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A scene from "Wreck-It Ralph”

Disney/The Associated Press

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Wreck-It Ralph
Written by
Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston
Directed by
Rich Moore
Starring
John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch
Genre
Animation
Classification
PG

How much you will like Wreck-It Ralph may depend on a fundamentally important generational question: Do you know who Q*bert is?

If the answer is yes, then you're the right age to remember feeding quarters in to video games at arcades and you will love every sight gag and in-joke from the 8-bit era.

If the answer is no, then you're either too young or too old. But the good news is, even though you won't get every joke, it's so well constructed in its plot and imagery that it moves brilliantly along, leaping from one perfectly rendered world to the next, like Frogger in Frogger – who, yes, is one of many characters to make a cameo. (Ask your dad.)

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John C. Reilly plays Wreck-It Ralph, the building-smashing bad guy in a game called Fix It Felix Jr. As the game is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Ralph is tired of being the bad guy. Every day it's the same: smash a building and then watch as Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), with his magic hammer, repairs the damage and picks up a gold medal while Ralph is tossed off the roof, left to go sleep on a big pile of bricks. To prove he's not a bad guy, he "game jumps," travelling through the wires that connect every machine in the arcade to win a gold medal of his own. What he doesn't know is that he might destroy every game by doing so.

Sound like it's got a Toy Story vibe? It's no coincidence. Executive producer John Lasseter directed both Toy Story, in which beloved childhood entities have a secret life of their own, and its sequel. But the movie never feels like a second-rate rip-off. And even though it doesn't have the same emotional pull, and its storytelling drifts much more toward the conventional, it stands alone on its own merits.

Chief among them is how it completely nails video-game imagery from the 1980s on through to the first-person shooter games of the modern era. When Ken and Ryu knock off after a long day of Street Fighter to share a cold one at Tapper, both games are perfectly rendered. And Hero's Duty, the game where Ralph meets Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) battling "Cy-Bugs," looks and feels indistinguishable from Halo and its ilk.

It's impossible not to feel a strong sense of nostalgic amusement, if not sheer delight, at the comings and goings of all these characters. I don't own an MRI machine, but I guarantee that just seeing Sonic the Hedgehog lights up the Gen X amygdala like a house on fire.

Even though kids might not catch Paperboy references, the movie always manages to play to the younger set's sensibilities, whether it's the humour of a bad guys anonymous meeting or the flat-out genius of Lynch's character's "most tragic backstory of all."

It's when Ralph lands in a racing game called Sugar Rush – designed with all the trippy psychedelics of Mario Kart – that the movie finds its emotional core. Forced to partner with a young would-be racer named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), Ralph will have to put aside his own quest and learn what it really means to be the good guy.

If that strikes you as too saccharine or cheesy, then I suggest you take that locked-up heart of yours and press up up, down down, left right, left right, B, A.

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