Videogames have been with us for 30 years now, give or take a Pong. For Hollywood, the question of how to port their micro-characters to the big screen has resulted in a surreal struggle. The two seem to get on like trampolines and nunchaku. Anyone who’s ever caught Bob Hoskins in dungarees, Kylie as a kickboxer or Luke Goss in Tekken will know that most adaptations end up novelty concoctions, where bad fan-fiction meets bizarrely cast branding exercise. If you’re looking for thrills, you’ll find more entertainment disassembling an Xbox with a coconut.
Here’s the good news. Wreck-It Ralph, the latest Disney animation, isn’t a movie of a videogame. The movie is a videogame, with videogame jokes, videogame noises, videogame cameos and a blocky, 8-bit videogame villain. Clunking around his retro platformer like Donkey Kong’s missing link, Ralph is not a happy baddie. Cursed with shovel fists and a reverse Midas touch set on auto-demolish, 30 years of lobbing masonry at Fix-It Felix, his in-game nemesis, have turned him into a deluded wreck. As Felix (Jack McBrayer) collects all the credit, Ralph is cast out to a pile of bricks, gripped in a sulky, electro-stential crisis. Even weekly therapy at support group Bad Anon can’t shake him out of it. Eventually he snaps, escapes the cabinet, and smashes around the arcade in search of the impossible: a winner’s medal. Wreck-It Ralph wears the porkchop nose and warm, weary voice of John C. Reilly. He is, of course, instantly lovable.
Director Rich Moore made his name on The Simpsons, and there’s a familiar zap to the in-jokes and sight gags that blitz its opening third. Taking its cue from Toy Story’s clandestine world, when the arcade shuts, the machines come to life — a concept loaded with its own set of rules (never “jump” games, fear the Out Of Order sticker). It also affords Moore the freedom to go on an 8-bit nostalgia trip. In this sense, Wreck-It Ralph is unique among videogame movies — it actually displays a genuine love for its subject, dosed up on a wicked sense of humour. There will be few sights funnier this year than watching Streetfighter’s Ken and Ryu clocking off for a pint — and few sights sadder than seeing Q*Bert unplugged and homeless. While younger heads will flutter at the sparky CG, seasoned gamers are invited to play Spot The Dig Dug among the countless cameos that clutter Game Central Station. It’s an incredibly smart move — a rare family film that speaks to two generations at once. Both will come out satisfied, just one more than the other.
Booted out of a Halo-clone shoot-’em-up, Ralph lands in Sugar Rush, an arcade racer set in pick ’n’ mix terrain — candyfloss clouds, candy-cane forests and Nesquik sand (their production placement pun, not ours). Imagine The Wizard Of Oz in inverted syrup, or, at the very least, a Willy Wonka migraine. It’s here where the plot parks itself and where the energy bar drops into the red.
After all that manic invention and technical dazzle, the film retreats to formula and the relative safety of soft slapstick and mild jeopardy. Disney has been delivering the “be yourself” message since Dumbo. Wreck-It Ralph is no different, bonding Ralph to fellow outcast Vanellope von Schweetz, a glitchy girl-racer with a repertoire of chewy puns. Voiced by Sarah Silverman on Helium Force 9, there’s no doubt kids will feel galvanised by her journey from brat to princess. Adults may feel less persuaded, but do get offered sanctuary in a ridiculous romance between Felix Jr. and Jane Lynch’s dominatrix Marine.
Happily, the movie recharges for a hectic final act, hurling you into a Mario Kart racer as the 3D merrily lobs gobstoppers at your head. In a wonderfully perverse touch, Moore also has a crack at recreating Starship Troopers through the medium of cupcakes. It’s dazzling, inventive, thrilling stuff. Whether Disney’s 52nd feature is just too contemporary to become a Mouse House perennial is open to question — maybe they can upgrade it once a decade? — but for the time being, go, have fun and laugh your @!#?@! off. As Q*Bert might say.