Over the last few years, Pixar Animation has gone through some slight-yet-unmistakable growing pains: a disturbance in the Force, if you will.  The studio’s last great feature was 2009’s Up; everything else has felt compromised.  Cars 2 saw Pixar’s much vaunted character detail and nuance jettisoned in favor of surface thrills and easy laughs – its hayseed-meets-spy shenanigans shtick works, but only when you compare Cars 2 to the dire sort of James Bond blockbusters (Die Another Day, The World Is Not Enough) from which it draws inspiration.  The Academy Award-winning Brave is an entertaining jaunt, to be sure, but it goes slack in ways that I thought the studio had outgrown (facile message, magical deus ex machina).  The best of the post-Up bunch, Toy Story 3, gets a pass because of its consistent thrills and third-act dip into nihilism, but let us not forget that a) it retreads over Toy Story 2 more shamelessly than Ghostbusters 2 aped Ghostbusters, and b) the film all-but abandons its darkness in favor of a happy-sappy dénouement that sees good triumph over evil and order restored.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is, as Pixar has wavered, other animation studios have upped their game to compensate for the creative void.  DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon is the best Pixar movie Pixar never made, with a clean, striking visual sense and a genuinely moving central relationship.  Paramount and Nickelodeon’s Rango let Pirates of the Caribbean architects Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp create a Western fantasy of their own devising, and the result is a giddy, postmodern delight that satirizes the genre as much as it reveres it.  Universal’s ParaNorman merges a horror geek’s love of all things John Carpenter, Dario Argento, and George Romero to a sensitive look at how difficult growing up different can be.

And now, we get to add Disney Animation Studios’ Wreck-It Ralph to the list.  I don’t know if the film is better than Rango or ParaNorman; it doesn’t have the same sense of abandon as those latter two pictures, the same freewheeling invention, preferring instead to operate from within sturdy, conventional boundaries.  That said, what Wreck-It Ralph lacks in narrative innovation, it more than makes up for in storytelling ease and visual splendor.  When a story is as well told as this one is, it’s hard to care if the beats look a little familiar.

To wit: Wreck-It Ralph takes the form of a hero’s journey, as the titular video game baddie (voiced to perfection by John C. Reilly) decides he’s tired of menacing Super Mario-look-a-alike Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer from “30 Rock”) and migrates over to Hero’s Duty, a very Call of Duty-esque FPS shooter where he hopes he’ll be able to reimagine himself as a good guy.  That’s the traditional part: there’s a little Pinocchio here, a little Mulan there, a dash of Shrek to hold the whole thing together.

Lesser animated adventures have contented themselves with less (all the Ice Age movies; the last three Shreks), but Wreck-It Ralph has an ace in the whole: director Rich Moore.  Moore is a veteran of the animation scene, with some of the best “Simpsons” episodes (“Cape Feare,” “Lisa’s Substitute,” and “Marge Vs. The Monorail”) as well as the single greatest “Futurama” episode (“Jurassic Bark”) under his belt, and he lends Wreck-It Ralph its professionalism and confidence.  The first thing you notice about the film is how rigorously thought-through it is.  Each video game has its own distinctive style; Fix-It Felix recalls the jerky 2D bounce of the original Donkey Kong, Hero’s Duty retains Call of Duty‘s moody bombast and overwrought realism, while the Sugar Rush racing game that occupies much of the third act has Super Mario Kart down to a T, from the candy-colored stylization of the race tracks to the glitches and secret tracks that Mario Kart fans loved to exploit.

Moore and his screenwriters Phil Johnston & Jennifer Lee fill these worlds with detail – and pack in a myriad of other video game references along the way, giving Wreck-It Ralph the flavor of a gamer-themed Who Framed Roger Rabbit – but it’s the focus on character that really makes the landscape come alive.  Ralph is a great cartoon lead, brave and strong and deeply vulnerable, and Reilly makes him equal parts funny and tragic.  Ralph doesn’t just change because the plot demands that he does – his journey affects him deeply, and the decisions he makes in the film’s conclusion are uncommonly hard-fought.

Anyone familiar with McBrayer’s Kenneth on “30 Rock” won’t be surprised by the demented optimism he gives Felix, but his approach works all the same, countering both Ralph’s moody introspection as well as Jane Lynch’s Captain Calhoun, whose hyper-aggressive Hero’s Duty protagonist makes for Wreck-It Ralph‘s most inspired running gag.  I’d also be remiss to forget Alan Tudyk, who does an uncanny Ed Wynn impression as Sugar Rush‘s King Candy, though Wreck-It Ralph‘s real MVP might be Sarah Silverman.  Her Vanellope von Schweetz starts out as a one-dimensional caricature (the fast-talking, hyper-annoying sidekick Ralph makes while in Sugar Rush) and turns into the heart of the film; as “Jurassic Bark” so vividly demonstrated, Moore has a gift for eking maximum emotion out of lush cartoon buffoonery, and he and Silverman give Vanellope more layers than we probably expect.

The final ten minutes of Wreck-It Ralph, as Ralph begins to discover his purpose in electronica, are uncommonly especially absorbing, and that’s taking into account how derivative they are – Ralph’s big Hero Moment borrows quite a bit from Brad Bird’s criminally under-seen The Iron Giant, but the beat works all the same.  The whole movie is like that; even when we know what’s coming, it sneaks up on us just the same.

Disney’s Ultimate Collector’s Edition serves Wreck-It Ralph in two styles: 3D and 2D.  The 3D is the best kind: lush and immersive and bright, without cheesy “gotcha” gags or distracting stutter effects.  The 2D picture is maybe a hair better – there’s a bit more fine detail – but really, the 3D is the one to watch.  Both versions also come equipped with a bombastic and energetic 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, as well as DVD and digital copies.

Supplements are good, but a little lacking, considering Wreck-It Ralph‘s commercial/critical acclaim (over $400 million gross worldwide; nominated for an Academy Award).  We get the lovely, Academy Award-winning short “Paperman” in 2D and 3D; the short-but-informative behind-the-scenes featurette “Bit by Bit: Creating the Worlds of Wreck-It Ralph”; fourteen minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary from Rich Moore; four faux (trying saying that four times fast!) video-game commercials; and an Intermission mode that offers up commentary on the film from comedian Chris Hardwick when the film is paused.

Wreck-It Ralph is a tribute to the craft-over-creativity style of filmmaking.  Virtually none of the film is original, content-wise, but all of it is engaging and exciting – Rich Moore and his team cover this familiar material with good humor and – believe it or not – a curious kind of grace.

Wreck-It Ralph hits Blu-ray on March 5th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: Funny, Exciting WRECK-IT RALPH Is a Fresh Spin on Tired...