Wreck-It Ralph is built on licensing. Like Toy Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit before it, Disney's latest non-Pixar computer animation aims for a kind of self-contained cartoony realism by acquiring the rights to use real-world properties (in this case, recognizable video-game whatzits). Just as Mr. Potato Head plausibly filled out Andy's toy box, and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny believably peopled the Toon Town of Robert Zemeckis's comic noir, Wreck-It Ralph packs its behind-the-scenes of an Anytown arcade setting with Street Fighter brawlers, the beer-slinging bartender from Tapper, Pac-Man, Q*bert, Super Mario Bros.'s Bowser, Sonic the Hedgehog, and so on.
Never mind that—and allow me to nudge my tape-wrapped Coke-bottle glasses back up the bridge of my nose—many of these characters aren't even commonly associated with arcade gaming, nor that arcade gaming is itself little more than a nostalgic relic of '80s/'90s pizza-and-pop birthday parties. Wreck-It Ralph's authorized crossover cameos aren't about arcade authenticity. They're nothing but broad, pandering indexes tailored to appeal to the arcade wistfulness the film never even bothers to convincingly evoke, popping up like eager whack-a-moles in a stupefying game of Smash the Reference.
The thing is, Wreck-It Ralph's flourishes of referential video-game arcana (a Metal Gear exclamation mark scrounged out of a lost-and-found box, a wall-safe opened with the old Konami Code), its lobbed-over-the-plate opportunities for those warm, fuzzy, "Hey, I get that!" moments designed to foster feelings of insider savvy, are its most welcome touches, the only things saving from it being just another rote, "Be yourself" kiddie message movie that might as well carry the DreamWorks banner. Indeed, like the noxious Shrek series, Wreck-It Ralph invites the viewer to imagine a highly ironized landscape of pop familiarity, where the thin humor derives from the dubious pleasure of seeing more or less household names interact in a silly, self-conscious manner. One of the hatchet-hurling House of the Dead zombies offering pithy, sub-literate, self-help wisdom? Ha! Street Fighter's Ken and Ryu clocking out after a day's work of uppercuts and combo "Hadouken!" fireballs? Ha-ha! There's even a requisite acknowledgment of joke du jour Skrillex, further pitching Wreck-It Ralph outside its PG demographic, playing to the accompanying adults who are probably the only ones in the crowd old enough to remember Q*bert anyway. The gags are warmed-over wink, nudge fare fit for Robot Chicken or Family Guy. But they hang together better than the film.
John C. Reilly equips the title character, a Donkey Kong-ish arcade baddie who spends his days smashing a brownstone apartment complex in a game called Fix-It Felix Jr., with a believable degree of vulnerable gruffness, absolutely instrumental in developing Ralph as a villain yearning to reinvent himself as a hero. To nip the sultry Jessica Rabbit's tagline in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ralph's not bad, he's just programmed that way. In an effort to recuperate his image, Ralph "jumps" (via a tram connecting arcade consoles via their power cables) to Hero's Duty, a hyper-violent space-marine shooter in the Halo mold. (The film finds its best joke in its casual suggestion that the characters inside Hero's Duty have developed their own form of shellshock, the product of the game's manic pacing.) After acquiring a medal that certifies his in-game heroism, Ralph ends up in another console, the kiddie go-kart racer Sugar Rush, where he helps another of the arcade's misfit avatars (Sarah Silverman) win a qualifying derby. Things are further overcrowded by the rescue mission headed Fix-it Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and the Hero's Duty squad leader (Jane Lynch), and a subplot involving Sugar Rush's digital despot, King Candy (Alan Tudyk, doing his best Charles Nelson Reilly).
Beyond its inter-arcade indexing, first-time feature director Rich Moore (a longtime veteran of The Simpsons's animation stable) and the film's designers retrofit Wreck-It Ralph with some convincingly nifty touches, like the way the 8-bit inhabitants of Fix-It Felix Jr. move jerkily around their 3D environs, or the hyperbolic dialogue Lynch's sci-fi commando comes pre-programmed with. But Moore can't keep Ralph on anything like an even keel, ricocheting him between consoles before landing him in Sugar Rush, forcing the film to milk its brand-named wonk-factory sight gags (Nesquiksand, a Diet Coke volcano, you get it). Equally over-milked are Ralph's heavy-handed sorrows, with Moore relentlessly returning to his schlubby, hangdog mug in repetitive bids for a sympathy that's easily established before the title card flashed across the screen. Moore also bungles much of the action, with the film's climactic race scene sputtering and losing itself in a sub-Speed Racer blur or candy-colored kinetics, and (in true video-game style, granted) deferring its conclusion to a string of endless mini-boss battles.
But after the minor satisfaction of picking up all the video-game Easter eggs scattered throughout Wreck-It Ralph wanes, that eager licensing grates more than anything, especially when branded Subway fountain cups are framed alongside Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog. (Given Moore's Simpsons pedigree, a reference to that show's parody of Saturday-morning cartoon branding, The Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chock-o-Bot Hour feels appropriate.) Fittingly, and most insidiously, Wreck-It Ralph's conclusion mirrors the film's own premise, with Ralph and Felix offering the arcade's unplugged, dispossessed former heroes a home inside their own console, effectively creating an all-encompassing super video game mega-branded under the Disney banner. Save your quarters.