Wreck It, But Be Nice to Your Sister

Review of Wreck-It Ralph, Directed by Rich Moore

Confession:  I love video games.  When I was 2, my dad bought the Apple II computer.  Some of my earliest memories are playing stone-age video games together as a family.  I remember playing Cranston Manor.  This was a game only slightly more sophisticated than Pong. It was a mystery game. A still image was on the screen, painted in plain 8-bit color graphics. Two lines of text described the scene. “You are standing in the forest. A piece of paper lies on the ground.” A few vertical brown and green lines stood in for trees. A yellow square was paper. You type two-word commands. “Go west,” or “Get paper,” or “Swallow poison.” We all sat around the living room shouting suggestions. “Go East, Dad, go East!” “No no! Get the paper first!” “Try hitting the tree.” We’d play an hour a night on weekends, and the simple mysteries would last weeks.

Later we got an Atari. My brother was the Pole Position expert; I preferred Q-bert; but together we were unbeatable at the original Mario Brothers.  We went through the Commodore 64, the Texas Instruments, the Colico Vision, and finally arrived at the Nintendo. Video games were a porthole to adventure, a social catalyst, a meeting place, an escape, a grand dreamscape of mystery lands and imperiled princesses and dark lords and burning villages and epic quests; of athletic championships and gridiron warriors and the boys of October and the burning rubber of racing cars and the smell of the ice beneath the puck; of war and flame and explosion with bullets flying and bazookas firing at aliens and monsters charging like lemmings at the Action Hero; of alien invasion, detective mystery, raining tetrads, mushroom kingdoms, flying ninjas, comic embattled toads, secret agents, deep mazes and underground labyrinths, mutated jellyfish, leaping purple kangaroo-dragons, technological fortresses defended by screaming lasers, vampires and mysteries unending.

To say, then, that I enjoyed Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012)—a movie set inside the world of 1980s arcade games—is a bit of an understatement.  To my particular taste, this is quite possibly one of the greatest movies ever made.

Ralph is the bad guy in a (fictional) arcade game called “Fix-It Felix” (loosely based on “Donkey Kong”).  Ralph wrecks a building; the player, controlling the eponymous Felix, fixes it, whereupon the inhabitants seize Ralph and throw him off the building.  Repeat for 30 years.  Ralph grows weary.  He hates being the bad guy all the time.  He hates being the outcast, living in a dump.  He wants (gasp!) to be the good guy.  He goes rogue, setting out to invade another game, win a medal, and prove he, too, can be a hero.  Antics ensue.

The movie absolutely nails the aesthetic of the old, 8-bit arcade games: simple, charming, and innocent.  We get nods to some very old games (Q-bert, Street Fighter, Super Mario Brothers).  The movie implicitly endorses this older, quainter style of gaming:  Ralph wanders into a modern first-person-shooter game called “Hero’s Duty” (think “Halo” crossed with “Call of Duty”) and finds himself thrust into a war zone between shell-shocked soldiers and marauding alien bugs.  Ralph flees in terror, shrieking “When did video games get so violent and scary?”

(Side note:  as a parent, I greatly appreciate that there is a video game rating system. It was invented largely in reaction to the gruesome violence of some early-1990s games like “Mortal Kombat,” which, yes, I also played but which, on retrospect, was not at all edifying.)

Okay, so another confession:  the best part of this movie is not the video-game backdrop—which is just fun scenery and in-jokes, nothing more—but the story.  Wreck-It Ralph somehow ends up being a very sweet movie about a big brother protecting his little sister.  Ralph finds himself on a quest to save a little girl whom he befriends during his adventures.  She (Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman), is a glitch in a nearby racing game and is trying to get into the race to become a real racer.  She is pursued by King Candy, whose reasons for fighting her are mysterious.  Ralph starts out on a selfish mission to win (or steal) a medal to flaunt in people’s faces.  He ends by giving it all up to save Vanellope—and proving he really is a good guy, medal or no.

I admired so much about this movie.  As a story, Ralph approached Pixar-esque quality.  As a whole it was predictable, but it took a few unexpected turns to get there (Ralph gets the medal about 20 minutes into the film; Vanellope doesn’t actually win the race, etc.).  The pacing and pitch was flawless:  it didn’t avoid emotional low points just because it was a “kids” movie, nor did it dwell overlong on eye-candy or action sequences but kept them moving along briskly.  Ralph’s final act of sacrifice (all heroes have to make a sacrifice) was so well done that I am tempted to call it iconic.  (Note the music as he plunges to the earth:  it is the soft, healing music of redemption, not the fast and loud music of an action scene).

I appreciated that the central relationship was between (essentially) adoptive siblings, rather than boyfriend and girlfriend.  Too many movies rely on romance as the lowest common denominator in any audience.  But siblings are among our most important relationships, and they are present throughout our lives.  Ralph finds in Vanellope a little sister who needs help and protection; she finds in him a big brother she can tease and love at the same time.

Finally, the movie actually contains a surprising reflection on good, evil, and human nature.  Ralph wants to be a good guy, and sets off to prove he can be.  He ends up abandoning his quest, unable to change his bad-guy nature.  He turns against Vallelope, smashes her race car, and betrays his friends, giving in to his evil nature despite his desire not to.  He recites to himself the Bad Guy’s Creed:  “I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad.”  I’m tempted to call this a Calvinist recognition of human depravity.

But then Ralph repents, throws away his medal, and violates the games’ programming to save Vanellope, developing a new character in the process.  (Okay, so this is more like salvation by works than a real gospel story, but it still has lots to commend it).  He recites the bad guy creed but, as he recites the final line (“There’s no one I’d rather be than me”), he looks at a gift Vallenope gave him that says “You’re my hero.”  That’s who Ralph has become.  How true. We find ourselves irredeemably lost and corrupt in this world, and our own efforts to save ourselves are hopeless.  But God is kind to adopt us into his family, to give us brothers and sisters and children and spouses to love; in loving others we stop thinking about ourselves—and that’s good.

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