Disney's latest animated feature, "Wreck-It Ralph," is -- in a word -- delightful. Directed by Rich Moore, whose previous efforts include classic episodes of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," and co-written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, this is one of the better entertainments of the fall, and should be an instant front-runner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.
The title character is a hulking arcade videogame villain with oversized appendages, flame-red hair and the voice of John C. Reilly, who has spent 30 years as the bad guy in the ever-popular stand-up "Fix-It Felix, Jr." While he takes pains to mention that he's not complaining about still being employed after all this time, he's become increasingly lonely through the years.
See, it's his job to smash, crash and trash the Niceland apartment building in the game (hence the "Wreck-It" part of his name). But when the day's work is done, he has to wipe off the mud he's been cast into by the herky-jerky Nicelanders, retire to his bed of bricks in the game's off-screen dump, and watch from a distance as they celebrate with squeaky-clean game hero (Jack McBrayer) throughout the night.
Ralph tries to gain some peace of mind by attending Bad-Anon meetings, surrounded by fellow villains who try to empathize and advise him. ("Just because you are bad guy, doesn't mean you are bad guy," says "Street Fighter" villain Zangief, in just one of the numerous cameo appearances by well-known videogame characters.) Unfortunately, Ralph has it in his head that he doesn't want to be the bad guy anymore, and after crossing paths with a scared soldier from a first-person shooter named "Hero's Duty," decides to leave his game (a/k/a "game jump") to collect the gold medal that he believes will make the Nicelanders finally like him.
He doesn't realize that the "Hero's Duty" fight is a lot tougher -- and scarier -- than he could have imagined; it's a "Halo"-style game where soldiers take up arms against nasty creatures called Cy-Bugs. After nearly wrecking that game (much to the chagrin of the hard-boiled game's lead character, Sergeant Calhoun, voiced by Jane Lynch), Ralph manages to pluck the prize from a Cy-Bug nest, but mistakenly takes one of the beasties with him out of that game and into another.
The new game Ralph ends up in is called "Sugar Rush," a candy-colored racing game ruled by the slightly-askew King Candy (Alan Tudyk, channeling the late, great Ed Wynn). Here, Ralph crosses paths with a "glitch" named Vannelope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), an outcast character who swears she could be a great racer if King Candy would ever let her drive. She steals the medal and uses it as an entry fee for the nightly open tournament, which forces Ralph to work with her in order to retrieve it.
Meanwhile, because there's no Wreck-It Ralph, the denizens of the "Fix-It Felix, Jr." game begin to panic, causing the game to be labeled as out-of-order -- meaning that unless Ralph comes back, the game will be unplugged, and the characters will lose their home and livelihood. The ever-chipper Felix volunteers to find his nemesis, and thanks to knowing a bit of Q-Bert-ese (the gibberish spoken by the legendary -- and now homeless -- arcade character), he's able to track Ralph to "Hero's Duty," where he becomes instantly smitten with the beautiful-yet-emotionally-scarred Calhoun, who is in hot pursuit of the Cy-Bug that escaped. "It's a virus," she snarls, explaining through gritted teeth to Felix that the fugitive creature will mutate and replicate if unchecked, destroying every game it reaches.
Eventually, Felix and Calhoun find Ralph and Vannelope and their two battles are joined, even as King Candy's mysterious and dangerous plan begins to unfold.
There's a lot going on in "Wreck-It Ralph," but the movie has a great narrative engine that keeps the story threads humming and on track as we shift from one videogame world to another. It helps that the individual worlds -- and the characters that inhabit those worlds -- are so well-developed and distinctive; this is one of those movies where you can see the attention that was paid to even the smallest details. Reilly, Silverman, Lynch, McBrayer and Tudyk all deserve credit for providing fine voice work, too.
"Wreck-It Ralph" may not be as game-changingly transcendent as the best of the studio's output (or sister studio Pixar's, for that matter), but it is smart, funny and surprisingly big-hearted. Three and a half stars (out of four).
Note: "Wreck-It Ralph" is preceded by a short titled "Paperman," which combines classic hand-drawn and CGI animation (along with an evocative musical score, but almost no dialogue) to weave one of the more genuinely entertaining and likable romantic comedies shown in movie theaters in recent memory.
Content advisory: "Wreck-It Ralph" is rated PG for some rude humor and mild action/violence. The rude humor is of a little-kid, schoolyard, scatological type, and doesn't last very long or go too far. The action sequences are a little scarier, with toothy, mutating bugs and laser blasters and more than one explosion. Also, there are scenes of grown-up videogame characters enjoying grown-up beverages at a party (albeit responsibly; they are in Niceland, after all).