By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
It was Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, who offered that “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” But I think it was my Uncle Ignacz who opined, “Morality is originally taught in the animated films of Hollywood.” True or not, numerous funny examples abound in director Rich Moore’s “Wreck-It Ralph.”
Safely recuperating in a warm Catskill movie house after fighting the cruel ravages of the very unladylike Hurricane Sandy, I was tossed among the tots, moppets and urchins generally delighted by this novel paean to the video game. And in all honesty, I think I laughed more than the little viewer to my left, a look-alike of the film’s female heroine.
But my tacitly adopted, cinema barometer doubtless was much hipper to the jive. As she animatedly rocked to the colorful, music-filled adventure about Wreck-It Ralph, a video game villain who wants to be a good guy, and Vanellope Van Schweetz, an ill-treated, would-be race champion, I could only speculate what marvelments she saw that I didn’t.
A stranger in a strange land, an Alexis de Tocqueville visiting and observing in the realm of the kiddy flick, I guessed at the countless, actual video game characters who essentially supplied credibility to the fictional scenario. Wary of getting lost in the minutiae, I nonetheless made connections and learned the language as best I could.
And I can only hope I’m a better man for it, the ethical lessons taught in Wreck-It Ralph’s sojourn to self-fulfillment having at least somewhat rubbed off on me. The fine voicing by John C. Reilly as the title character, Sarah Silverman as the diminutive gal he befriends and Jane Lynch as the head honcho in another game make it all come alive.
Act #1, Scene #1, Ralph explains his plight to his group therapy cohorts. He doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore. But after the venting ends Ralph is back to the grind in Fix-It Felix, Jr., destroying everything in sight and fated to ultimately be bested by game namesake Fix-It Felix, a handyman with a golden hammer and the perennial hero.
However, as is oftentimes proved in these cartoon cells, the heart is a lonely hunter and the ego needs to be fed. Figures Ralph, if he’s stuck in this microchip caste system, with no chance of ever getting the shiny medal he so longs for, he may as well immigrate to another game and try his chances there. The big lug washes ashore at “Hero’s Duty.”
There, where Jane Lynch’s Sgt. Tamara Calhoun commands deadly force and leads the way in a never-ending battle against the Cy-Bugs that threaten the video game world, he becomes a soldier of fortune. Challenged but undaunted, he fights the good fight. But the real epiphany comes when, loping through the arcade universe, he meets exile Vanellope.
Decried a glitch, the outcast is to the other gal racers in “Sugar Rush” what Rudolph was to his fellow reindeer…barred from their games. This makes for a catch #22. You see, to free herself from the electronic curse, she must cross the finish line. But fat chance if disingenuous King Candy (Alan Tudyk), who sounds like Ed Wynn, has his evil way.
Happily, after a sizing-up tussle when Wreck-It Ralph first lands on Ms. Van Schweetz’s square, a scene reminiscent of Robin Hood’s initial meeting with Little John, the odd couple find a commonality. It’s a familiar variation. If you were casting a live action version back in the day, Wallace Beery could play Ralph to Shirley Temple’s Vanellope.
In any case, forming a camaraderie that refuses to relinquish its chiding component, the two set out to build the ultimate race car…one that hopefully will enfranchise the winsome waif. Constructed of confections—I think those wheels are cookies—as is all of Sugar Rush’s infrastructure, one can only venture the number of hypothetical calories.
The tutorial in morality, tolerance and optimism is obvious. And while no substitute for lessons that should be instilled at home, like chicken soup served to cure a catarrh, it couldn’t hurt. Equally present but far less accessible unless you’re a video game fanatic are the innumerable send-ups, references and cameo appearances of arcade royalty.
Thus a disconnect exists between fairy tale and the ode to gamers. But then again, the odyssey through the folkways and laws of this world has its fascinations. Did you know that if you die in any game other than your own you can’t regenerate? So while “Wreck-It Ralph” is in need of repairs, it shouldn’t short-circuit gramps and junior’s plans to see it.
“Wreck-It Ralph,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Motion Pictures release directed by Rich Moore and stars the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman and Jane Lynch. Running time: 101 minutes