If you're going to rip off an animated movie, make it Toy Story.
That's the path plowed by Wreck-it Ralph, an animated Disney comedy that answers the question kids ponder: What do video game characters do when the arcade is closed?
They only ask that question, though, after wondering "What's a video arcade?" and "Why would people keep popping quarters in a machine when they can just download games for a buck on their iPhones?
The best answer parents can give to those inquiries from their adorable offspring is "Shut up. Just watch. Stop ruining the movie for me."
This is definitely one of those movies that parents like me are frighteningly overeager to drag their kids to, rather than the other way around. That's because of the trailer, which gives away the movie's best scene: Disgruntled villain Wreck-it Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) seeking comfort in a gaming bad guy support group that includes Bowser, Dr. Robotnik a pair of Street Fighter guys and a generic zombie. As soon as I saw that trailer either me or my 5-year-old jumped up and down with glee, declaring it to be the best movie ever based on that scene alone. I'll leave it to you to guess which of us it was.
While watching the full movie — which unfortunately does not consist entirely of support group meetings — dampened my enthusiasm a bit, it still gave me to grab the arm of 5-year-old Luke or my 3-yaar-old, Emma and inappropriately shout "Oh my gosh did you just see that!!" Prompting them to shush me.
Director Rich Moore, a veteran of animated TV (The Simpsons, The Critic, Futurama), crams his first feature film with enough gaming references to make you toss up your hands like a dead 8-bit Mario in Super Mario Bros. What the movie lacks in cohesive story it makes up in appreciation for a youth well wasted pouring lunch money into thirsty coin slots.
Strip away the gaming references — and the movie does just that in its feet-dragging middle act — and it's debatable as to whether Wreck-it Ralph is still a good movie. The film sputters when it focuses on the mechanics of its silly plot, involving Ralph's efforts to retrieve a hard-fought medal from sprightly kart racing character Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who is determined to show up her condescending competitors by winning the big race at the end of the movie. Ralph was a made-up guy from a made-up game, except for the fact that there is a real Wreck-it Ralph game now, which in turn is based on this movie, so he's actually… Sorry, my brain just melted.
Also along for the ride are Ralph's archrival Fix-It Felix (Jack McBreyer), modern shooter Rambo-woman Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and about ten thousand real and made-up game characters voiced by the likes of Mindy Kaeling, Ed O'Neill, Adam Carolla, Dennis Haysbert and Horatio Sanz. There are parallel stories of redemption, yadda yadda, and one emotional moment that managed to make Luke start to cry, but otherwise this is a copy of the Toy Story plot that left the pathos untouched.
Like most any game, Wreck-it Ralph is most fun when it's messing around without a particular goal. Like when Ralph heads over to the Tapper machine to drown his sorrows in what's described as "root beer" but what we all have known for 29 years is just beer. Or when he's chatting up gibberish-speaking Q*bert. Or, yeppers, that support group scene. Wreck-it Ralph himself may be a brute known for breaking stuff, but I'm happy to report his film left my games-loving heart intact.
Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman and Jane Lynch. Written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston. Directed by Rich Moore. Rated PG. 108 minutes.