Thoughts On: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
A jaded bad guy in an arcade game wants to be the good guy for a change.
Wreck-It Ralph is a perfect movie. Not only is it Disney’s best modern film, but I think it is a strong candidate for the best Disney film – maybe even the best animated film – ever. From around the mid-00s until 2012 and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney had lost their form and had been making ok to mediocre movies: Brother Bear, Home On The Range, Chicken Little, The Wild, Meet The Robinsons, Bolt, The Princess and The Frog and then Tangled. We talked about one of the biggest mistakes that they were making in the previous post of the Disney series on Brave, and, if you’d like to have a masterclass in how to do the complete opposite, just watch Wreck-It Ralph.
With rich personas filling the major and minor positions, with some phenomenal world building, beautiful aesthetics, an astounding ability to conjure emotion and an intricate narrative, Wreck-It Ralph exudes mastery from every one of its minutes; the third act in particularly is wholly flawing. Whilst someone could comb through this movie and pick out tiny faults, the ‘sins’ of this movie really don’t amount to much, nor do they impact the viewing experience. My favourite part of Wreck-It Ralph, as always, has got to be the story and its subtextual significance.
Wreck-It Ralph is a movie about media itself. Specifically, it is about arcade games, but, its narrative applies to films as well. Each of the games in this movie are worlds that give birth to characters – usually, the good and the bad. Fix It Felix Jr. is one of these games. The world that this game metaphorically represents is the average home or small community. The patriarchs doing battle in this home seem to represent a tension between destruction and preservation: Ralph wrecks and Felix fixes. However, whilst this implies a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy’, these characteristics themselves aren’t wholly indicative of goodness and badness. As we find out when we step into the game, not only are these characters programmed to act as such, but Ralph seeks more than destruction, and Felix doesn’t live in a perfect world of his own construction; Felix lives a cushioned life with a tight community that shuns, or at least finds awkward, Ralph. They in turn make him more of a ‘bad guy’ than he actually wants to be. But, before we continue with this line of thought, we should take a second to ask about this person…
Stefanie is an average regular here, but she is also, partly, a reflection of the audience. She interacts with games such as Fix It Felix Jr, and whilst she doesn’t get an incite into its world like we do, she comes into contact with its fundamental ideas and, by playing the games, actively engages them. What she then learns in Fix It Felix Jr is how to battle destruction with preservation. What she would see in a game such as Sugar Rush is how to confront hierarchy and competition in the form of a race. And in Hero’s Duty she would learn how to fight against infection for the sake of responsibility itself: duty. All three of these games comment on life – as do all video games. After all, we only care to play these games as they all seem to mirror real-world situations in the abstract and so allow us to engage in hypothetical acts of vanquishing evil, winning a race or saving people. However, whilst video games get chemical pathways flowing, they lack nuance. What we are then doing as we step into these actual games is finding this nuance by seeing how they, almost as parental figures to young gamers, function and face conflicts as tools that abstractly teach children such as Stefanie.
With Fix It Felix Jr as a ‘teacher’ or ‘parental figure’, we could imagine the two patriarchs, Felix and Ralph, as the two sides of a dad. Whilst fathers are often seen to fix and preserve things – not just literally – they are also often seen to be the stern parent, and the one who tutors you not just through care, but by pushing you out into the world and seeing you gather some cuts and bruises. In an abstract sense the father can then be seen to fix and preserve your sense of ‘home’ whilst simultaneously destroying it. Moreover, he shows a child the harsher side of the world whilst demonstrating how to confront this. Whilst some would argue that Ralph possibly represents physical destruction in the household, it’s clear that this narrative urges Ralph to uphold his responsibility of running the game. Thus, it is his responsibility as a parental figure to embody the darker side of fatherhood so that Felix can represent the lighter side.
