The last time I saw a bait-and-switch like Wreck-It Ralph was, fittingly, the video game Brütal Legend. The game was set up like an open-world action-adventure, and instead it was more of a lame real-time strategy game. Wreck-It-Ralph isn’t quite the severe disappointment of Brütal Legend, but the movie takes its best quality—living in a video game world and all the cleverness that entails—and leaves it behind to play in a nice, but forgettable candy land. There’s enough humor and sweetness (literally and figuratively) to make it worth a few of your quarters, but it doesn’t have much replay value.
Ralph (John C. Reilly) is unhappy playing the villain in the arcade game Fix-It-Felix Jr. Hit job is to smash up an apartment building only to be defeated by the game’s eponymous hero (Jack McBrayer) and thrown into the mud before having to sleep in a landfill. Feeling that he’ll finally get the respect he deserves if he wins a medal like Felix, Ralph makes the ultimate transgression by abandoning his game to look elsewhere in the arcade where he can be a champion. His travels take him through the first-person-shooter Hero’s Duty before landing in the kart-racer Sugar Rush where he meets the cute and snarky “glitch” Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). Like Ralph, she’s an outsider looking for the respect of her peers, and the two are forced to work together so they can both be champions. However, there’s trouble brewing with Sugar Rush‘s treacherous King Candy (Alan Tudyk) and a monster-bug population Ralph accidentally brought over from Hero’s Duty.
In its first act, Ralph sets up a charming video-game world where old-school gamers will feel right at home catching the loads of Easter eggs planted around “Game Central Station” (a power strip connecting all of the arcade games), cameos, and other clever nods to gaming. Some of the jokes may fly over the heads of younger gamers, but they’re sure to recognize Sonic the Hedgehog and Bowser while older gamers will appreciate the references to Tapper and Q-bert. Director Rich Moore has a terrific attention to detail and that carries over to the gaming world and Sugar Rush.
But Sugar Rush is also where the movie gets stuck. I love sweets, and so do the kids who just ate their body weight in Halloween candy. If everything before Sugar Rush has you eager to break out your old console games, Sugar Rush will make you want to raid a bakery. However, Sugar Rush transforms what was previously a movie set in a world of video games into one where video games simply provide the mechanics for the plot. There’s a brief mini-game and the gaming stuff provides some explanations, but it’s no longer available for witty references and the other aspects laid out in the first act.
Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a let down because I’m a gamer, and I want more gaming stuff. The let down is that movie proclaims itself as a gaming world at the outset. The film is set in an arcade, the opening scene is filled with gaming cameos, Ralph is essential Donkey Kong and Felix is Mario. Karl Racing games are all well and good, but they’re only a small sliver of the gaming world, and Wreck-It Ralph never seems beholden to arcade games only since console characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Bowser are included.
Ultimately, Wreck-It Ralph feels like two movies smashed together. One is a gaming film with its own personality, and then it has to awkwardly click with a film that has a little less flavor and memorable identity. While the film’s protagonists share a common goal, their worlds are largely out of sync, and Ralph’s world makes a far better impression. Candy is nothing new, but gaming nostalgia is overwhelming and has been for years. Oddly, there are more jokes about candy than gaming, and they’re never as rich as reading the graffiti in Game Central Station.