Somehow – despite having been repeatedly told how good it was, knowing that the marketing had mis-represented it, and having spoiled the plot for myself, including almost all the major twists – I managed to be surprised by Wreck-It Ralph. I just assumed that since it’s a video game film and I am not a gamer (not even a little), I wouldn’t like it, for much the same reasons I never warmed to the TRON films – just not my kind of thing.
Wreck-It Ralph was marketed as being something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit with games rather then cartoons, but what it has in common with Roger Rabbit is not the recognisable-character cameos (of which there are some, but I must admit I only understood a handful of them) so much as the examination of what it would be like to actually be a cartoon character, or part of a video game. Wreck-It Ralph treats this theme in more detail and is actually kind of everything I always wanted Roger Rabbit to be but isn’t. The older I get the more I wish Roger Rabbit spent less time on comedy and cameos and more time on the weird existential angst of being a cartoon character.
So Wreck-It Ralph is actually closer to Toy Story with video games in its tone and its themes, but honestly what it reminded me of more than anything else was The Bear that Nobody Wanted, a nineties children’s book by Janet and Alan Ahlberg (which I have just discovered is sadly out of print).
Ralph is the villain of an eighties arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. He spends all day breaking the walls and windows of an apartment building while the game’s hero, Fix-It Felix Jr., repairs them with his magic hammer; Felix is programmed to be eternally friendly and cheerful while Ralph is programmed with a tendency towards violent and destructive temper tantrums. When the arcade closes, the working day ends and all the characters are free to do as they please, even moving between games via power-cables. Unfortunately for Ralph, the other residents of his game refuse to see him as anything other than a dangerous brute and continually ostracise him. On the thirtieth anniversary of the game they have a party to celebrate and ‘forget’ to invite him; for poor ol’ Ralph, this is the last straw, and he leaves his game, setting out into the arcade to prove that he’s more than just a villain.
Essentially, it’s a ‘be yourself’ film. Except it’s not, because it quickly becomes obvious that Ralph really only is good at wrecking things: his escapades end up jeopardising not only his own game, but Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game, light gun sci-fi Hero’s Duty and potentially the whole arcade. That’s just not necessarily a bad thing – being able to smash and destroy anything he wants is actually very useful once he starts channelling it. When Felix leaves the game to bring Ralph home, his magical fixing abilities are sometimes a liability (oh, you want to break out of jail? Every thing you try to smash the bars, they get stronger!). Again, he has to learn how to direct them properly. Vanellope – a ‘glitch’ racer in Sugar Rush – goes through the same process, turning her irritating glitch into a teleporting superpower. It’s not a matter of ‘be yourself, you’re perfect the way you are’ but ‘acknowledge your strengths and your weaknesses and work on using both to your advantage’.
Felix is really good at fixing things, and that’s okay. Ralph is really good at wrecking things, and that’s okay too – especially since, wouldn’t you know it, wrecking something turns out to be key to saving the day.
It’s a much more in-depth and interesting treatment of what’s become a tired and to be honest quite flawed moral (it’s not always really appropriate to just ‘be yourself and ignore what other people think’, a degree of conformity is necessary to play nice with others).
The constant underlying question in Wreck-It Ralph is whether it’s even possible for Ralph to change the status quo – he, like all other video game characters, is programmed to behave in a certain manner. Ralph struggles to control his pre-programmed rage. Felix can’t quite overcome his nice-guy programming. Vanellope is almost crushed by her status as a glitch. Sgt. Calhoun, the main character of Hero’s Duty, has PTSD stemming from her programmed backstory – in other words, she’s suffering trauma from events that didn’t even happen. Can any of them actually rise above the way they’ve been programmed to become more rounded individuals without hacking into their own code? Or is it all an exercise in futility?
Obviously this is a Disney film so the answer is yes – Ralph becomes a hero his own way, Calhoun lets herself love again, Felix learns to step outside of his role (and not be so utterly selfless), Vanellope *spoiler spoiler* rather than *spoiler spoiler* (no really the conclusion of her arc is one big spoiler) – but it’s still a genuinely interesting question about predestination and the nature of artificial intelligence.
Which is where The Bear that Nobody Wanted comes into play. The plot rests on one simple fact about being a toy: your personality is skin deep. Whatever a toy looks like on the outside, they are. If they look friendly and cheerful, they’ll have a friendly cheerful personality; if they look nice but dim, they’ll be nice but dim; and if, like the Bear of the title, their faces are stitched so as to make them look vain and haughty, they will be eternally vain and haughty.
Or will they? The book makes this assertion at the beginning, but its truth is at best ambiguous. The Bear starts out beautiful and brand new, but other the course of his misadventures he is stripped of his looks, starting with the ribbon around his neck being torn off and ending with his being trapped in a house as it is bombed and left dusty and scorched in the rubble (did I mention this book is a tad dark?). Even though the stitching of his face remains the same, he is forced to let go of his vanity; by the end, he is recognisably the same character, but his values have noticeably shifted.
There’s a strong note of ambiguity – his sea change hinges in part around a trip to a teddy bear doctor who moves one of his eyes, making his face look ever so slightly more friendly – but it does, I think, ultimately come to a similar conclusion to Wreck-It Ralph: these entities are not bound by their programming. They can rise above it and grow and change even as the rules of the world they inhabit try to hold them down in their niche.
Wreck-It Ralph is somehow simultaneously saying ‘be yourself’ and ‘you can change and become something new’ without feeling self-contradictory. It really is quite remarkably complicated – I didn’t even try to get into the intricacies of the plot. It involves racing games and jealousy and betrayal and alien viruses that eat candy and then turn into candy and the evolution of gaming since the eighties and did I mention all that candy? Because there really is a lot of candy. It’s also remarkably emotional and universal in its themes – and it has much more than you’d think to offer for non-gamers.