This has been a dreary year for family movies. It was rife with sequels, even the most decent of which, like Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, were not particularly memorable. The adaptations were gruesome (The Lorax, Mirror Mirror). Lively hits like The Avengers were too overwhelming and violent for most young kids. And Pixar’s Brave didn’t fulfill its promise of a new spin on the princess story. But now at the eleventh hour, in the eleventh month, comes Wreck-It Ralph, the most inventive and entertaining family movie I’ve seen this year, packed with wickedly smart humor and joyful animation. Creatively speaking, it is cut from the same appealing cloth as Toy Story, with something for boys, girls, their parents and even those who have never changed a diaper.
I was not an easy sell. Although Wreck-It Ralph was executive-produced by John Lasseter, the mind behind Toy Story, it features an entire set of characters from video games (not all imaginary; Pac-Man is a running joke), and every frame takes place within a video arcade, a world I generally find about as enticing and engaging as discussing cigars or dressing a deer. It’s the story of a designated bad guy in a video game who longs to be good and Tron-like. Most of the action happens within the machines themselves, cleverly depicted as connected by a train service that runs through the power cords. After a long day of destruction over at Fix-It Felix Jr., our antihero Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly, doing sublime voice work as the sad but powerful sack) can pop by Root Beer Tapper (circa 1983) for a consoling chat and a beer, then board a train at Game Central Station to return to Fix-It Felix Jr., where he sleeps, unloved and unappreciated, at the dump. His desire to earn a medal and thus the respect of his colleagues — just like the Cowardly Lion — spurs his wanderings into other games and the film’s narrative.
(MORE: TIME Q&A with John C. Reilly)
Fix-It Felix Jr. is old school, way more Pac-Man than Terminator Salvation. Ralph turns an apartment building into rubble with his Hulk-like fists and then an apple-cheeked Bob the Builder–type called Felix (voiced to perfection by Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock) fixes it with his golden hammer. Residents of the building bounce up and down in gratitude. As a 30-year-old totem of nostalgia, the game is in constant peril of being unplugged and discarded. And the first step to that fate — akin to Toy Story 2’s Jessie being left curbside — is having an out-of-order sign slapped on its screen, an act that casts an ominous reddish-yellow glow on the world within. If a character doesn’t show up for duty while a human is playing — if he’s, say, out visiting the fancy, high-definition Hero’s Duty or the Oz-like Sugar Rush, as Ralph does on his quest for self-esteem — the threat of an out-of-order sign looms. Ralph could ruin the game for everyone at Fix-It. Unplugged, the best-case scenario for his colleagues would be begging at Game Central Station.
(MORE: Review of John C. Reilly Movie Cyrus: Scary Romantic Comedy)
Those who disdain video games might be appalled: Now we’re anthropomorphizing video-game characters? That was my knee-jerk reaction upon seeing the trailer. I got over it mere minutes into the movie, when Ralph confesses all at a “Bad Anon” meeting led by Pokey from Pac-Man. The way director Rich Moore (whose credits are from television and include The Simpsons and Futurama), working with Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston’s screenplay, builds conversation and drama around code, viruses and glitches is enthralling, not appalling. Visiting Sugar Rush, Ralph bonds with the feisty Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced brilliantly by Sarah Silverman, potty mouth cleaned up), who is taunted for being a glitch by other avatars. Vanellope periodically freezes and turns into blue pixels; the only hope for her is a reset.
But the way these virtual toys struggle for (and achieve, naturally) dignity, respect and longevity makes for much more compelling entertainment than live-action movies based on video games like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which seem to exist primarily to make it less creepy for gamers to have sexual fantasies about avatars or to make methodical destruction seem more satisfyingly real, or both. Wreck-It Ralph is even smart enough to speak directly to parents like me who tsk-tsk over video games. When Ralph sneaks into Hero’s Duty, where armor-clad musclemen led by a hilariously sexy female commander (Jane Lynch) fight bugs in a dystopian setting, he’s horrified. “When did video games get so violent?” he asks.
(MORE: TIME Capsule Review of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider)
There’s also a gentle undercurrent of mockery directed at our societal obsession with video games. Perhaps the best of Wreck-It Ralph’s visual delights, aside from Mentos falling in the Diet Cola Hot Springs, are the windows between reality and the games. Moore shows both worlds three dimensionally, but each views the other as only two-dimensional. Looking out at the person playing the game, Ralph sees flat moving images within a small frame. Ditto for the gamers looking in. As a little girl gazes into a screen, with only the audience privy to the lively, far more complex world teeming inside, the message is, And we’re satisfied with this? Wreck-It Ralph celebrates video games, but it also makes a subtle plea for participation in a three-dimensional world. At least that’s what I’m going to tell myself when I take my PlayStation-Game Boy-Xbox–deprived kid to see it this weekend.