“Toy Story” answered the question of what toys do once their owners exit the room. “Wreck-It Ralph” finds similar solutions to how video game characters behave when an arcade closes for the night.
While most of these game inhabitants enjoy their time off, Ralph (voiced by the peerless John C. Reilly) is suffering an existential crisis. The 9-foot-tall, 643-pound juggernaut is celebrating 30 years as the nemesis in “Fix-It Felix Jr.,” a faux mash-up of “Donkey Kong” and “Super Mario Bros.” In it, Ralph wrecks a brownstone with his piledriving fists while Felix (Jack McBrayer) cleans up the mess using a magic hammer, much to the delight and praise of the 8-bit tenants.
But it’s “very hard to love your job when no one likes you for doing it,” Ralph laments.
After attending a meeting of Bad-Anon, a support group for video game villains such as the ax-wielding zombie from “House of the Dead” and dictator M. Bison from “Street Fighter II,” Ralph realizes he can only find happiness by “game jumping.” But it’s a risky proposition because characters don’t re-animate once they’ve left their own world. If killed they stay dead!
“Wreck-It Ralph” builds on a wonderful premise that explores whether folks are condemned to be victims of their own circumstances. Screenwriting team Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids”) and rookie Jennifer Lee make clever use of nostalgia, bringing in Q*bert-worthy references for those who spent much of the ’80s feeding quarters into classic arcade machines. For a while, the project has the vibe of becoming an animated classic itself.
The movie’s primary flaw — it’s inescapable glitch — turns out to be its range. Ralph yearns to earn a hero’s medal, leading to dozens of possibilities for him to turn up in other games. Imagine Ralph battling Sub-Zero in “Mortal Combat,” or challenging Godzilla to a demolishing competition in “Rampage,” or crossing the hazardous “Frogger” street.
Instead, he visits only two games.
Ralph joins armored soldiers fighting extraterrestrial bugs in a “Halo”-type shooter called “Hero’s Duty.” His commander is Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a blond warrior “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”
He then escapes to “Sugar Rush,” a kiddie driving game set in a Wonka-esque land lined with candy-coated streets (with as much product placement as a real NASCAR event). Ralph meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a sharp-tongued moppet desperately trying to get back in the race.
Ralph spends nearly the entirety of the picture in this chromatic wonderland, subsequently trapping the audience there with him. (He might as well have just gotten banished to the Grid from “Tron.”) For most of the adventure (directed by “Simpsons” veteran Rich Moore) he’s helping fellow misfit Vanellope overcome her innate limitations.
The story eventually pulls itself together through the appeal of their emotional bond. But it’s hard to dismiss the glaring fact that this visually impressive, well-cast effort could have been so much more.
If only the “Wreck-It Ralph” filmmakers had a magic hammer that could quick-fix these programming flaws.