Wreck-It Ralph Review (a.k.a. THE BLOOD-SOAKED HANDS OF CAPITALISM)

EDIT: I was a bit pissed the day I wrote all this and the mood more or less flowed into my manic flight of ideas, dissecting it through the perspective of a lot of other thoughts that happened to be bubbling up in my brain at the same time.

Still, some of the points are interesting. Ignore all the dramatic hyperbole if it’s too off-putting if you can, because there’s a bit near the bottom about American consumer culture and capitalist ideals that I liked and I had what I thought was a neat insight about Ralph as a negative role-model for accepting casual victimization and having no upward mobility in a classist society. I’ve been warned it’s a bit venomous, however, so read with that warning and remember that it’s just a review, which is essentially all hot air anyway.

(Had a bit of fun with the title there too.)

~ ~ ~

What is the value of a negative review? Writing out your frustrations can help clarify thoughts, honing them down like diamonds. They can warn future consumers away from a product that might be their cup of tea. Might even be a good proving ground to get some stress off your chest. I didn’t want to do a negative review on here anymore because they aren’t particularly conducive to good writing. They’re typically belligerent and uninformative and mired in personal taste…

…but then I watch something like Wreck-It Ralph, a product that’s crushed glass packaged like candy for all the tykes to eat, so pretty and neat and, well…

WRECK

*WARNING–SPOILERS!*

 

I. References

Let’s start in my arena, the writing, with an examination of something that I’ve been working to apply to my consumer and social habits lately: REFERENCES. AREN’T. JOKES. Trying to make a joke out of a reference, or elicit joy out of it does not a joke make. It’s consumer culture, at best, and bullying at worst, plain and simple. The Film Talk (by way of But My Opinion is Right) makes the case against it which I’ve begun to consider more aggressively. To sum it up, we laugh at references because laughing at them means that we’re cool, part of the gang and the culture. Not laughing at them makes us the other, the outsider, the viewer who is left scratching their head like a stupid, saying, “I don’t get it.” When I say it’s bullying, I mean that literally; I believe that with referential humor, the media that you are consuming is telling you that unless you consume more media, you won’t be part of the gang that gets the jokes and you should be afraid of not being part of the gang.

Nostalgia plays a part in it too, and I think that is equally worthless–a bad habit that needs no reinforcement. Nostalgia is masturbatory. It’s the second wave of childhood consumer culture, reminding us of the products that were advertised at us once, long ago, when we were at our most receptive and our least demanding. It’s memories of our youth that has been inexorably stamped with corporate branding.

A big selling point for Wreck-It Ralph within my generation and in the generation before mine is its references. Through legal means that seemed sorcerous before I watched it, Disney managed to tie in dozens of disparate IPs and licenses from game manufacturers across the board to people its video game world with a small truckload of famous characters, in the same way that Amblin managed with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The licensing here, however, was used deplorably.

But wait! What’s the difference between, say, Cabin in the Woods (which I loved) and Wreck-It Ralph (which I didn’t)? I knew the culture from each by heart, could spot the references when they cropped up… Why was my reaction so divided? I’m not 100% certain, but I think the disparity lay in how the referential material was used. In Cabin, the monster rogues’ gallery is a pivotal part of the story: the monsters exist because of the nature of the world they live in, and they serve a specific purpose in the context of the plot. (By the same token, many of the creatures in Cabin are allusions, rather than direct references or walk-ons by established IPs.) They’re the secondary antagonists and later end up being a Chekhov’s gun.

In Wreck-It Ralph, however, the licensed characters would be introduced (or be given speaking parts, depending on their level of financial connection to the Wreck-It Ralph franchise) and then would walk off, likely never to be seen again in the rest of the film. The whole time they’re on screen, they’re basically empty shoes. Only a couple of them have anything resembling a direct impact on the story and they might well have been the last things added to the film, pre-rendered with placeholder skeletons and waiting for one of Disney’s many marketing deals to get the green light. The games they reference aren’t offensively misrepresented, but they aren’t beloved or cared for either. It’s not a movie about video games so much as a 108-minute-long commercial for all the companies that made licensing deals with Disney.

