In the realm of fantasy fiction, there's a concept called "world-building": creating a different universe, perhaps one based on the future of our own planet. It has become the go-to approach for feature animation as filmmakers look for a blank canvas on which to begin their creations. They invite us to wonder what it's like in the worlds of living toys, sentient cars and fairy-tale characters. The heart goes into the characters, but the details are etched into the environment.
This is what everyone has been expecting from Wreck-It Ralph, a journey into the lives of videogame characters who interact with each other when the arcade shuts down for the night. Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the marauding bad guy in an old, Donkey Kong-like game called Fix-It Felix. He has no chances to earn the type of affection showered on Felix (Jack McBrayer). Maybe he can be the hero if he goes next door, to the new soldiers-versus-aliens game...
Here is a great opportunity for Wreck-It Ralph, in the collision between the 8-bit way of life and the intense, photorealistic next-generation graphics that replaced it. Director Rich Moore - a veteran of The Simpsons and Futurama - brings modern, rapid-fire referencing to the characters' hangouts, such as the surge-protector "central station" where Sonic the Hedgehog and Q-bert make cameos. There are great moments in the existential confusion Fix-It Felix's residents experience when Ralph's absence leaves nothing in need of fixing, and Ralph's terror when he battles alien insects alongside the soldiers' hardcore commander (Jane Lynch). Here, Wreck-It Ralph finds its best potential hook.
That hook is promptly abandoned. Most of the story takes place inside the candy-colored - and candy-themed - car-racing game Sugar Rush, where Ralph tries to retrieve his hard-won medal from a mischievous "glitch" named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). The relationship between these two outcasts becomes the movie's emotional center, and Silverman provides spiky energy to a girl who seems like a digital manifestation of attention-deficit disorder. But the filmmakers spend all their creative energy building the world of Sugar Rush. Visual gags and puns are based on sweets: Cops are doughnuts, and characters find themselves trapped in Nesquiksand. The punch lines are punchy, but they pull the focus in the wrong direction. We're left with a sparkly variation on the old "like yourself for who you are" plot.
There's plenty of imagination in deft visual touches like the jittery linear movements of characters in Ralph's world. But this imagination doesn't extend to finding a genuinely creative way to explore the idea of consciousness inside a videogame. It's too easy for Ralph to go wherever he needs to go, which leaves Wreck-It Ralph in a world without identifiable borders.