When Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, one of the most urgent chores was to repair Disney’s ailing animation unit. So John Lasseter, chief creative officer for the Pixar animation power house, was installed as resident guru at Walt Disney Animation Studios as well.
Lasseter is indeed a genius but the evidence so far is that by acting as head of two animation houses (and directing the occasional Pixar film such as “Cars 2”), he is spreading himself too thin.
Neither Pixar’s “Car 2” nor “Brave” possessed the artistic vision and storytelling bravado of such hits as “Up,” “WALL-E” and the “Toy Story” franchise.
While Disney Animation has enjoyed a small resurgence with “The Princess and the Frog” and “Tangled,” these two bear little comparison to the Disney cartoon renaissance overseen by Michael Eisner and his trusted then discarded animation overlord, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
This year, as the studio celebrates the 75th anniversary of the release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” its marketing department is working overtime to sell “Wreck-It Ralph” as a return to Disney animation glory.
Were it only so.
While the film bristles with cleverness — too much for my taste — “Wreck-It Ralph” ultimately is a clutter of noise, eye-wearying animation, frenetic action and two-dimensional characters. Wreck-It Ralph indeed.
The studio even trumpets the fact that nearly 190 unique characters populate the movie as if this were a good thing.
Let’s do a quick count. It’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” right? That adds up to eight, right? Okay, throw in the wicked Queen and that boring Prince and you’re up to 10 characters plus assorted birds. Who needs 190 characters clogging story lines? That’s cartoon cholesterol.
Certainly the stars seem to align for “Wreck-It Ralph.” Lasseter brought aboard a proven talent in director Rich Moore (“The Simpsons,” “Futurama”), who is making his feature debut after a successful career in TV animation.
And Moore dreamed up what sounds like a cracker-jack idea, which became the screenplay written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee Spencer.
Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain in an aging ’80s-era arcade video game. In that now antique game, he destroys a brick building in order for its hero, Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), to repair everything with a golden hammer.
After 30 years though, Ralph has tired playing the bad guy. Even attending Bad-Anon meeting, held in Pac-Man’s abode, brings no solace.
(The film is loaded with in-jokes for gamers. So attending this Bad-Anon meeting are notorious guys from bygone games, i.e., “Street Fighter” and “Sonic: The Hedgehog.”)
Since Ralph is ostracized by the denizens of his own game, he embarks on a journey across the arcade to win a medal in another video game to prove to Fix-It Felix and his crew that he’s just as heroic as Felix.
There is one major problem his absence from Fix-It Felix causes: If a game’s characters are missing when the arcade fires up each morning, the proprietor might assume the game is out of order and could simply unplug it, leaving all the characters homeless.
So Felix takes off after Ralph to bring him back.
This seems to set up an amusing series of fish-out-of-water situations where crude 8-bit, lo-res video characters enter more and more sophisticated video worlds. The problem here may be that Moore and his animators fell in love with the concept over the characters.
Attention is lavished on imagining vivid worlds and dazzling games with all their distracting sights, sounds and colorings while old Ralph becomes a dress extra in his own story.
The first world entered is Hero’s Duty, a first-person shooter game where a tough female marine, Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) — think Lara Croft — leads a platoon in fighting off Cy-Bugs.
Ralph gets a medal pretty easily here, but it winds up in another game to which Ralph must migrate. Sergeant Calhoun and Felix are now hot on his tail.
The rest of the movie nearly all takes place in Sugar Rush, a ’90s-era cart-racing game with a Japanese anime flavor set in a world of candy. Unfortunately, this far-too-sweet-land feels like Willy gone Wonka: It’s a lollipop world of candy cane foliage, carmel tumbleweeds and chocolate floors all with a sugary frosting.
In Sugar Rush, Ralph meets another outcast, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman in bratty little-girl mode). She is a glitch, a programming error, and is thus ostracized by its leader, King Candy (Alan Tudyk).
The movie now takes off in many directions, in a race out of “Cars 2” and the uncovering of a plot by one of the Sugar Rush characters and the imprisonment of Vanellope and Felix and too many other things to remember after a single viewing.
Suffice it to say, the movie loses sight of its characters.
There is a fourth world where the other three converge. In order for these characters to game jump, the movie imagines that all games in an arcade plug into a central surge protector.
So the games’ characters travel through cords plugged into this power-strip on little trains that lead to Game Central Station. Here characters from the 8-bit world mingle with the very latest video beings.
In this station also reside sad character whose games were unplugged eons ago. (Cue more inside jokes.)
The animators are having great fun with wildly different images dumping into one another. But this only adds to the movie’s incessant — and increasingly unpleasant — visual clutter that Henry Jackman’s score, evoking if not lifting from John Williams, tends to further emphasize.
In the end, Disney may have to shake off its Disney heritage. By this I mean “Wreck-It Ralph” honors the Disney formula all too well. The be-yourself theme, which goes back at least to “Dumbo” (1941), my favorite cartoon produced under Disney himself, didn’t need to get evoked here.
This pitches the cartoon to a kiddie and not a family audience. (Adults know all too well how being yourself may not be such a good idea.) It also makes the second half much weaker than what’s a pretty mischievous first half.
Everyone is rooting for Lasseter, who serves as exec producer here, to turn Disney animation around. “Wreck-It Ralph” isn’t a backward step. But it does keep the studio running in place.
Opens: November 2, 2012 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Cast: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Joe Lo Truglio, Ed O’Neill, Dennis Daysbert, Adam Carolla, Rachael Harris, Edie McClurg, Horatio Sanz, Stefanie Scott
Director: Rich Moore
Screenwriters: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee Spencer
Producer: Clark Spencer
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Director of photography:
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Kersavage
Music: Henry Jackman
Editor: Tim Mertens
PG rating, 100 minutes