Wreck It-Ralph (PG) ****
Director: Rich Moore.
Cast: (voices of) John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk.
VIDEO games are no longer the domain of the young.
After all, Pacman is now in his 30s. Ditto for Donkey Kong and Mario. Even Sonic The Hedgehog turned 22 this year.
With that in mind, the latest CG-animated film from Disney hits all its demographic targets from those whose first gaming experience is Angry Birds to those who know their Asteroids from their Defender.
Kidsy, yet with emotional depth, Wreck-It Ralph combines its few overly saccharine moments and some diabetes-inducing visuals with a clever mythology, a well-rounded sense of humour, high-definition characters and a smattering of in-jokes for long-time gamers.
The titular Ralph (Reilly) is the bad guy in Fix-It Felix Jr, a Donkey Kong-meets-Rampage-style platform game from the '80s that is still a popular game in a modern-day video arcade.
When the arcade closes at night, the characters of all the games get on with their lives. For the heroes like Fix-It Felix Jr (McBrayer), it's all parties, fireworks and medals. For the baddies like Ralph, there is nothing but loneliness, scorn and support groups.
Ralph has had enough of this and decides to jump into a different game in search of respect (and a big shiny medal). Such actions disturb the natural video game order of things and set off a potentially game-destroying chain of events.
At first glance, Wreck-It Ralph seems like a cynical cash-in on an industry that has surpassed Hollywood in terms of profit, full of clever cameos (from Zangief to Q*Bert) and gamer-friendly references to mini-games, glitches, coding and in-game secrets.
But these elements end up adding to the richness of the world Ralph and company inhabit a world where malfunctioning games are unplugged and their characters become homeless, forced to live in the giant airport-like terminal between games.
The mythology and laws of the different game worlds would be nothing without strong characters, and the film has those in Ralph and Vanellope (Silverman). Ralph is doomed to forever work a job he hates but desires to be a better person and to improve his life, while Vanellope is a "glitch" within the game Sugar Rush (a confectionary-themed Mario Kart-style racer) who dreams of being a proper racer but is stuck watching from the sidelines.
Ralph and Vanellope are well-written, as well as being colourfully voiced by Reilly and Silverman, and their story gives the film a strong emotional core. The "two misfits" tale does tend towards clich and predictability but it's such an enjoyable ride you can forgive it its indiscretions, which unfortunately includes music by Rihanna and Owl Eyes.
Disney's record with CG films (Dinosaur, Chicken Little, Bolt, Meet The Robinsons) hasn't set the world on fire but, as with its 2010 fairytale Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph is a Pixar-worthy beauty for anyone of any age who's ever played a video game.