Hats off, Disney, hats off.

The mouse house can’t call 2012 an off year simply because of their job in producing this summer’s mega-hit The Avengers. One of their two animation companies, perennial powerhouse Pixar, also scored big with Brave, even though the Scottish fairy tale can’t necessarily be called an instant classic.

Even though two of the studio’s less audience-friendly offerings, March’s John Carter and last month’s Frankenweenie, failed to ignite the box office, the craft and imagination put into both well made up for poor returns (in the creative sense). Those two films showed Disney taking risks. The studio has always been able to get by with Pirates and talking cars, but films like John Carter and Frankenweenie show a side of Disney that is still willing to occasionally surprise. The praise for Carter‘s pulp and Frankenweenie‘s charm might not leave the circle of critics, but it shows the studio still has a few surprises up its sleeve.

For years now, Walt Disney Animation Studios has served as Buena Vista’s animation B-team. Much like a decent-enough backup quarterback, the former pioneer of animated films has been relegated to bench-warming for the superstar studio Pixar. Disney’s in-house animation department hasn’t exactly been putting out garbage (recent efforts Bolt, The Princess and The Frog and Tangled are strong cases for the studio’s growth, with the animation division now being stewarded by Pixar vet John Lasseter), but in comparison to the folks at Pixar, their films lack the heft and public recognition (and Oscars).

In 2011, Pixar finally produced a goose egg with the disappointing Cars 2. A month later, Disney Animation released the pleasant-enough Winnie the Pooh revival, which goes down like a half-glass of warm milk (hindered by its unsurprisingly unsatisfying 63-minute run-time). The studio even opened the film against the final installment of those Harry Potter movies, hoping to draw parents of screaming toddlers into the multiplex on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Not that the two studios are competing in any way, shape or form, but Disney Animation could have been the winning sibling that year in the wake of Pixar’s rare misstep. But alas, it wasn’t to be.

This year, Pixar made a slight rebound with Brave, but again, something was missing from the studio’s latest. Again, not that they’re against each other, but Disney Animation had once again been offered the perfect opportunity to get a marquee title into theaters to take the place as the defining animated title of the year (something Disney the company has rarely struggled with).

Enter a Mr. Wreck-It Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 52nd title, is 2012’s best animated film one of the year’s best overall films and likely the best animated film to be released since 2010’s Toy Story 3. Wreck-It Ralph is a bold statement by Disney – the studio finally producing a break-out title that gets the main spot on Mickey Mouse’s fridge.

This film is different from anything else Disney Animation has ever produced due to its proud desire to take risks. Taking a page from the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? playbook, the film manages to pay tribute to its universe without ever giving up the grand ambition to tell a wonderful story.

Nestled safely in Litwack’s Arcade, Fix-It Felix Jr. has withstood the test of time, remaining one of the arcade’s more popular games. As Q-bert makes way for Dance Dance Revolution, the chipper Fix-It Felix Jr.’s mission to repair the damage done to Niceland by the vile giant Wreck-It Ralph still functions with style going into its 30th anniversary. But as the arcade closes, the inhabitants of the games are brought to life Toy Story-style, treating the day of play like another day at the office.

Game villain Ralph’s life insists of being thwarted by Felix’s magic hammer and thrown off the rather-tall Niceland apartment building by a group of celebratory “Nicelanders” into a pile of mud. After the day of playing bad guy, Ralph heads to his home in the rubble, dreaming of a new day where he might be able to play the good guy for once. Ineffectively reassured at a group-therapy session for video game villains (led by one of the baddies from Pac-Man, attended by Mario’s Bowser and Street Fighter’s Zangief) that his life’s plight is as necessary as can be, Ralph still hopes for the occasion where he can receive the ever-so-coveted “gold medal,” a token for Felix’s good deeds.

Deciding to take his fate into his own hands, Ralph ventures beyond the world of Fix-it Felix Jr., hoping to seize the perfect opportunity to claim a medal of his own and finally be the hero for a change. His actions, though, set off a chain of events that will require Ralph to truly live up to the nature of his aims.

The film’s strengths lie with its desire to first-and-foremost tell a great story. It’s a twisty, ingeniously conceived tale that takes our hero from the dangerous worlds of the first-person shoot-the-robots-up Hero’s Duty (a game led by the definition of no-nonsense, Sgt. Calhoun) to the flashy, candy-coded racing world of Sugar Rush, where we meet Vanellope von Schweetz, a game-glitch that Ralph befriends.

I won’t spoil anything here, but Ralph’s road to becoming an actual hero is one of Disney’s sweetest tales in years. He’s a flawed character (akin to Woody in the first Toy Story), but his hopes and aspirations are nothing but pure. John C. Reilly’s voice serves as a wonderful compliment to the character.

Ralph’s “nemesis,” Fix-it Felix Jr., is portrayed as a classic nice guy who must team up with Hero’s Duty star Sgt. Calhoun to help find Ralph and correct the mistakes he made in his quest for a medal. Jack McBrayer couldn’t have been more perfectly suited for Felix, giving every word his signature Georgia charm, and Jane Lynch also gives Sgt. Calhoun’s no-nonsense attitude a nice boost. Sarah Silverman gets in on things by voicing Vanellope, giving Schweetz an apt “na-na-na-na-bo-bo” playground snark. The best voice acting, perhaps, comes from Alan Tudyk’s delightful take on King Candy, the ruler of Sugar Rush. Tudyk’s energy flows through the voicing, making King Candy one of the finest voiced animated characters in a good while.

Director Rich Moore takes his first go-around in the director’s chair to highlight the wonders of the film’s script (penned by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee). I can’t say enough how storytelling wisely triumphs references. While Wreck-It Ralph could have easily strayed to be a “would you look at that” piece of nostalgia pie that drove into the ground the fact that Sonic the Hedgehog and M. Bison were, indeed, in the movie, we get some restraint on the part of the filmmakers to allow the film to use its background as just that – a wonderful stage in which the story can unfold.

The animation here is lush, with many noting the attention to detail between the “old-school” sensibilities of arcade’s past and the HD rendering of arcade’s present. I also found the sound mixing/editing to be in top-form, with every crisp ping and pong of the gaming world proudly displayed. An added bonus, the film is also very, very funny – perhaps personified best by Ralph’s venture into Hero’s Duty‘s gameplay, a moment of Skrillex-scored mayhem that left this critic howling with laughter.

Wreck-It Ralph, like its title character, is an out-of-nowhere winner for Disney Animation. If the studio continues to produce quality films that feature the same innovative spark that Ralph so proudly showcases, the future of animation produced by Disney will be bright. If Pixar and Disney Animation can join hand-in-hand to produce two brilliant films a year, we’ll all win. It might come down to the wire on Oscar night, but hey, only one kid can have their moment on the fridge.

Try to arrive in time to see the film, as a wonderful animated short entitled “Paperman” is shown before and is worth the price of admission alone. In regard to 3D, I was fan of the 2D presentation a little more this time around. 

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