D23 Expo Report: WRECK-IT RALPH Is A Big Happy Surprise

John C Reilly voices a video game bad guy who just wants to be good.

Disney Animation’s next film took me by surprise today at the D23 Expo. I had heard about Wreck-It Ralph, which stars John C Reilly as the titular character, a video game bad guy. But I had no idea how good this concept was, and how strong the character is. The audience at D23 was shown the first four and a half minutes of the movie (in various stages of animation, including storyboards) and they were terrific.

The basic gist is this: Wreck-It Ralph is the bad guy in a video game called Fix-It Felix Jr. Ralph shows up at various buildings, causes damage and climbs to the top. Felix, wielding a magic hammer bequeathed him by his father, repairs the damage and makes his way to the top of the building, dodging debris dropped by Ralph. It’s a Donkey King riff.

Ralph has been doing this for decades now; he’s seen the changes in the arcade and seen games like Asteroids and Centipede get phased out in favor of games with space marines and a racing game called Sugar Rush. And he’s seen Felix be treated like a hero every day while he goes to sleep in a junk pile. Deep inside Ralph knows he’s not a bad guy, he’s just stuck being a bad guy. He even goes to a self-help group called Bad-Anon, run by one of the ghosts from Pac-Man, where video game baddies try to come to grips with being stuck as baddies.

But Ralph gets tired of it and he escapes his machine (the power strips into which arcade machines are plugged operate as a Grand Central Station allowing characters to cross over after hours) and travels the arcade trying to prove he’s good. Along the way he runs into a Halo type game where Jane Lynch is a tough as nails commander and then that Sugar Rush game, where Sarah Silverman is a racer. Jack McBrayer plays Fix-It Felix Jr.

What really stood out, besides the heavy helpings of 80s video game jokes and winks, is the humor of the Ralph character. He’s dryly, sarcastically funny, but also a little bit sad. It’s a great concept for a lead, a guy who is so big and destructive that he’s thrust into the role of being the bad guy despite wanting to be good. Reilly does some wonderful voice over work in the opening minutes of the film, selling the lovable sadsack quality of Ralph.

This is a film I wasn’t paying any attention to before D23 and now it’s jumped towards the top of my 2012 must-see list. I just hope the movie restrains itself from completely drowning in references and video game in-jokes; if the attention remains squarely on character this could be a gem.