This is something that Ralph learns himself through becoming a father figure to Vanellope. Whether it be in the mini-game car shop, the scene in which he builds the race track, or in the numerous sequences in which he must destroy things for the greater good (the destruction of the car scene and the confrontation of Turbo in the end being perfect examples of this), Ralph learns that wrecking things is sometimes best for a child; it not only saves them from harm, but it teaches them how to be tough and responsible. This is what Ralph then holds onto when he realises that being a ‘bad guy’ doesn’t mean that you’re a bad guy. Not only does he then see that he is the needed antithesis to Felix, but also that destruction is sometimes necessary in life. And one of the most subtle expressions of this is the manner in which his and Vanellope’s relationship functions. Whilst they end up saving one another multiple times over, they’re always teasing and poking at each other too. This teasing is a form of destruction (why bring down a parent or child through minor insults?), but, as we all know, destruction of this kind is playful; we enjoy confronting it and one another in controlled, safe contexts.
This is a good point to discuss Turbo. He is used as a cautionary tale, one that implores that people shouldn’t change. Many people would scratch their heads at such an assertion; shouldn’t we all strive for change in life; shouldn’t we all try to be the hero? The fact is: not really. As Ralph learns, darkness in varying forms is essential in life. Whether we’re playfully teasing a child, destroying the danger that threatens them or representing an archetypal form of destruction in a game that a child would learn from, we need to utilise our darker side. There does need to be a relationship between the light and the dark, but this idea of needing a dark side remains true. As a result, it is not so important that we become the greatest and most virtuous beings in the world, full only of, and surrounded only by, light. In fact, this is far from what the world needs. Striving to be the absolute best or attain something antithetical to your purpose, “going Turbo”, is an act of selfishness and a display of ignorance. As an archetype of this notion, Turbo, like the characters in Sugar Rush, teaches children how to compete and race for gold. However, better formats, better games, came along to replace him. Instead of recognising that this evolution is for the greater good of children, Turbo tries to take over the new game to the destruction of all. “Going Turbo” means refusing to recognise the bounds in which you are allowed to change. So, when Ralph is warned against going Turbo he is essentially told that: whilst he can’t abandon his programme to win medals every day, he can become a father figure to Vanellope; he can become a good guy of a different sort.
What we can now begin to see define itself in this narrative is the idea of comprise and acceptance for the greater good. However, this manifests itself through both Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush in a differing way in which it is found in Fix It Felix Jr. and the characters within that game. Hero’s Duty, for instance, whilst it is about responsibility, honour and, of course, duty, sees its main character learn to make a compromise within herself, when she steps outside of the game, to let go of her rigid sense of battle. After all, whilst Hero’s Duty has the sentiment of honour and sacrifice about it, Calhoun’s backstory seems to teach a terrible lesson: never love as it will only make you weak. The world of this game embodies this dangerous idea entirely; the Cy-Bugs never stop coming and they can’t be settled with, only destroyed. By re-introducing romance into Calhoun’s life through Felix, this narrative forces a comprise within herself between the soft and the hard; she learns to love again. What this game represents when its evil side spreads to other worlds is then that the duty we assume in one place will not directly translate into others. In other words, you do not have to be defined by one context and you do not have to be the single hero of every possible story (which is what Turbo failed to recognise or come to terms with). So, whilst Calhoun learns this by running into Felix – who she has to work with, not just lead as she does in her game – Ralph learns the same idea by stepping outside of his game and realising that he, too, can be recognised as a different person in different games.
Taking a moment to look at Felix’s character arc, we also see a paradigm of exponential improvement flourishing from these acts of compromise and acceptance. Whilst Felix is a good guy in the beginning of this narrative, he does not reconcile with Ralph – with destruction – until the end. This occurs because he begins to see Ralph as a brother in the same programme, game or lesson as he. This is not just a commentary on parental figures accepting their light and dark sides – their constructive and destructive attributes. The evolution of Felix into a better guy is also a reflection upon the idea that good breeds goodness. With Ralph and Calhoun’s transformation comes the transformation of Felix and Vanellope, and then the further transformation of all involved in each of these games – as we see with the happy ending. The comprise and acceptance that this narrative then implores is shown to heighten and improve the bounds in which we have to live and be responsible in. Thus, whilst Ralph is not allowed to change into a ‘good guy’, he is allowed to change his world, with Felix’s help, for the good.
