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“Wreck-It Ralph” a ton of fun; worth every quarter

"Wreck-It Ralph” is the giddiest cartoon comedy in years. The more you know about video game history, the more you’ll laugh.

This kiddie version of “Tron” is set in a video arcade where, once the last quarter has dropped into the last game and the arcade has closed for the night, the characters travel through their electrical cords and mingle in the surge-protected power strips that connect them. Characters are free to visit other games. Everyone goes to “Tapper’s” for a root beer, though the barkeep has no time to chat with patrons, as anyone who ever played that game might imagine.

Clyde, the orange ghost from Pac-Man, hosts a weekly group therapy session for video game villains. Most of the attendees, including Major Bison from “Street Fighter” and Doctor Robotnik from the Sonic the Hedgehog series, are OK with being bad. But a lummox named Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is having a spiritual crisis.

With hands twice the size of his head, Ralph is the villain of a 1982 vintage game, “Fix-It Felix Jr.,” and 30 years of playing the outcast are weighing on his soul. Ralph’s job is to destroy the same building (much the same way as the monsters did in “Rampage”) game after game, day after day. The building is always repaired by the game’s hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), and every night after the arcade closes, the building’s residents (who look like Weebles) throw a party for Felix in the penthouse while Ralph is banished to the off-screen dump.

Ralph figures that if he becomes a hero, he can move into the penthouse. His quest takes him to two of the arcade’s newer games, “Hero’s Duty,” a “Halo”-style alien shoot-’em-up, and “Sugar Rush,” a candy-themed kart racer (think “Mario Kart” meets Strawberry Shortcake).

Once stuck in “Sugar Rush,” Ralph reluctantly teams up with bratty Vanellope von Schweetz, a character who never went beyond beta testing because she occasionally glitches and becomes a mass of 1s and 0s. The other racers fear if she ever appears on screen while the arcade is open, the owner will think the game is broken and unplug it. Characters from unplugged games become homeless, and there is no sadder sight in “Wreck-It Ralph” than poor old Q*bert begging for a handout.

Ralph and Vanellope are a couple of misfits, and that’s not the only similarity to the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” TV special. You score no bonus points for guessing that Ralph will learn that being a hero means much more than grabbing a medal at the end of a boss level.

Yet the screenplay, credited to Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids”) and Jennifer Lee, never hammers away at this lesson in obvious terms. “Heroes have to make the tough choices,” Ralph is told, which is the closest the script comes to underlining the moral. In its themes, “Wreck-It Ralph” is more sophisticated than expected. Toward the end, Ralph is presented with a corker of an ethical dilemma (which prompts the “tough choices” line). When Ralph does make his ultimate heroic decision, it is noble as well as surprising.

This computer-animated feature comes from Disney but not Pixar, though that distinction is getting harder to make with Pixar’s John Lasseter running all of Disney’s feature animation and other Pixar veterans serving as producers and advisers. On a superficial level, “Wreck-It Ralph” is like a video game version of “Toy Story,” with dozens of classic video game characters appearing as extras.

But the humor is closer to “A Bug’s Life,” layering in gags about cheat codes and mini games the way “Bug’s Life” was filled with informed jokes about insects. Though it may be overkill, the candy in “Sugar Rush” gets the same treatment. Laffy Taffy lives up to its name, and the chemical reaction of Mentos and soda pop serves as an important plot point.

Director Rich Moore enjoyed a long stint on “Futurama,” so he knows how to make sly references. Felix’s Weeble-like friends move herky-jerkily to represent their slow frame rate. When Felix begins to fall for Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the tough-as-nails star of “Hero’s Duty,” he is warned, “She’s programmed with the most tragic back story ever.”

Ralph lasts only a few minutes in “Hero’s Rush” before he cries, “When did video games become so violent and scary?” He could have spent more time in that game, with its dark green and steely blue color scape before jumping to “Sugar Rush,” where most of the film takes place. The art department whips up a delicious world for “Sugar Rush” as an ice cream sundae becomes a mountain and rows of candy canes become a forest, and it all looks terrific in 3-D.

Reilly and Silverman make a fine comic team, with the animated characters resembling the actors’ faces more than usually the case. A standout in the vocal cast is character actor Alan Tudyk (“Firefly”), who plays the goofy ruler of “Sugar Rush,” King Candy. Rather than use his own voice, Tudyk reads the part with a mix of Hans Conried (Snidely Whiplash from the Dudley Do-Right cartoons) and Ed Wynn, the vaudeville comic best known as the voice of the Mad Hatter from Disney’s animated “Alice in Wonderland.” While paying tribute to two past voice artist masters, Tudyk gives a performance that perfectly fits his bobble-headed character.

“Wreck-It Ralph” zips along with a rich sense of humor and an underlying sweetness, none of it artificial. The “Fix-It Felix Jr.” video game is a hidden parody of “Donkey Kong.” The hero is a handyman instead of a plumber, and with his simian build, Ralph does recall the famous gorilla bad guy. Once Donkey Kong was spun off into his own series on home gaming consoles, he became a good guy. See, Ralph has something to look forward to.

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