Ouroboros-simple.svgLike hydrogenated oil in fruit snacks, Disney slapped on as many familiar faces as possible and then pushed their monster into the market, and all told, it’s a savvy business plan when you dig down to the unpleasant core of it: the more face time you can get these IPs and characters with a younger audience, the more likely it is that Ralph will be their reference source when they see a Sonic doll on sale at Hot Topic, rather than the original franchise. This target demographic is comprised, primarily, of kids with parents who played the games being reference within the film. Through this, Disney becomes the guardian of an entire generation’s nostalgia, a generation of kids who were brought into the theater because of their parentsown nostalgia. Neat, huh?

Video game franchises aside, a slew of other companies got in on the action too: Oreo®, Mentos®, Diet Coke®, Laffy Taffy® and Nestle® all make appearances. Each one is tightly nestled into the film, receiving their own scenes of the main character taking his time to say their brand names aloud and flashing a big fucking grin to the audience. These scenes were so blatant, it felt like amateur hour at Disney. I felt like I was watching Mac & Me again. Well, o…okay, maybe not THAT bad… Still, it’s was damn blatant. Adam Sandler would be proud (if he knew what pride was).

 

II. Sexism (Mild)

Much like Disney’s efforts to repair their increasingly tarnished, ultra-conservative, racist, sexist image amid an increasingly diverse and progressive consumer base with works like Mulan and The Frog Princess, Wreck-It Ralph attempts to produce a strong feminist character, but manages to undercut it every step of the way. (Side Note: the racial white-washing in Wreck-It Ralph is pathetic, but I suppose no more or less so than any other typical Disney venture. Way to set the bar, guys!)  In Ralph, we have two main female characters: Vanellope and Calhoun.

In Calhoun, we have a tough-as-nails female space marine commander…but the only reason she’s a hard-ass soldier, we are told, is because her wedding got ruined and she only finds happiness once she fulfills her conservative female role and marries a new husband. (The scene where Felix pulls her out of the mud and she gets all doe-eyed, clinging to her male rescuer had me booing at the screen. On the flipside, the punkish tough girl with racing in her blood (Vanellope) turns out to have been a princess all along. (She does rebuke her princess trappings, however, to stay true to herself: +1 point to Disney). And…that’s about it, really.

There’s a clique of girls that hate on Vanellope and a gang of potato-shaped denizens of Felix’s tower of various genders, but the rest of the film is pretty much male. Overall, though, I felt that Calhoun had her wings clipped pretty hard with the backstory foisted on her and she doesn’t seem to have much of a character “arc” at all outside of the context of finding a man to complete her. (Blech.) Vanellope is a more well-rounded character, and she might be a better role-model for young women. If nothing else, she strikes me as a potential step in the right direction for Disney if they want to become something even remotely resembling moral again.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the primary “real world” character is a girl as well. No particular reason for it that I can tell, but it’s nice to see female gamers getting a little cred.

 

III. Lazy Writing

It seems that Disney’s in-house animation wing thinks that buying Pixar gives them free-reign to steal their settings and themes (Toy Story), visual gags (Kung Fu Panda), and characters (Monsters Inc.) from other, better, more creative animation studios. They even grift their own Mad Hatter–bulbous head, fading hairline, lisp and all–from themselves for the main villain (who, somewhat poetically, is another character in the film in disguise as a legitimate NPC).

 

Wreck-It-Ralph-MadHatter-VS-King-Candy

Plagiarism as the main villain? Me thinks thou dost protest too much.

The film introduces plot elements within the same breath as their execution, committing one of the deadlier sins of screenwriting: explicating a plot-level twist through expository dialog. Game world isn’t dangerous? Have a scene, the sole reason for which is to have the audience hear a background video of Sonic explaining that characters who die outside of their own game will die permanently. We need to create a bigger secondary threat in the story? Suddenly the bugs are a cross-game virus that will spread uncontrollably (exposited). Vanellope needs to be put into jeopardy? We’ll say that glitches aren’t capable of moving between games (exposited). Shit, we forgot a main villain? Here’s the backstory of a new character who will be the main villain later (exposited). Each time the plot needs a new snag, we are told about it, rather than shown it.

It’s not unwholesome like a lot of my other gripes, but there’s a clear measure of condescension being made to the child audience, who, of course, is the brand-guzzling little crotch-spawn that Disney is trying to snipe with this garbage. They seed in elements of the exposition they’re going to deliver later so that they can point to that as (false) evidence that it was always there, in the world, but they delay delivery of the information and present it wholesale in dialog in close proximity to its payoff so that the empty heads that they foresee filling their seats won’t get lost in the plot.

