait was worth it. Sure, director Rich Moore’s forte is parody — Simpsons, Critic, and Futurama — but the script by relative newcomers Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee also takes a genius approach to its own ancient genesis by stranding two very 80’s characters in the modern arcade world. Because Ralph is set in an arcade, it still seems slightly out of date for an age in which even consoles have become obsolete; then again, children are the targets for these movies, and this one has the feel of a Chuck E. Cheese lobby come to life.
John C. Reilly is the hapless villain of the titular arcade game, one that’s half Donkey Kong and half Rampage (with a little Crazy Climber thrown in). Trapped in a world he never made, he’s a third-class citizen banished from the penthouse he’s fated to destroy with every quarter. Cleverly, the film has him going to counseling to deal with his personality crisis, a group led by one of the Pac-Man ghosts. (Clyde, I believe.) But it’s not enough. Ralph already believes that he’s worthy; he just wants to prove it to the world.
So he goes rogue, or in the lingo of this movie, “Turbo,” and enters some very modern games in order to get the shiny medal that’ll validate him as a hero. His own game’s hero, Fix It Felix Jr., played with can-do squareness by Jack “Kenneth the Page” McBrayer, goes after him to save their console home, and together they enter a first-person shooter where a human-like, bitterly sexy Lara Croftesque commando (Jane Lynch) fights off robot bugs. That leads to his immersion in a kiddie go-kart game where Ralph meets the troubled “glitch” Vanellope, played by Sarah Silverman, balancing adorability and annoying energy in a way her own comic persona doesn’t always manage.
Hilarity ensues, but it’s sweet, character-based and surprisingly three-dimensional. Ralph isn’t a meme movie franchise tossing elements of our childhood together to create stale jokes — most of the comedy comes from Ralph and Felix trying to save their neighboring candyland from being overrun by bugs, Samurai Jack style. The few references there are range from clever, as when Felix talks to Q*bert in his own language, or silly, like a Nesquik-sand trap, or both, like a Diet Coke and Mentos formation that figures into the plot.
What’s thrilling about Wreck-It Ralph is how all four of its central characters have some demons to work out, and how they all help each other do just that, often without realizing it. Turns out Ralph is not entirely convinced he’s good, Felix actually feels trapped by his own hero status, Lynch’s Sergeant Calhoun is literally programmed with a crippling backstory, and Vanellope is the victim of sabotage due to the arcade’s own unresolved issues. Since those issues extend back to the very earliest days of the racing game, the screenwriters also cleverly draw parallels between the earliest examples, staples of the arcade long before Pac-Man, and today’s 3D variants. It’s one of the few constant threads running through arcade history, and it’s cleverly exploited.
Everything wraps up as neatly as you would expect, but what makes this film worth ten bucks of quarters are the eyepopping visuals: turns out the game most of the film is set in is actually pretty damn inventive on its own, and expanding it out to a whole 3D world makes it even more intriguing. You walk out satisfied but also wanting to play these games, which is one reason there’s already a version for the Wii. But I’m already pulling for a MMORPG PG-13 spinoff or sequel: if they can make 8-bit characters this fleshed out, you can only imagine what they might do for whole ready-made universes. Given the well-intentioned but disappointing Brave, Wreck-It Ralph might markthe first year Disney beats Pixar at its own game. Kinda like, well, 1986.