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For Mario and Luigi to be Super, there has to be a Bowser. After all, who would there be to save if no one kidnapped Princess Peach? Would there be anything heroic about an oversized ape incongruously named Donkey Kong if he didn’t have to battle for bananas against a villainous K. Rool?
Since Atari and beyond, video games typically feature one or more characters fighting some type of evil, usually in the form of a very recognizable villain. Games wouldn’t be able to have heroes without the nemeses, would they? But what if some of the “bad guys” don’t want to be so bad anymore. What if they want to become good guys?
Disney’s latest kids’ movie, Wreck-It Ralph poses this philosophical question worthy of Socrates. Can a leopard change its spots? Can a villain become a hero? If so, what does it take to make such an arcade-shaking change? In a movie about acceptance, friendship, and good versus evil, the aim seems to be to make this film one of the good guys. But thanks to frequent crudities, condoned disrespectful behavior, and violence, it’s game over for Wreck-It as a family movie hopeful.
Most arcade players don’t think much about the character Wreck-It Ralph when they shove their quarters in the machine and start punching the buttons. The game is called “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” and Fix-It Felix. Jr. is naturally the star. Ralph admits that he’s easily angered—or, as he puts it, that his “passion bubbles closely to the surface”—and at his ginormous size, he naturally causes some damage when he’s mad or accidentally when he’s calm. He wrecks things for his job and unfortunately has a tendency to wreck things on off-hours, too. Does that make him a bad guy?
The rest of the cast of “Fix-It Felix” sure thinks so. They spend most of their time applauding Felix, Jr., showering him with pies and adulation in his fixed-up pent house, while Ralph watches the glory from his home on the garbage heap next door. Loneliness and confusion over his identity as a villain eat away at Ralph, and on the eve of the 30th anniversary of “Fix-It Felix” (the game has outlasted all its competitors to become a fixture at the arcade), Ralph’s discontentment comes to a head. Determined to earn friends and respect, as well as to prove to everyone that he can be a “good guy,” Ralph goes on a campaign to win a hero’s medal—a medal that will outshine all of Felix’s many awards and mark Ralph as a good guy for all the arcade world to see.
The quest for this medal of honor takes Ralph into new territory, outside his own game. Game jumping is not allowed, and as soon as Ralph gets caught, everyone in arcade land thinks he’s “gone turbo.” Getting a medal is not as easy as Ralph first thought, and game jumping, it turns out, can be a dangerous game. As Ralph tries to survive threats to his survival, his medal search has far reaching consequences that he had never expected, leading him to a new friend, enemies, and life-threatening catastrophe.
True to his reputation, Ralph seems to keep wrecking the characters and worlds that he meets, but in order to be a true hero, he’ll have to learn that it takes more than a medal to change that leopard’s spots or reprogram that game.
Wreck-It Ralph is very like a trip to an arcade when one has outgrown the pastime. The packaging on a video game can still entice—advertising fun, imagination, and a fresh new concept. Perhaps it would be worth the (now many) quarters and time to try it out. Then the game starts and the result is disappointment. For various and differing reasons, the experience is just not what it used to be.
Despite its promise, Wreck-It is not like the animated flicks of yesteryear that parents could put on for their kids without a concern. The plot concept is indeed remarkable for its creativity and is an ideal vehicle to attract both kids and their parents, who remember the days when now “retro” video games were at the peak of gaming technology.
With a Disney-sized budget and some of the best animators in the business, Wreck-It takes advantage of the opportunities provided by this premise, creating an incredibly imaginative world for the video game characters to occupy. In such a movie, the filmmakers can go wild with ideas and creativity, in this case even getting to invent new video game concepts and reinvent old ones. The animators are up to the task, and the result is a colorful, fantastically vibrant film with polished and smooth animation of the highest caliber.
Wreck-It doesn’t lose any points in the acting category, either, with a cast of voice players who perform their roles well. John C. Reilly as Ralph communicates a blend of appealing victim, good-natured neighbor, and little boy in a man’s body that suits his character’s journey and young audience. The other standout performance of the film comes from the real bad guy, King Candy, voiced by Alan Tudyk.
Like in a losing game of “Fix-It Felix,” this film’s polish and visual appeal are the blocks for a building that gets wrecked faster than it can be built. Even the filmmakers’ attempts to communicate positive messages follow the pattern of Ralph’s winding path to becoming a “good guy”—they’re both roundabout, messy efforts that create a lot of carnage on their way to a “good” end.
The one uplifting theme that manages to escape the rubble comes in Ralph’s central storyline. Ralph understandably desires friendship and kindness from others, which he doesn’t receive as a villain. On the other hand, another prime motivator for his quest for “good guy” status is a thirst for accolades and recognition. In either case, Ralph’s goal is primarily self-centered, and leads him to act with complete disregard to the welfare of others for much of his medal hunt. Here, however, Wreck-It clearly means to condemn Ralph’s selfishness in his quest for hero status, and the point is well-made, as Ralph eventually learns to think of others and sacrifice for them.
The movie’s primary, most obvious message, does not fare so well. Ralph’s real trouble, viewers are told, is that he doesn’t feel positively about himself or like himself as the person he is. A lack of personal acceptance appears to be common among video game villains, as Ralph discovers when he attends a meeting of Bad-Anon. This organization’s encouraging mantra encapsulates the moral ambiguity and identity confusion of the film: “I am 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.”
When the bad guys first recite this slogan at the close of the Bad-Anon meeting, the idea seems to be more of a joke and one that Ralph sets out to disprove with his determination that he can become a good guy. But the mantra gains credibility when Ralph inexplicably recites it in a climactic moment of great sacrifice. At that time, he is obviously doing good and denouncing his “bad guy” status with his actions, yet he simultaneously confirms his identity as a “bad guy” by repeating that he is “bad, and that’s good,” etc. Thus, the moral ambiguity built in to this recitation becomes much more dangerous for children than humorous, as well as undermining the film’s attempts at a positive message about acceptance.
