Most of “Wreck-It Ralph’’ takes place inside a video game, which could probably double as a metaphor for the entire modern entertainment industry. The movie’s bright and fast and reasonably funny, and if your kids are lil’ gamers and you yourself pumped a few too many quarters into Frogger back in the day, you’ll all enjoy it. But it’s pure plastic product from plot line to the pro forma 3-D to the tidy moral lessons — ersatz family entertainment as disposable as it is diverting. It made me want to go read a book, but I’m a cranky old critic whose own children have aged beyond the target demo for Disney’s rapacious mind-suck. You already know if this one’s up your alley.
The idea’s a solid one. The title character, voiced by character actor John C. Reilly and looking a fair bit like him too, is the villain from a classic (fictional) arcade game called “Fix-It Felix.’’ Ralph’s the big bully who destroys the Niceville apartment building so the Mario-like hero (voiced by Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock,’’ and, again, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Kenneth the Page) can repair it. But Ralph is tired of playing the villain in an endless loop of existential defeat and pain, and he wants out.
The movie’s conceit is the same as “Toy Story’’ with a dash of “Monsters, Inc.’’: When the lights go out in the arcade, the characters break from their routines and intermingle in the Grand Central train lobby that connects the games. Seeking a medal that will turn him into a hero in the eyes of the Niceville citizens, Ralph invades a first-person shooter in which futuristic soldiers battle giant bugs, then hops over to a Candy Land-styled racing game aimed at little girls (as is this part of the movie).
Each environment has its signature character, from the hell-for-leather lady warrior Seargent Calhoun (voiced by and resembling Jane Lynch of “Glee’’) to the pixelated pixie Vanellope von Schweetz, whose gurgly-girly voice is provided by Sarah Silverman. Vanellope is a “glitch’’ prone to static who comes in for Mean Girl treatment by the other racers, and she and Ralph forge a reluctant big doofus/little tyke bond. The cast rises to the occasion (which isn’t terribly high), but special mention goes to the underrated comic actor Alan Tudyk, who voices King Candy as a cross between Ed Wynn from “Mary Poppins’’ and Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz.
As with most of the movies coming out of the studio system’s digital family pipeline, the details are clever and occasionally delightful, the visuals dazzling, the film as a whole drably predictable. Reilly’s mopey intonations give the hero some needed soul, and there are in-jokes for daddy gamers to point out to the little ones. (Look, kids, there’s Dig Dug.) One of the film’s wittiest touches is the jerky 8-bit movements of the Weeble-shaped Niceville citizens, who toggle up and down in binary panic.
But little in “Wreck-It Ralph’’ has the invention of TV shows that director Rich Moore has previously worked on — “The Simpsons,’’ “Futurama’’ — or the unexpected poetry that executive producer John Lasseter routinely puts into his Pixar movies. It’s just more of the fodder designed to keep your kids attached to the life support systems of their home entertainment centers. Cranky old critic says: Send ’em outside to play instead.