By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood October 26, 2012 at 4:28PM
Disney's definitely back with "Wreck-It Ralph" (opening November 2). In fact, this unexpectedly witty and inventive videogame comedy/adventure is the surprise of the animation season and the Oscar wild card, although I haven't yet seen DreamWorks' "Rise of the Guardians," which also looks creatively bold and will likely be a major contender.
Yet there's something wonderfully subversive about "Wreck-It Ralph" that turns the Disney ethos on its head while at the same time embracing the legacy. Credit John Lasseter for trying such an ambitious experiment and for entrusting Rich Moore, a TV refugee from "The Simpsons" and fellow CalArts alum, to pull it off. The result is similar to what Brad Bird did at Pixar with "The Incredibles" and just as personal. How to break free from a successful rut?
But aside from crafting a dazzling videogame universe with three distinct worlds (the 8-bit Nicelanders of "Fix-It Felix Jr," the photoreal first-person shooter, "Hero's Duty," and the Candy Land-inspired "Sugar Rush"), Moore has made a smart and heart-warming tale of two social misfits (the hulk-like baddie, Ralph, and the snarky little Vanellope) banding together to reboot their lives and save their universe from a Cy-Bug invasion.
More important, Moore has helped put Disney back on track toward animation greatness. You can see it on the smiles of the animators and the spring that's back in their step. Moore's a hand-drawn guy who's taken to CG with warmth and affection. But, stylistically, he's infused CG with a 2D aesthetic that's fresh and funny. What's old is new again. One look at Felix and King Candy and you immediately sense the influence of Ward Kimball. Indeed, King Candy is an obvious homage to The Mad Hatter from "Alice in Wonderland" right down to Ed Wynn's whimsical voice.
"What I like about this is that it's of the same mind with my taste," Moore suggests. "'Dumbo,' 'The Jungle Book', 'Toy Story,' 'Tangled.' There's something [primal] about the DNA of those movies that goes way, way back to something that we don't even know. And I like when entertainment taps into that and the feeling that it gives me. When we can make these movies, I really believe that there's a wavelength: emotions being manipulated and senses being delighted. And I like that sense of doing something familiar but that's new, that pays respect to the legacy and to the storytelling and heart of Disney. But has the room to let it be its own thing.
"I think the Disney movies have taken an interesting direction after coming out of the woods and feeling their way. I credit Ed [Catmull] and John [Lasseter] coming in [from Pixar] and slowly riding the path. I think 'Tangled' really laid it right at the feet of the audience, saying: 'This is a studio that you love and remember and we're back making things that are relevant.' I didn't like the fact that Disney was taking a relentless beating from some of the other studios. It basically used what Disney did well to beat them into submission. But it was never a goal of mine to work at the studio. I'll be frank: In the '90s, the movies they were making were not my cup of tea. But as an outsider who was able to see Disney [trying to recover], I liked how they were the underdog with something to prove. They were small and scrappy and wanted to do good. And Disney is in that place right now."
Although there were design and animation challenges galore (getting the staccato movement of the 8-bit Nicelanders just right with snappy timing was the biggest), who'd ever thought that Disney would out "Shrek" "Shrek" while staying true to the rules of "Wreck-It Ralph"?
"I wanted to make the funniest animated movie ever made," boasts screenwriter Phil Johnston ("Cedar Rapids"). Sergeant Calhoun, the hero of "Hero's Duty," makes a sagacious foil to the other characters, and "Sugar Rush," "the candy-coated heart of darkness," is full of hilarious sight gags (including the volcanic combination of Mentos and Coke, the Nesquik sand, and the ticklish LaughyTaffy adventure).
Indeed, after reading Calhoun's opening salvo, "If you want to go pee-pee in your big boy's slacks, keep it to yourself," Catmull requested more bon mots. True enough, "Wreck-It Ralph" is like "a mangy dog chasing a cautionary tale."
"When I started at the studio, it was like finding some amazing toy train that wasn't being fully utilized," Moore reflects. "'Tangled' started to get the pieces all back together but collectively I think we've now got this beautiful machine working again."