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Wreck-It-Ralph proves it's hard out there for a video-game villain -- even a Disney one

It's hard out there for a video-game villain: always being attacked, never given the benefit of the doubt, and forever pigeonholed into a role no one wants to see you escape. Such is the fate of Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the bad guy in an old-school arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., in which players control sprightly magic-hammer-wielding repairman Felix (Jack McBrayer), mend the damage Ralph has wrought upon a high-rise apartment building, and win a gold medal by tossing Ralph off the roof. With gigantic hands, a round face, and overalls strapped over one shoulder, Ralph resembles a human Donkey Kong, and after thirty years of his smash-and-growl routine, he has grown tired of his station in life. Once the arcade has closed, at a therapy session for like-minded scoundrels including Super Mario Bros.' Bowser and Street Fighter's Zangief and M. Bison, Ralph wonders aloud why he can't ever be the hero. A Pac-Man ghost responds, "We can't change who we are."

Wreck-It Ralph, the latest non-Pixar animated outing from Disney, is a saga rooted in refuting that notion, charting Ralph's escape out of his game and into others via the arcade's surge protector, known as Grand Gaming Central. His goal: to win a gold medal that will gain him the acceptance of his sneering peers. With bouncy CG that's given greater depth by 3-D, director Rich Moore's film blends the secret-lives-of-toys reality of Toy Story with the self-actualization vibe of Bolt, with the former proving far more electric than the latter. There's an invigorating energy to the first twenty minutes, with Reilly's ho-hum-glum narration hilariously establishing Ralph's discontent, and Ralph's travels through the game world marked by one winning cameo after another, including 2-D icons Pac-Man (detested by Ralph) and Q*Bert (now homeless). With access to any of the arcade's games, Ralph is poised for a quest of genre-hopping madness, of diverse worlds to explore and clashing styles to confront.

Thus, it's more than a bit disappointing to find Wreck-It Ralph squandering the opportunities it sets up. After an inspired visit to gritty HD sci-fi first-person-shooter Hero's Duty nets Ralph his gold medal, he finds himself blasted into a candy-land racing game called Sugar Rush. There he meets a little girl named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who fulfills the dictate for an adorable, wise-ass child character, and he finds himself attempting to retrieve his medal by helping Vanellope — who's a glitch, and thus vilified by the rest of her comrades — qualify for the big race against the wishes of King Candy (Alan Tudyk). This turn of events grinds the film to a halt, precisely because it confines Ralph for most of the story's remainder to Sugar Rush, a milieu far less exciting than Ralph's other pit stops, and whose villain, King Candy, comes across as a second-rate, slightly more lucid Mad Hatter.

Opting for a consistent locale undercuts the tale's whiplash vitality. Fortunately, Ralph and Vanellope's spiky kid-adult banter occasionally makes up for this lack of momentum.

In the end, Ralph finds in Sugar Rush proof that he can determine his own character. In doing so, he shows others that they, too, can be whatever they want to be, programming be damned. Yet for all the wink-wink inside jokes peppered throughout its quest (the best: a nod to the NES's famed secret controller code: up-up, down-down, left-right, left-right, B-A, start), Wreck-It Ralph feels like so many modern AAA gaming titles: a promising starting point for an inevitable, improved sequel.

 
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