‘Wreck-It Ralph’ Review: Arcade-Generation ‘Roger Rabbit’ Is Worth Every Quarter

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John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman lead a talented voice cast in this tale of videogame characters who want to be more than the sum of their programming

If you’ve suffered through “Super Mario Bros.” or “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” or almost anything from the oeuvre of Uwe Boll, you know that videogames have had a hard time transitioning to the big screen. What’s exciting and interactive on your home system somehow turns stiff and unengaging when adapted to a single-path narrative.

Perhaps realizing that the problem with videogame movies is that the characters are stuck in an overly proscribed scenario, the new Disney animated feature “Wreck-It Ralph” shakes out its characters and lets them interact, so that the heroes of various different arcade faves can meet over root beers in the Tapper machine while a Pac-Man ghost moderates a 12-step group for villains.

One of those bad guys is Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), a brutish lug with massive forearms and squared-off fingers. He’s spent the last three decades trying to demolish a building in the game Fix-It Felix Jr., only to have Felix (Jack McBrayer) mend things with his magical hammer, save the day, earn a medal and win the affection of the tenants.

When Ralph finds that he’s been left out of the 30th-anniversary festivities (they even invited Pac-Man, who always devours all of the hors-d’oeuvres), he sets out to earn his own medal and to overcome his programming as a bad guy. The characters from different videogames mix and mingle in their communal power strip after the arcade shuts down at night, so Ralph decides to run away from his game in his quest to become a hero.

Along the way, he encounters Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the tough-talking squadron leader in a first-person shooter game, and Vannelope (Sarah Silverman), an adorable, anime-influenced moppet who wants to enter her game’s go-cart race, despite the fact that she’s shunned by her peers as a “glitch.”

Life lessons about being true to yourself are learned along the way, delivered with all the subtlety of Felix’s hammer, but “Wreck-It Ralph” actually makes us care about these videogame characters and their dreams for a better life. Even when the plot twists and character arcs in Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids”) and Jennifer Lee’s screenplay feel familiar, the voice performances, particularly from Reilly and Silverman, keep things fresh. (And funny, too: If you thought you’d heard every witty reference to “The Wizard of Oz,” this movie has a new one for you.)

Granted, if Silverman’s adorable-little-girl voice rankles your nerves, you may find yourself stretched to the breaking point, but she actually manages to find both laughs and pathos in her misunderstood character. And if you’re a fan of the comic stylings of the late Ed Wynn, you’ll enjoy Alan Tudyk’s homage to the legendary character actor in his performance as Vanellope’s nemesis, King Candy.

While the movie is loaded with inside jokes for gamers (e.g., the Fix-It Felix tenants move and talk stiffly, in the game’s totally ’80s style, while Calhoun has the more lifelike realism of a motion-capture character), you don’t have to know Q*bert from Centipede to get what’s going on here. It’s not unlike the situation with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” another film in which disparate animated characters crossed paths with each other for the first time: It certainly helped if you knew who Betty Boop was, but if you didn’t, there was still plenty to enjoy.

Director Rich Moore (a vet of “Futurama” and “The Simpsons,” making his film debut) takes full visual advantage of the game setting, creating a number of eye-popping worlds (ranging from a grim post-apocalyptic terrain to a candy-colored wonderland), even transitioning the Fix-It Felix world from the old-school, 8-bit graphics that the players see to the more three-dimensional look of the world as perceived by the characters who live in it.

Even if you’ve never had Pac-Man Fever (and kudos to whoever decided to hire novelty tunesmiths Buckner and Garcia to write a song for the closing credits), “Wreck-It Ralph” is a sweet and often hilarious animated adventure that will charm Generations Pong and X-Box alike.