Turning to Sugar Rush, we find ourselves in a highly competitive world – it even seems sadistic and pointless if we imagine the characters within to be constantly racing one another in a Mario Kart-esque game filled with weapons and traps. However, this is the world that Vanellope wants to enter. By doing this, she directly interacts with the cautionary tale of “going Turbo”. She then learns of her place in her world, and how to accept and deal with this, by being suppressed and imprisoned by Turbo, or King Candy’s, regime – and this remains with her when she eventually assume his position as ruler of Sugar Rush. What this game then represents is then still comprise and acceptance, but in the context of nonetheless winning; Vanellope has to accept the fact that she is a glitch, but then has to use this to her advantage.
Taking into account the three games of this movie and how they interact, we see an intricate tapestry formed, one that recognises that these games teach children basic lessons, but then gives nuance and greater meaning to them. In turn, through Fix It Felix Jr, the importance of reconciling and managing the dark and the light forces of life and being is made clear. In Hero’s Duty, the essential purpose of dutifully living in more than one context and having more than one purpose is outlined. In Sugar Rush, the acceptance of an imperfect self as motivation to be the best is presented. So, by the end of the narrative, we then become reflections of Stefanie…
… as she is no longer the soul reflection of ourselves who have maybe interacted with the archetypal first-person shooter game, racing game and level game. In such, we know the nuanced versions of the messages that these games supply. And this is what makes this movie such a tremendous one.
There is something more about Wreck-It Ralph that really elevates it into being on of Disney’s greatest films. As with Tangled and Frozen, here Disney revise the great princess stories that they told in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and then revived again in the 80s and 90s. Tangled and Frozen are, however, very shallow attempts at revising the Disney princess film. This is because they see figures such as Cinderella as weak and in need of a man. As we have explored early on in the Disney series, this is a lazy and cynical reading of this film, one that would give birth to narratives that only ever imply that women can be physically strong and independent without showing any real character or any real conflicts within them. Wreck-It Ralph on the other hand shows independence, strength, but also an ability to accept oneself as well as others’ help, whilst changing when necessary, through Vanellope after putting her through so much pain and torture. There is then the essence of a fairy tale captured by her rise to the throne. However, she does not take this position. And this is the element that Wreck It Ralph outshines films such as Cinderella. Why should girls only dream of being a princess? Whilst there is an argument for monarchy in society, I don’t think an argument for a monarch has any stead against a president or democratic ruler. Without wanting to delve into these political topics, let it then just be said that, if girls are to be given idols, wouldn’t someone such as President Vanellope be a great alternative to (not necessarily a complete replacement of) Princess Cinderella?
Whilst Cinderella is a brilliant narrative and one of my absolute favourite films, and whilst her ascendancy to power and success is beautifully portrayed, the position of ‘princess’ that she finally does assume is a somewhat shallow one. The revisionary aspects of Wreck-It Ralph that make the final position of power that the ‘princess’ assumes a more meaningful and substantial one is then to be applauded. Added to this, however, we have numerous other characters that act as platforms for other archetypal forms of success and happiness that are found through compromise and acceptance; kids watching this film aren’t just told to be a winner, a princess or a president, but also shown of strength, love, friendship, marriage, parenthood and what it means to sometimes be a bad guy. It is then very hard to argue that Wreck It Ralph doesn’t have one of the greatest narratives and messages that Disney have ever produced.
With all of that said, we have our place in which to finish. Before ending everything though, what are your thoughts on Wreck It Ralph and everything that we’ve covered today?
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