With apologies to a famous line from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," this is pretty much the existential dilemma for Ralph, a character inside an old-school video game. He's the bad guy, yet also the hero, of "Wreck-It Ralph," an utterly winning animated film from Disney.
Thick-skulled, ham-handed Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, has been laboring as the bad guy in his Pac-Man-era video game so long he's tired of the destruction (and of spending the game's dark hours in a garbage pile, when the other characters party in a penthouse).
The movie's premise is that these video characters can visit the other games in their arcade by passing through various interconnected cables. Ralph's discontent leads him to adventures in a slick, violent military game and a Candy Land-style game called Sugar Rush.
The latter is a wonderfully saccharine world full of lollipop trees and chocolate rivers (and dreaded Nesquik-sand). Here Ralph teams up with a glitchy misfit girl named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), whose programming seems slightly off.
We also meet the good guy of Raph's game, Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer, very funny), who takes an unlikely shine to the badass heroine of the military game, Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch).
There's also the ruler of Sugar Rush, King Candy, a character who sounds and looks suspiciously like the Mad Hatter from Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" (Alan Tudyk even imitates the actor from that film, Ed Wynn).
Although the movie has its share of slapstick gags and video-game in-jokes (it understands its audience), it isn't a tongue-in-cheek experience in the "Shrek" vein; the movie's hip, but not coasting on easy pop-culture jibes.
Very quietly, "Wreck-It Ralph" builds a heartfelt story that leads to a lovable conclusion.
Director Rich Moore, a veteran of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," has a firm grasp of how to pace the comedy so we never lose the thread of Ralph's lonely quest, no matter how wacky the action gets.
The movie's look is a carnival of different styles, all of them incredibly imaginative (I saw it in 3-D, but I suspect it will be equally kicky in two dimensions).
John C. Reilly's big-lug persona makes the ideal voice for Ralph, and he occasionally tosses in just enough edge to keep the character from getting dull. As sympathetic as we get toward him, Ralph does destroy buildings, after all.
The movie's not so much a Disney triumph as just a really neat confection. That's plenty good enough, as it turns out.
"Wreck-It Ralph" (4 stars)
Delightful Disney animation about a video-game bad guy (voiced by John C. Reilly) who wants to be good for a change. There's a heartfelt story wrapped inside all the candy colors and slapstick jokes, and the whole thing builds to a lovable conclusion.
Rated: PG for violence.
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