It's hard out there for a video game villain: always being attacked, never given the benefit of the doubt, and forever pigeonholed into a role no one wants to see you escape. Such is the fate of Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the bad guy in an old-school arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. in which players control sprightly magic-hammer-wielding repairman Felix (Jack McBrayer), mend the damage Ralph has wrought upon a high-rise apartment building, and win a gold medal by tossing Ralph off the roof. With gigantic hands, a round face, and overalls strapped over one shoulder, Ralph resembles a human Donkey Kong, and after 30 years of his smash-and-growl routine, he has grown tired of his station in life. Once the arcade has closed, at a therapy session for like-minded scoundrels including Super Mario Bros.' Bowser and Street Fighter's Zangief and M. Bison, Ralph wonders aloud why he can't ever be the hero. A Pac-Man ghost responds, "We can't change who we are."
Wreck-It Ralph, the latest non-Pixar animated outing from Disney, is a saga rooted in refuting that notion, charting Ralph's escape out of his game and into others, via the arcade's surge protector, known as Grand Gaming Central. His goal: to win a gold medal that will gain him the acceptance of his sneering peers. With bouncy CG that's given greater depth by 3-D, director Rich Moore's film blends the secret-lives-of-toys reality of Toy Story with the self-actualization vibe of Bolt, with the former proving far more electric than the latter. There's an invigorating energy to the first 20 minutes, with Reilly's ho-hum-glum narration hilariously establishing Ralph's discontent, and Ralph's travels through the game world marked by one winning cameo after another, including 2-D icons Pac-Man (detested by Ralph) and Q*Bert (now homeless). With access to any of the arcade's games, Ralph is poised for a quest of genre-hopping madness, of diverse worlds to explore and clashing styles to confront.
Thus, it's more than a bit disappointing to find Wreck-It Ralph squandering the opportunities it sets up. After an inspired visit to gritty HD sci-fi first-person-shooter Hero's Duty nets Ralph his gold medal, he finds himself blasted into a candy-land racing game called Sugar Rush. There, he meets a little girl named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who fulfills the dictate for an adorable, wiseass child character, and he finds himself attempting to retrieve his medal by helping Vanellope — who's a glitch, and thus vilified by the rest of her comrades — qualify for the big race against the wishes of King Candy (Alan Tudyk). This turn of events grinds the film to a halt, precisely because it confines Ralph for most of the story's remainder to Sugar Rush, a milieu far less electric than Ralph's other pit stops, and whose villain King Candy comes across as a second-rate, slightly more lucid Mad Hatter.
Opting for a consistent locale undercuts the tale's whiplash vitality. Fortunately, Ralph and Vanellope's spiky kid-adult banter occasionally makes up for this lack of momentum, as does a subplot in which Felix — fearful that Fix-It Felix Jr. is about to have its plug permanently pulled because it's unplayable without Ralph — teams up with Hero's Duty badass Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), with whom he soon shares inter-game romantic sparks. Whenever it splices together creatures of incompatible digital genera, Wreck-It Ralph feels charged with possibility. And its pairing of familiar eight- and 16-bit game characters with fictionalized ones that feel like they could have existed results in an overarching sense of authenticity that makes the film's retreats into static be-yourself territory all the more dispiriting.
Convinced that he's more than just a "bad guy," Ralph finds in Sugar Rush proof that he can determine his own character. In doing so, he shows others (Vanellope, Felix, Calhoun) that they too can be whatever they want to be, programming be damned. That pro-autonomy message might have carried more weight if it weren't so clearly outlined at the outset and then simply confirmed without complication by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston's straightforward script. As with its narrative, Wreck-It Ralph's themes don't develop by branching out in wild, unpredictable ways; instead, they simply become narrower and more monotonous. Perhaps that's the director's canny way of replicating the fundamental nature of '80s-era games like Wreck-It Ralph, which were predicted on basic, repetitive action.
Yet for all the wink-wink inside jokes peppered throughout its quest (the best: a nod to the NES's famed secret controller code: up-up, down-down, left-right, left-right, B-A, start), Wreck-It Ralph feels like so many modern AAA gaming titles — a promising starting point for an inevitable, improved sequel.