Review and Commentary: Wreck-It Ralph

Quick review:  nearly everything about this movie is awesome.  It's fun, light, emotional rollercoster, life-affirming, optimistic and morally complex.  There are some elements that are problematic, and I'll get to that.  But I want to start by talking about the stuff I love.  Spoilers starting out below the fold.

From a writer's perspective, Wreck-It Ralph is incredible.  Every beat of the movie, every sudden dramatic moment, is perfectly set up by the characters and their setting.  The best things about Ralph -- his optimism, aspiration, and  good nature -- cause his biggest problems -- nearly getting his game shut off, destroying Vannelope's car.  And the reveal at the end, that King Candy was Turbo, came out of nowhere, and made absolute sense.  (I had thought it was just going to turn out that King Candy wanted to race, but had been programmed as an NPC.)

From an emotional perspective, this movie had me in tears more than once, for more than one reason.  If I had been watching it at home, I probably would have paused to finish weeping before getting back to the movie -- for that reason, I recommend seeing it in the theater, where you'll be forced to get the whole experience all at once.  It's worth it.

Moving on to the problematic stuff:

Wreck-It Ralph passes the Bechdel Test:  the other Sugar Racers, predominantly female, talk to Vannelope about whether she can race, and Vannelope and Calhoun are both strong women.  But for the most part, women are not represented well.  All the characters with aspirations beyond their programming are male -- Ralph wants to be accepted by the community of his game, Felix wants to impress Calhoun.  She, by the way, has the darkest backstory, like, ever, which (a.) illuminates her motivation as being down to a man's intervention, and (b.) manages to contextualize her strength as a type of weakness.

I'm not saying this movie is the worst representation of women in media right now, but it's not exactly breaking ground in that area.

This movie also comes off a bit like propaganda for the status quo.  Let's take a look, for example, at the Bad Guy Mantra:

I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.

There's a page on TVTropes called Villains Act, Heroes React.  (It turns out, the one called Status Quo Is God is not as relevant to this argument.)  It describes the tendency, in heroic plots, for the villain to do all the trying to change things, and the hero to do all the trying to keep things the same.  The villain's plan is usually awful, and it's good that they're being stopped.  But eventually it starts to feel like the point is "Change is bad."

In Wreck-It Ralph, the worst kind of people are people who compromise the playability of their game, and you compromise the playability of your game by changing things.  Even when Ralph does make a big change (in Sugar Rush) it's only okay when it's made clear that he's restoring an older, truer status quo.

Now, I don't mind the lesson that the way for things to be better is for everyone to accept and celebrate each other's value, as the NPCs in Fix-It Felix accept and celebrate Ralph at the end.  And, I recognize that this lesson is implicit in the premise -- an arcade game can't change how it works spontaneously, so the premise can't allow for that.

But that's just one way to phrase the lesson at the end -- another easy way to phrase it is "Know your place."  There's something a little bit dark about a world where the life of a villain is so consistently miserable that they need a support group to get through it, but have to keep that lifestyle, even though it's unrewarding, or their home will be destroyed for them, and everyone else who lives in that game.