Movies allow us to experience life through another person's eyes. Video games allow us to experience life through another person's eyes -- and to control their decisions. We spend hours upon hours with these video game characters, until we feel like we know them; Mario, Sonic, Pac-Man, their adventures are so memorable, and their personalities so vivid that they almost seem alive. But of course their adventures and their personalities are all predetermined by programming, and they remain forever trapped by their unbreakable directives. If these characters weren't just a series of electronic impulses and computer code, it would be a tragic existence.

That, essentially, is the premise of 'Wreck-It Ralph,' a manic children's film about the souls of video game avatars. Made by Disney, it greatly resembles the premise of Disney's (and Pixar's) modern classic 'Toy Story,' in which toys are revealed to have lives and thoughts of their own when no one's around to play with them. Here we learn that when a suburban arcade shuts down for the night, the characters inside all the games cross over into each other's universes to socialize.

If you're a fan of vintage arcade games, you'll love this section of the film, which features tons of clever references, a lot of really nice pixelated design, and cameos by real gaming icons like Q*Bert and Ryu and Ken from 'Street Fighter.' The arcade classic 'Tapper' is the local watering hole, and the ghosts' room in 'Pac-Man' is the place where all of the games' villains meet for a support group. They vent their frustrations about their jobs -- being cruel and evil and mean whether they like it or not -- and recite their credo: "I'm bad and that's good; I will never be good, and that's not bad."

The latest frustrated meanie to join the group is Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the nemesis in a game called 'Fix-It Felix Jr.,' a variation on the arcade classic Donkey Kong. Ralph, a big hulk of a man with oversized hands and feet, smashes up an apartment building, while Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) scales its window sills, repairing the damage with his magic hammer. Ralph's been wrecking this same building for 30 years; day after day of getting tossed off the roof by the same angry mob of "Nicelanders" who live inside, sleeping every night in the same garbage dump, a tree stump his only pillow. It's a lonely, sad life. And now Ralph wants out of it.

Spurred by the Nicelanders' vow that they'll let him move into the building if he wins a medal, Ralph abandons the game to try his hand at others. But his absence makes the kids in the arcade think 'Fix-It Felix Jr.' is broken, which might result in its permanent shutdown. So Felix must find Ralph and convince him to return to the game, while Ralph wanders into first-person shooters and candy-colored racing games in search of personal validation.

In reality, 'Wreck-It Ralph' is not quite as cerebral as I've made it sound. It's more of a dumb movie with a kernel of smarts at its center. I confess, I like the kernel better than what's around it, which is mostly generic animated chases, video game inspired action scenes and poop gags (Ralph spends some time in a game called 'Hero's Duty;' I'll let you take it from there). Most of the long second act is set inside the racing game called "Sugar Rush," where Ralph forms an alliance with another outcast, a "glitch" named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) who is being blackballed from the game's races by its bubbly despot, King Candy (Alan Tudyk, doing his best Ed Wynn).

Vanellope's story dovetails with Ralph's -- both are outsiders trying to break free of their programming -- and contains some nice lessons for kids about why it's wrong to be mean to people who look or act differently. But in a very literal sense, Ralph and Vanellope's relationship doesn't go anywhere. For a movie that is ostensibly about a man in search of freedom, 'Wreck-It Ralph' gets bogged down in one place pretty quickly. And that place doesn't even really feel or look like a video game -- more like a Bratz-themed version of Candy Land.

The film rebounds for a nice finale, and Reilly is perfect as the lovably brutish Ralph. It would have been nice to see him interact with more real games (or more fake games that felt like real games), but director Rich Moore does make fairly inventive use of his arcade milieu, working in plot beats around ideas like secret passages, cheat codes and restarts. And he's got something quite lovely here about video game characters and the way they silently suffer and toil for our pleasure. Theirs is an endless, thankless existence. The only problem with that existence in 'Wreck-It Ralph' is that when they get stuck doing something we don't enjoy, we can't just use the joystick to send them somewhere else.

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'Wreck-It Ralph' hit theaters Friday, November 2.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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