The world of animation is presided over by the hulking heavyweight champions of family entertainment: Disney and Pixar. Don't let 2006's marriage of convenience fool you: although they may be happy business bedfellows, tongues still wag over every new release, chewing the fat over which studio has the upper hand, whether Disney will ever reach the dizzying heights of success that Pixar enjoys, or whether John Ratzenburger will be voicing the Princess, too?
This years Oscar nominees feature candidature from both houses, Pixar armed with a flame-haired Scottish princess, and Disney with a galumphing arcade game villain with a heart, Wreck-It Ralph. This muscle-bound embodiment of retro pastiche could well be Disney's animated trump card.
Directed by Rich Moore, famous for naughty-but-nice TV giants The Simpsons and Futurama, Wreck-It Ralph smashes through arcade game screens, fantasising about a world beyond the pixels. If the secret lives of game characters seems like ultra-geek fan fiction to you, fear not- this is not just a marathon of dork fodder (although the guys who looked like they could fix a motherboard certainly honked a bit harder than the rest of us). The premise is immaculately executed and refreshingly original: Ralph (John C. Reilly) is sick of being the bad guy. Nobody likes him, he sleeps in an actual dump, his heroic counterpart Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) is a sniffy little jobsworth who you'll be desperate for Ralph to thwack right in his toothy Hollywood smile, and his bad guy support group (comprised of the most motley comedic crew in cinematic history- think zombies crying on pacman's shoulder) are very little help at all. In pursuit of love and glory, Ralph leaves his game - out of the lead at the back to Game Central Station (the plug), in case you're ever stuck in a similar conundrum - to try his hand at bad-ass Heroes Duty, full of lobotomized action men and the kind of pixellated boobs that make the Second Life gaming geeks leave their first life wives and children. Our story really kicks off, though, once Ralph tumbles into 'Sugar Rush', which resembles Harajuku Barbie's sweet shop. Ralph meets Vennellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a hard-nut goofball kid with big racing dreams. Let the adventures of the sentimental oddballs commence... Accompanied by Fix-It Felix Jr. and the buxom bad-ass blonde from Heroes Duty (Jane Lynch), this fractious bunch endeavor to overthrow the alarmingly camp King Candy (Alan Tudyk) and return order to the arcade.
Wreck-It Ralph peddles the perfect brand of retro nostalgia. Bursting at the seams with references to the golden age of gaming, it cleverly navigates the balance between childish, yelping nostalgia and an appealing sense of technological progression - Moore ensures there are no rose-tinted glasses. For those who leave Pixar's more sentimental efforts with tooth ache, Wreck-It Ralph, despite its sugar-laden appearance, will be a breath of fresh air, niftily avoiding emotional manipulation. For the same reason, the film lacks potency: without the emotional punch, investing in Ralph and Co.'s future feels a little like voting Lib Dem. I left feeling that Wreck-It Ralph may have worked better as a long running TV series: the characters have solid longevity, the concept is endlessly fruitful, and the demographic is wider than Nicky Minaj's rear... What it lacks in immediate impact.
The cast are a revelation. Sarah Silverman sounds like her vocal chords are in fact a four-year-old murdering a violin, as per the norm, but for Pennelope Von-E-numbers it's a perfect fit. Jack McBrayer fuels Fix It Felix Jr. with Disney prince saccharine charm, and Alan Tudyk is incredibly vocally transformative- which is more than can be said for Jane Lynch, who is Jane Lynch through and through (but 100% fabulous nonetheless, as Jane Lynch can only be). Yet this animation's best feature is, luckily, its animation. From stilted robot-esque retro favourites, to slick dystopian bugs, the kinetic precision is phenomenal, and fuels much of the comic potential for the more 'retro' audience (read, aging gamers).
Wreck-It Ralph is Disney's best animation effort to date, spilling over with knowing references and stellar performances, strung together with an infallible concept. Yet, with such consummate materials, Moore built a dinghy when he could have built a yacht. I smell a sequel, though - and maybe even an Oscar. Not a bad debut, Ralph.