If you know the code for getting 30 extra lives on the old Nintendo game Contra, you'll likely appreciate "Wreck-It Ralph" at a profoundly deep and nostalgic level.
But for those who can't tell a Pac-Man maze from a Q*bert pyramid, there are other classic reasons to enjoy this film — quality storytelling, eye-catching animation and clever characters who are all too human despite being completely digital.
"Wreck-It Ralph" is the latest from Walt Disney Animation Studios. John Lasseter is the film's executive producer, and, as with so many of the Pixar films he's helmed, it's the story that wins out. Set in an arcade world that encompasses everything from Space Invaders to ultra-modern shooter games that cost eight quarters to play, "Wreck-It Ralph" is a moving tale about oddballs trying to find a little acceptance.
But there's a bonus for anyone who's played the likes of "Centipede" or "Dig Dug" on a stand-up arcade console. "Ralph" is a clever confluence of images, settings, sounds and characters from the past three decades of video game history. Those conversant enough in that culture will have a ball pointing out everything from Clyde the Pac-Man ghost to graphics from "Street Fighter."
And Sonic the hedgehog. And Bowser. Yes, the gang's all here.
But the main character is the product of a fictional game, "Fix-It Felix, Jr." Ralph (John C. Reilly) is a 9-foot, 643-pound, overall-clad wrecking ball of a man with a quick temper but a good heart. In the game, which is reminiscent of "Donkey Kong," Ralph does damage to an apartment building that the prim, proper and universally adored Felix must fix with his hammer.
The game has lasted in the arcade for 30 years, but Ralph is reaching a breaking point. He's tired of being the bad guy. He wouldn't mind a few friends, either. He's realized that "it's hard to love your job when no one likes you for doing it."
So he sets out seeking the only type of validation that exists in his game — a medal. His quest takes him from the high-definition world of "Hero's Duty," an all-too-real first-person shooter game with rapid gunfire and alien "cybugs," to "Sugar Rush," a racing game that looks like a candy-coated version of "Mario Kart."
There he meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), with whom he has something in common. She wants to race, but she's considered an outcast because of her "glitch."
They discover that their interests intersect and decide to team up. But Ralph's "game-hopping" has unintended consequences. When the building wrecker is a no-show in his own game, it leads to the dreaded out-of-order sign. He's also put "Sugar Rush" in jeopardy by accidentally importing a deadly cybug.
Soon, the always reliable Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a squadron leader from "Hero's Duty," find themselves in the sugary world trying to find Ralph and destroy the cybug.
To top it off, the boss of "Sugar Rush," King Candy, is trying all he can to keep Vanellope from racing — for her own good, he says.
Yes, the plot is a tad crowded, and so are the visuals. But "Wreck-It Ralph" successfully avoids being an assault on the senses for two reasons.
First, the stories and struggles of Ralph and Vanellope provide emotion and depth.
And second, it's just so much fun to see these drastically different video game worlds, with varying degrees of graphics, collide.
Throwing together all these characters — smooth, fluid, high-def soldiers and blocky, jerky, 8-bit figures from a much earlier era, all with their attendant movements and sound effects — is great theater for longtime gamers.
The voice lineup is, for the most part, well cast and unobtrusive. Reilly doesn't overdo it as the sullen yet temperamental Ralph, and Silverman turns on the cuteness with her character Vanellope, who is absolutely adorable.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers just had to push a few buttons to make the movie PG rather than G, most notably an abundance of potty humor. You may find your kids leaving the theater repeating lines you wish they hadn't remembered.
Parents might also want to note that there are a few scary images and a healthy amount of gunfire coming from the characters of "Hero's Duty." One character even gets eaten. As Ralph himself says, "When did the new games become so violent and scary?"Comment on this story
But despite the neon bullets and the occasional trips to the bathroom for humor, "Wreck-It Ralph" is a blast of a film with a meaningful message.
As is always the case with its Pixar contemporaries, "Wreck-It Ralph" is preceded by an animated short. "Paperman" is a black-and-white-with-a-touch-of-color, hand-drawn feature with a quirky plot and a lesson on persistence. It's enjoyable, but not quite as good as what we've seen in the past before the annual Pixar flick.
Aaron Shill is the editor of Features and Mormon Times at the Deseret News.