It's rich in literary references - to Joseph Conrad, Lewis Carroll, P. G. Wodehouse and others, - and even richer in filmic references, particularly to the Wizard of Oz. Above all it brilliantly exploits the whole brief history of video games, from that elementary paddle-board ping-pong contest of the 1970s to today's densely pixilated shoot-em ups.
The eponymous Ralph is one of the two main characters featuring in a thirty-year-old arcade game - his job involves demolishing an apartment building which is then restored by Fix-it Felix, a rather effeminate builder with a golden hammer. The graphics are engagingly fuzzy, the action corny.
When the arcade closes at the end of each day, the characters check out, and some (like Ralph) attend counselling (below). Ralph is a blue-collar working stiff. He's had enough of playing the bad guy and wants to seek new horizons, so he decides to break the law and 'go Turbo' a phrase which is not explained until much later in the film. He simply quits his game, taking the subway to Game Central, based visually on New York's Grand Central Station but populated entirely by characters (and objects) from video games past and present (some of whom, fallen on hard times, are homeless pan-handlers). An unlikely but plausible chain of events involves him joining another, far more advanced game - a state-of-the-art fully-immersive interactive nightmare, a combination of Ridley Scott's Alien and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. Ralph is out of his element.
He next finds himself in the candy-coloured world of Sugar Rush, a go-kart racing game aimed at young girls, and there befriends a character named Vanellope von Schweetz, who is also a technical glitch in the programme and therefore an outsider. They eventually team up. Meanwhile in Ralph's absence his own video game is deemed out of order and its resident characters doomed, so Fix-it Felix sets out on a quest to find Ralph and persuade him to return home. This leads to no end of confusion.
Visually compelling (the lighting and rendered textures are by turns dazzling and ravishing), structurally robust and with nuanced characters, terse dialogue and brilliant vocal performances (especially Ralph, the platoon commander, Vanellope and the ditzy Candy King) - there's so much to admire. I suppose most of the clever stuff is way above the intended core audience (I took a seven-year-old boy, who "only quite liked it") but it's a wonderful creative achievement. It confirms the dispiriting view that the real creative innovation in American culture can be found in animation, in computer games, in graphic novels and nowhere else - certainly not in the novel. I'd trade the opening ten minutes of Wreck-it Ralph against the entire career, past and future of - oh, let's say Lionel Shriver?