First off, Pixar is awesome. Second...this isn't Pixar, but it's still better-than-average Disney.
Any doubt about whether this could be Pixar is resolved in Wreck-It Ralph's most execrable moment: the Rihanna song. Every other "Disneyish" attribute could be overlooked—the misfit protagonist, the cute and sassy sidekick, the too-easy marketability of characters and chase sequences—but for the Rihanna song, to which one's attention is inescapably drawn, even, I have to guess, if one lives a Rihanna-intensive lifestyle. Pop songs in movies whose settings are anything other than contemporary are always out of place and always take us out of the moment. Pixar understands this, and while we can (and in my view, must) criticize Pixar for their overuse of Randy Newman, at least he's not Rihanna.
The good news is that the other big "thing Disney movies always do that we wish they wouldn't," the obnoxiously winking references, are handled much better than they could have been. Viewers of a certain age (not "a certain age"…just, you know, a CERTAIN age) will be delighted by some of the visual gags and cameos, yet not overwhelmed by them to the point of groaning internally—as, for example, I now always do at every Star Wars reference in anything, no matter how apt, subtle, or well-executed.
Okay, enough about the sideshow annoyances: on to the meat. Wreck-It Ralph's protagonist is as disillusioned and sad as you would expect any John C. Reilly-voiced character to be, especially if, like me, you literally cannot get enough of Dr. Steve Brule. (In fact, at times he sounded so much like Dr. Steve Brule that I almost found it distracting.) I was reminded of the similarly-characterized Quasimodo in Disney's Hunchback, an underrated entry in the Annual Disney Event series.
Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer voice the main supporting characters, and while they're all typecast—thus preventing any great surprises—the writing is solid enough to make all their performances enjoyable.
But for me, the true joy came from the character of King Candy: an unrecognizable Alan Tudyk doing a seriously 99% dead-on impression of Ed Wynn. My new never-to-be-fulfilled wish is a Wreck-It Ralph/King Candy version of My Dinner with Andre—just these two characters conversing for hours.
We viewers now know to expect that we will marvel at the environments in these Pixaresques (IT'S MINE, I OWN IT). In this case, it's a series of video-game worlds, all as eye-popping as we have come to expect. Sensory overload threatens at every turn, as usual, but it's all imaginative enough to compensate. I do have to wonder about the "replay value," to put it in gamer terms; I have a hunch that I won't feel the urge to revisit the world of Wreck-It Ralph for a couple years, by which time a sequel will likely be ready for me anyway.
More fundamentally, movies like this, if they are to have any soul at all, hinge on character development. Wreck-It Ralph is not, I'm happy to report, an empty exercise in cashing in. There are moments of genuine, earned pathos here, though Toy Story's still got this film beat in that department—and I have a hard time envisioning how this collection of characters can mesh together as smoothly for sequels as Toy Story's did. But they will try, and they should.
Aside: I'm really, really glad I didn't pay extra to see it in 3D. I had a hard enough time focusing on everything in the frame in 2D, and that's not the decaying vision of advanced age talking. I'm not quite of "certain" age yet.
Star Score: 4 out of 5