“Who doesn’t like a brat with dirty hair?”
The news that Disney bought Lucasfilm for four billion dollars had me thinking about another of the powerhouse’s key acquisitions—no, not Marvel and its potential for crazy property crossover. To me Mickey and friends’ best move this past decade was ensuring that Pixar Studios and its unparalleled team of creative visionaries would be their in-house animation studio with John Lasseter at its head. Not only would he have the foresight to re-open Walt Disney’s 2-D animation shingle, but he’d also find himself overseer of every work in their present and future pipelines. His stewardship saw a re-tooled Toy Story 3 become an Oscar-winner and long-gestating work like Tangled turn into massive hits. But nowhere else do I see his impact more than the amazing Wreck-It Ralph.
I used to believe it couldn’t be done. No animated film could ever be as heartfelt, endearing, and impossibly emotional as one with Luxo Jr. lighting the way. Meet the Robinsons and Bolt used the random hilarity previously cultivated in the underrated Emperor’s New Groove to craft winners for Disney before, but only Tangled found its finger on the pulse of Ratatouille and Up‘s soul. And while it took independent firm Laika to finally break through the barrier with ParaNorman‘s stunning ability to resonate on every level, the Mouse House wouldn’t concede without a fight. Even with the nuanced charm and intrigue of Pixar’s own Brave surprising me just a few short months ago, somehow a misunderstood bad guy’s sadness and his quest to become a hero proved to be Disney’s best of the year.
In an inspired concept, screenwriters Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee have outdone themselves by turning famous videogame pixels into a living, breathing universe. Roaming Mr Litwak’s (Ed O’Neill) arcade shows the characters in electronic form letting kids take turns controlling the action, but a turn of the camera to the other side of the computer screen’s mesh field barrier sees them taking breaks from their roles to go about their business like regular people off the clock. The boys from Street Fighter head out for a beer at Tapper’s; Q*Bert and other extinct (unplugged) game casts panhandle for assistance; and a contingent of evil villains meet inside Pac-Man‘s antagonistic ghosts’ abode for Bad Guy Anonymous—taking it “one game at a time”.
This is where we meet the titular Ralph (John C. Reilly), lost in a solitary existence forever feared by the terrorized constituents of Niceland and his game’s hero Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer). Wanting to belong with the community, an ill-fated party crash has him believing a gold medal for heroism could win their acceptance and free him from his garbage dump home. Knowing he can’t win his own game—it is named after his exuberantly bouncy counterpart after all—Ralph must game jump to find another way. Posing as a shell-shocked soldier from Hero’s Duty, he enters a bug-infested wasteland to steal its prize no matter the cost. Before returning home, however, hubris crashes him in the saccharine fields of Sugar Rush to provide the opportunity for true heroics.
The feature-length directorial debut of 2-time Primetime Emmy award-winner Rich Moore, you can see the sensibilities of his previous jobs “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” on display. Using an insane level of detail, this world possesses a well-thought out mythology by utilizing the infrastructure of electronics and back-end of computer gaming. Characters move freely through the Game Central Station hub (a huge train terminal inside the arcade’s powerstrip with each outlet serving as a platform for departure into the machine’s respective powercord); their missing a cue or going off script during business hours risks the player thinking the game is out of order; and a cardinal rule declaring regeneration from death can only happen in your own console keeps them honest.
The filmmakers use these rules so Ralph’s adventure can earn its surprising stakes. So much can occur when going ‘turbo’ (rogue) because so many rely on you playing your part. As Ralph enters Hero’s Duty, he risks his life amidst killer Cy-Bugs and the livelihood of those around him if his ignorance-induced mistakes cause Mr. Litwak to shut them down for maintenance. Rendering Fix-It Felix, Jr. impotent with his absence, his meddling brings an energy-devouring robot into the idyllic candy-covered land of Sugar Rush and his attempts to be friendly only add to his already formidable façade. Only the equally marginalized Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) can give him purpose through her quest to become a bona fide go-kart racer despite being nothing more than a glitch in the system.
Needing to prove they are more than the labels thrust upon them, Ralph and Vanellope become fantastic role models for children and adults alike. They find their partner on the fringes of society and tirelessly work to achieve the level of respect they deserve. Thankfully, however, Wreck-It Ralph never loses itself in this message completely and continues to be both hilarious and utterly unique. Love blossoms between the innocently naïve (McBrayer does his usual Kenneth shtick from “30 Rock”) and tragically damaged (Jane Lynch is perfectly cast as Hero’s Duty‘s bad ass leader Calhoun) and true villainy lives as a wolf in sheep’s clothing via King Candy’s (Alan Tudyk channeling Ed Wynn‘s Mad Hatter) more-than-meets the eye motivations.
With inspired cameos from Capcom’s Zangief and the aforementioned Q*Bert by Gottlieb, newly-created characters like station security’s Surge Protector, and fun kid myths in action like Mentos and Diet Cola causing explosive results, there is never a moment to rest. So much more than just its hero wanting to shake preconceptions, Wreck-It Ralph is about friendship conquering all. Unlikely allegiances are made and discoveries inside the code of the system help even the most despicable become heroic. We are who we are and should never let the view of outsiders dictate our actions. It’s a sentiment we’ve seen before—and by Disney too—but rarely has it looked this good or been this fun.
 In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’ video game ‘bad guy’ Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) spends his lonely evenings gazing at the apartment building that it’s his job to destroy. ©2012 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
 (L-R) RALPH (voice of John C. Reilly) and VANELLOPE VON SCHWEETZ (voice of Sarah Silverman) in the video game world of Sugar Rush. ©2012 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
 (Pictured) SERGEANT CALHOUN (voice of Jane Lynch) in the video game world of Hero’s Duty. ©2012 Disney. All Rights Reserved.