In reality, Ralph (or anyone else) should not accept himself or be accepted by others for being a villain or for doing wrong of any kind. His self-doubt is likely the result of a healthy conscience that knows he should do good rather than evil, but the film does not explore that possibility. Whether or not a lack of villainy would spell the collapse of video games, teaching young viewers that they should accept themselves and others, even when they are doing evil is not healthy, safe, or rational. In defense of Wreck-It, the movie does not consistently condone such a broad view of acceptance (Ralph implies that he knows he’s a “good guy” in the end), but the conflicting messages of the story leave the door wide open for such an understanding.
Similar problems also exist in the film’s second layer of this same theme, portrayed through a different video game character Ralph meets in another arcade game. In the world of "Sugar Rush," a young girl named Vanellope is considered a “glitch” by her fellow game characters. They have ostracized her to living alone in a hidden cave and will not let her compete in their pod races, viewing her as a “mistake” that wasn’t supposed to exist in their game. After Ralph gets past his initial, justifiable irritation with the attitude-infected girl, Ralph sees the similarity of their situations and wants to help Vanellope out of her persecuted, rejected life.
Once again, this subplot teaching acceptance gets smashed by an onslaught of troubles. Vanellope is, to put it bluntly, obnoxious, rude, and crude. Sure, she has a troubled life, and one would like to think that a rough upbringing or the lack of parents that plagues the video game characters is responsible for her intolerable behavior. The filmmakers cannot use that explanation, however, when Vanellope remains the same disrespectful, name-calling tough even after her surprising identity is revealed. “This,” she announces, referring to her smart-mouth persona, “is who I am.”
Like the filmmakers, Ralph apparently has no problem appreciating Vanellope’s uncouth behavior and engages in it with her, throwing rude names back and forth between them as insults when they’re angry or as expressions of affection when they’re feeling friendly. These names mostly include bathroom references or other demeaning phrases, like “fart feathers,” “my royal chimp,” or Vanellope’s favorite name for Ralph, “stink brain,” to name only a few of many. The latter name even earns the honor of being engraved on a handmade medal for Ralph and is one of the many names Vanellope insists Ralph call himself when he must apologize to her at one point.
Offensive language of the usual kind (profanities and obscenities) is confined to “gee,” but one would hardly notice its absence because of the plethora of dirty names thrown about. Since kids have a tendency toward name-calling anyway, this content, fully condoned in this movie, would rightly cause serious concern for parents. If your child isn’t potty-mouthed before this film, he or she might very well come of the theater changed for the worse. Perhaps they’ll even be singing the chorus of a prominent, catchy song featured in the movie that repeatedly exclaims, “Shut-up and drive.”
The crudity in Wreck-It is not confined to derisive names. Any opportunity for bathroom or body humor does not get overlooked. Several characters refer to going “pee-pee in your slacks,” soiling themselves, or wetting their pants. Ralph also states at one point that he is “gassy,” while Vanellope describes her need to puke or “vurp,” which she explains (in unpleasant detail) is a combination between a vomit and a burp.
To give another example, the script goes to great and complicated lengths to have Vanellope make a bathroom joke out of the title of an arcade game called “Heroes’ Duty.” Most kids would never understand how “duty” could possibly refer to anything body or bathroom related, but that fact doesn’t deter the filmmakers. Never mind that Vanellope actually has to explain her first play on words with another sordid joke—the crude humor must survive at all costs.
Given the apparent commitment to unsavory humor, it is little wonder that violence is also used for comedic effect throughout the film. Calhoun, a commanding officer from “Heroes’ Duty,” is the lady action hero who out-toughs the men, verbally and physically beating them into submission when she feels it’s appropriate. She clobbers Ralph several times with her helmet in one scene, but the more disturbing sequence occurs with Felix.
[SPOILER WARNING] When Calhoun and Felix are sinking in a pool of mud, Calhoun slugs Felix, which leads to the discovery that the Laffy Taffy vines hanging above them in the candy world of “Sugar Rush” lower toward them when they do something funny. For the cause, Felix asks Calhoun to repeat her “funny” action of smacking him. It turns out that a gentle slap isn’t enough to entertain the Laffy Taffy—only a hearty punch will suffice. Thus, Calhoun proceeds to pummel Felix while the Laffy Taffy vines laugh at the violence. With his magic fix-it hammer, Felix can immediately repair the black eyes and puffy bruises inflicted by this beating, but the effect of the sequence, which Felix calls “comedy gold,” is no less alarming.
Other characters and scenes add to an unusual level of violence for a children’s flick. The ultimate, frightening villain blatantly says it will be fun to kill Ralph and sadistically tries to force Ralph to watch his friend die. Bad-Anon features a Zombie who has his heart pulled out in the meeting (which does not seem to harm the Zombie at all), a villain who Ralph calls “Satan,” and a “bad guy” who, in broken English, defends “crushing man’s skull like sparrow’s egg between thighs” (this action is only described, not shown).
Ironically, Ralph is horrified by the problem of violence himself when he is in “Heroes’ Duty” and screams, “When did video games become so violent and scary?” Evidently at the same time children’s movies moved in the similar, detrimental direction.
Despite welcome references to the more innocent and child-friendly video games of old, Wreck-It is far from following through on its enticing promise of a creative premise and glossy animation. Instead, blow upon blow of misguided messages, crude content, and violence smash the positives, tearing down what could have been a fun family viewing experience. Much more than a special fix-it hammer is needed to undo the damage that ultimately wrecks this aptly-named film’s potential.