'Wreck-It Ralph': Video game nostalgia powers one of the year's best animated films

wreck-it-ralph-q-bert-coil-disney.jpgA video game villain tries to prove he has what it takes to be a hero in "Wreck-It Ralph," the latest film from Disney animation and the first that truly merits comparison to the new standards of innovation, intelligence and emotion established by Pixar.

In fact, "Ralph" actually out-Pixars recent Pixar releases "Brave" and "Cars 2" in terms of creativity. Combined with 2010's spirited fairy tale "Tangled," there's a real resurgence happening at Disney, which had lost its way over the past decade churning out forgettable fare like "Treasure Planet" and "Home on the Range." If Disney stepping up its game inspires Pixar to do the same, audiences could have a lot of great animation to look forward to in the future.

But first, you've got to see "Ralph," which should become one of the fall's biggest word-of-mouth success stories. With its lovably flawed characters, warm-hearted storytelling, dazzling animation and richly realized world, this is one of the year's best animated films. And since 2012's other animation standouts have all had niche appeal (quirky horror comedy "Paranorman," Tim Burton's passion project "Frankenweenie," Studio Ghibli's lovely and gentle "The Secret World of Arrietty"), "Ralph" is on track to become the year's first great animated movie that's also a box office hit.

Here are three reasons why "Wreck-It Ralph" is a must-see:

1) Video game nostalgia is just a backdrop to a fresh new world

Anyone who played video games in the '80s and '90s will appreciate the cameo appearances from classic characters like Bowser, Sonic, Q*bert and a Pac-Man ghost, but "Ralph" doesn't just rely on nostalgia to build its virtual world. Ralph, the titular villain pining to be a hero (voiced by John C. Reilly), "works" in a "Donkey Kong"-inspired game called "Fix-It Felix, Jr." And the film imaginatively conceives a way in which characters from different video games can interact with each other à la the "Toy Story" toys.

As Ralph sets out on his quest to prove himself, he ventures into "Call of Duty"-inspired first-person shooter "Hero's Duty" -- about a military troop on the offensive against robotic bugs -- and also winds up in "Sugar Rush" -- a candy-colored kart-racing game that's something like "Mario Kart" with a sweet tooth. Since this is a family-friendly Disney movie, much of the action takes place in "Sugar Rush," but director Rich Moore and writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston mine plenty of comedy in the way characters from all three of the games collide.

wreck-it-ralph-heros-duty-disney.jpgFrom bonus levels to easter eggs, each of the film's invented games is so fully realized you'll be surprised they're not actually for sale at a local game store (although there are some iOS mini-games available now). That's not just a crass commercial consideration, it's a testament to how much care and attention went into every aspect of this film.

2) You'll fall in love with the characters

The key to any great animated film is strong characters and "Ralph" has five of them in underdog Ralph, his nice guy nemesis Felix ( Jack McBrayer), precocious "Sugar Rush" outcast Vanellope von Schweetz ( Sarah Silverman), tough-as-nails "Hero's Duty" squad leader Sergeant Calhoun ( Jane Lynch) and nefarious "Sugar Rush" sovereign King Candy ( Alan Tudyk, lovingly modeling his vocal performance after Ed Wynn's Mad Hatter from "Alice in Wonderland"). The vocal actors are all known for their comedic skills and they nail the laughs, but "Ralph" doesn't settle for snappy one-liners and pop culture references.

Like Pixar did in "Toy Story," the "Ralph" team locates the pathos that turns one dimensional video game figures into three dimensional people: Ralph's frustration with a monotonous job, Vanellope's desire to get in a race, the tragic backstory permanently embedded in Calhoun's coding. You'll feel a greater connection with and affection for these characters than you would in most live action movies.

wreck-it-ralph-sugar-rush-disney.jpg 3) It's genuinely a film for all ages

Most contemporary animated films have two goals: entertain kids and make sure their parents aren't bored. But what's made the Pixar films so special is the sophisticated way they approach storytelling without forgetting their target kid audience. At its best, the result is a film like "Finding Nemo" or "Ratatouille" which pushes the boundaries of conventional animated storytelling and becomes, simply, a great movie. They prove that great films don't need to compromise to find broad audiences. Now Disney Animation has a contemporary film that does the same.

One added bonus: Disney has attached the dazzling black and white short "Paperman" as a pre-feature extra before "Ralph." With a simple yet utterly romantic storyline and eye-catching blend of traditional hand-drawn and computer generated animation, it's in some ways even more of a knockout than the main attraction.
Photo/Video credit: Disney