Because kids are dumb and can’t handle complex stories. Get it?

There’s a multitude of other contrivances here and there (i.e. They established that if Vanellope crosses the finish line, the world gets reset, so wouldn’t that take care of the bug situation too?) and for a good majority of the film, the actual jeopardy involved seemed pretty watered down, or at least, so divided from the action on-screen (with no real sense of scale or proximity) that it was hard to tell how close they were to the peril that was supposed to be nipping at their heels.

 

IV. Ethos

I have some serious issues with Wreck-It Ralph‘s underlying philosophy, within which Ralph’s journey is the most ethically compromised, because, in the end, Ralph doesn’t learn that self-worth is the most important part of life (the message that seemed to be ): a token appreciation for one’s nine-to-five grind is. The core of the problem lies in the primary motivations of the characters.

Everything Ralph does in the movie (except for helping Vanellope–the one good bit of character development) he does to try and win over the opinions of the people who hate him. His primary motivation is ingratiating himself in an attempt to be accepted into another caste. Vanellope has an out: her cohabitants were brainwashed into forgetting her and thinking that she was just a buggy piece of code. That doesn’t change their cliquish behavior (+1 point to Disney for putting girl hate under a spotlight) but at least it’s a plausible reason to forgive them. That excuse doesn’t exist for Ralph.

At the end of the day, his game is still populated by the same classist assholes as it was in the beginning. In the big “catharsis” scene between Ralph and Felix, Felix goes off on a “hitting-us-over-the-head-with-the-set-up” rant about how Ralph doesn’t know how it feels to be treated like a prisoner and then RALPH. SYMPATHIZES. WITH HIM! How fucked is that logic? The prick did a stretch in prison and still doesn’t realize (or care) that he’s been treating Ralph like garbage! If the premise here is that Felix just did hard time and now understands what Ralph went through, then he should have realized, at some juncture, the error of his ways and apologized, maybe? A little? Instead, Ralph cowtows to Felix, begging his forgiveness and promising his continued, silent slavery all for Vanellope’s sake.

In fact, the only reason Felix went after Ralph in the first place was because the rest of the characters in Fix-It Felix would lose their game if he didn’t bring Ralph back. It may not have been the message in neon at the top of the billboard, but the underlying lesson of Wreck-It Ralph is that if we make ourselves go away, then “everyone will feel sorry that I’m gone and love me when I come back.”

(-ALL THE POINTS)

Why does Ralph go back to his own game in the end? The same assholes still live there. They treat him better when he gets back (or at least give him some superficial positive reinforcement), but he doesn’t know that’s going to happen when he leaves the racing game! By all rights, Ralph should have let them rot on the streets, begging for change like Q-Bert! I’m not advocating vindictiveness as a lesson for kids, but Ralph is teaching them some bad lessons about the give-and-take nature of social relations. In a creative work like Naruto, for example, the main character is a social reject who hates the system he’s born into, but ultimately realizes that the only way to defeat the hatred others feel for him (and each other) is with compassion; his struggle to reach and maintain that uncompromising sympathy is is point of the story.

Ralph doesn’t have any of those higher moral quandaries. His entire quest is self-serving, and in that, he fails. He fails to stand up for himself and leave a situation where he is being abused. He goes back home with a new friend, but no self-respect. None of this would have been an issue if Felix had been the one to beg Ralph to come back, if the citizens of Fix-It Felix had come to Ralph and apologized (and even then, it would be a pretty shitty message to send), or (my personal favorite) if Ralph had chosen to stick around in the racing game to spend his time with the only person who actually understood him, thus abandoning his classist higher-ups to their fates as their world crumbled down around them without Atlas to hold it aloft.

If I were more tin-hat, I would call it propaganda perpetrated by the 1%.

Also, for a piece of children’s entertainment, there’s an awful lot of killing as the solution to their problems. Like, characters coming right out and saying, “We’ve got to kill X.” In most classical Disney works, the villains’ deaths were usually incidental, often as a result of their own evil actions spiraling wildly out of control and resulting in their plummeting demise, typically into a conflagration of some sort. Actually, a lot of them die that way… Come to think of it, just how many Disney villains have died in storms or fires?

DisneyStormsandFires

Fascinating.

