Wreck-It Ralph is possibly the most imaginative and fun animated film since the original Shrek 11 years ago. What director Rich Moore and writers Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee have managed to create is a fantastically rip-roaring ride that ultimately bridges the generation gap for anyone who’s ever picked up a videogame controller within the past 30 years.

While the saga about the lovable green ogre skewered the fairy tale culture, Ralph pulls back the curtain — or in this case, the arcade door — on the videogame universe. Ralph, the large-fisted hulk featured in the 8-bit game Fix-It Felix Jr. (perfectly voiced with an aw-shucks quality by John C. Reilly), is having an existential crisis of sorts. Like any anyone bored with their long-term job, he’s stuck in a rut. Tired of playing the same old bad guy in an old-school game, Ralph yearns to experience the glory that comes with winning a nice shiny medal rather than be thrown off the roof of the apartment building he “wrecks” by a scared mob of tenants at the end of every game. Jealous of good guy Felix (30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer), Ralph vents his frustrations to a support group comprised of various like-minded Bad Guys, a venerable who’s who of videogame nemeses (Clyde, the orange ghost from Pac Man, is the moderator — brilliant).

And that’s where most of the magic and marvel lies in Disney’s Pixar-free production. Much like the Toy Story franchise, Wreck-It Ralph takes a peek at what some of our favorite videogame characters are up to when play time is over (or when the arcade closes each night). Each character has his/her/its own life to get back to once that “Game Over” sign flashes on screen. They game-hop and hang out in each other’s worlds. And the moment a coin is slipped into that slot, however, everyone’s on Quarter Alert, ready to carry out their “jobs.” You see, they work for us, or rather, the gamers who control their every move; they’re just programmed that way.

Determined to become a hero, Ralph leaves the comforts of his own game and journeys into the Call of Duty-esque first-person shooter game Hero’s Duty in order to covet himself a medal. And he does, but in doing so he’s endangers his home game (and its inhabitants) from being unplugged for good — after all, a game isn’t functional without its bad guy.

It’s pure joy watching Wreck-It-Ralph hop from different universes (courtesy of one giant power strip winkingly dubbed “Game Central Station” — enjoy spying all the familiar faces commuting through the hub). When Ralph crash lands in the Candy Land-inspired Sugar Rush, a world designed to stimulate the most resistant sweet tooth, he meets the adorable Vanellope von Schweetz (adorably voiced by Sarah Silverman), a feisty little outcast who feels the need for speed; she wants to be a racer like all the other girls in the land, but she has a condition that prevents her from participating (she’s a “glitch”).

Composer Henry Jackman infuses the score with classic sounds from vintage games, and dubstep maestro Skrillex, I’m happy to report, steps in to remix things up during the Hero’s Duty portion of the adventure. Kudos to the art direction team for creating different worlds and maintaining the sensibility of each while characters cross paths and migrate into each other’s worlds.

Jane Lynch, who voices Sergeant Calhoun, a soldier with a tragic backstory that explains her hard-edged attitude, is basically a ray-gun-toting Sue Sylvester who protects all civilians, human and of the sugary variety. Forced to leave her troops in Hero’s Duty, she accompanies Felix to the candy-coated land of Sugar Rush to bring Ralph back to his proper home before the game gets its plugged pulled — forever. Needless to say, she is perfect. Alan Tudyk plays King Candy, the kooky Mad Hatter-like ruler of Sugar Rush‘s kingdom who may have a few secrets up his sleeve (the names of his donut-shaped security guards got the biggest laughs). And Mindy Kaling appears briefly as Taffeta, one of Vanellope’s racing rivals who’s as catty as she is competitive; she and her crew are like the anime versions of Mean Girls.

Packed with cute zingers that are neither corny nor obvious and loaded with sly references, Wreck-It Ralph is genuinely — I hate resorting to the cliched description — a film for all ages. Whether you’re an 8-bit loyalist or an HD purist, Ralph & Co. will have you wide-eyed and smiling all the way through and reaching for another quarter once it’s all over.

5/5 stars

@TheFirstEcho