Anyhow, even main characters talk about outright murder as their primary solution to their plot woes. I know it’s a tough world out there and all, but come on! That’s a bit much for a PG rating…

 

VI: The Final Message

In the end, conformity is the message of Wreck-It Ralph. It doesn’t teach kids to fight oppression or class mistreatment; it just says, “Just keep muddling through your unpleasant day-to-day grind and the most you should hope for in your life is for some magic to trickle down upon you from on high by some greater power.” Wreck-It Ralph is a movie bred to produce non-confrontational, placid blue-collar workers. It is the anti-Office Space; it is everything that They Live! and DmC Devil May Cry warned us about. “Happiness can only be found in other people,” says Wreck-It Ralph, “so be good little workers and keep checking your assembly lines and mopping your floors and maybe, some day, someone will pat you on the back.”

EDIT (taken from an email where I expounded a bit more): It would have been different if, say, Ralph found self-worth at the end, or if, as I said in the review, his former game inhabitants had realized they were taking him for granted and told him that they appreciated him and then he decided to return. It’d still be problematic in the whole “if I leave, everyone will miss me” suicidal ideation sort of way, but at least then Ralph would have had a better motivation for going back. What he literally tells Felix in the end, though, is that he is a bad guy (meaning both senses of the word due to his flagging ego at betraying Vanellope) and that he’ll always be a bad guy and that he’ll never try to be anything more than his current station provides ever again. He turns down Vanellope’s offer of companionship and happiness because (???) he agreed to with Felix, I guess? He ends up going back home, grinning like an idiot not because he’s going to be appreciated now, but because the trappings of the scene are supposed to be happy and we, as the audience, are being instructed that “good” is accepting your lot in life. In the end, we get a corrupted“And Maggie Makes Three” ending, wherein Ralph isn’t pursuing any specific goal other than keeping his former (and current) oppressors afloat. They slap a happy sticker over the declining action by making his old coworkers appreciate him more, but he doesn’t know or have any reason to believe that anything will be different when he agrees to go back.

It’s a film in support of classism, targeted towards children, which disgusts me. If you take a bigger-picture look at the plot, Vanellope only succeeds in achieving her higher status in the end because it was the class she was rightfully born into which was then stolen from her by some lower-class person’s grasping ambition. Ralph fails to rise above the station he was born into and ends up acquiescing to his former position. Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t tell us to pursue our dreams in spite of our current positions; it tells us that our positions in life define us and what we can achieve, and that trying to reach beyond them only makes you a villain like King Candy. Ralph does succeed in becoming a hero with his final act of self-sacrifice, but the film more or less subsumes that fact beneath Ralph’s relationship to Vanellope and never brings up whether, in that act, Ralph feels that he has achieved what he set out to do or not or even if Ralph’s motivation ever changes from wanting to be perceived as a hero (with all the fanfare included) to wanting to be a hero. The movie edges towards a more well-rounded examination of Ralph here and there, but it never commits to it fully, and the result of their fumbling half-measures is a message for kids that is anathema to hoping for change.

/rant

And in concluding my review, am I jaded monster who thinks that all children’s entertainment needs to be brought up to the same level as adults’? No. And I’ve heard the argument before that “the kids don’t care” because they lack perspective and so it shouldn’t matter if their media is trash…but it does matter. It should matter because even though they have no taste, it doesn’t mean that bad media with an exploitative message isn’t bad for them. Advertising towards children might be ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept it or simply take in stride. If you want examples of high-quality children’s television and cinema, look at Pixar’s own pre-Disney work. Look at Avatar: the Last Airbender for racial diversity. Look at Sesame Street. Look at books.

Is Wreck-It Ralph the end of the world? No. I don’t even think it’s an awful piece of film making. But its politics and agenda (and deliberate effect on children) are symptomatic of a disease that we are all implicit in fostering and spreading. The only way it can be stopped is if we refuse to accept it part of our everyday life and steer our children towards more enriching pursuits that will develop, rather than parasitise, them. Speak with your dollars–don’t just accept what’s being swilled down the trough because it’s easier than going out into the daylight for real food. Some say that they don’t care what they watch, that they work hard all day and they don’t want to have to think about what they’re watching. If your job has so ravaged you that all you want is gruel for your brain, then what good is your job? Not that Ralph will tell you that…

Food for thought.

(Final Score 3/5)




©2013 by Blake Vaughn. The text of this story may be redistributed freely in its original form with attribution to the author, Blake Vaughn, and his website, www.blakevaughn.com, as under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

One Comment

  1. Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

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