A note on Wreck-it Ralph
Congratulations to the Disney Animation folks on their brand-new hit. It is charming, witty, funny and entertaining.
Noteworthy to me is Ralph’s in-game backstory. It’s not really a spoiler, since it’s not really discussed at length in the movie, but I will hide it under the fold nevertheless for the sake of decency.
Ralph is the “bad guy” in a game called Fix-it Felix, Jr.
Ralph’s backstory in the game is: Ralph lives in a stump in the wilderness. One day a bulldozer comes along and moves his stump to a garbage dump. The wilderness Ralph lived in is built into a city named Niceland and the site where Ralph’s stump once was is now an apartment building populated by vapid, upper-class twits. Whenever a player inserts a quarter, Ralph is raised from the garbage dump and attempts to destroy the apartment building that was once his home.
The player plays as Felix, Jr., who tries to out-pace Ralph’s rampage. If the player wins, Felix, Jr. is given a medal, and Ralph is thrown from the roof of the apartment building into the mud below, and must go back to live in the dump. (They never show what happens if the player loses. Presumably, the building is destroyed and there’s a big red sorrowful graphic.)
Oddly enough, Ralph’s perpetual rage against the citizens of Niceland is not the central drama of the movie. Instead, Ralph is given a desire to be liked and included in the community, and sets off on a mission to “win a medal” with the help of an unliked character from another game, and many hijinx do ensue. The stakes of Ralph’s everyday life are incredibly high but are given short shrift to concentrate on the more involved but less harrowing story of Ralph’s pursuit of a medal.
As a screenwriter who as worked on a number of animated movies, I know how these things get developed, and it’s my guess that, at one time, Ralph’s sadness and unquenchable rage was the central drama of the movie. The idea of a character who sleeps in a dump while smartly-dressed city-folk glide blithely about on the spot that was once his home, but whose desire for revenge is unleashed at the drop of a quarter, only to be defeated, over and over, is very powerful. Ralph is, to get technical, an aboriginal — he was there first. He is noteworthy for his bulk and temper — he is a savage in a torn shirt and overalls, almost a Li’l Abner type. He is, if nothing else, justified in his anger toward the citizens of Niceland.
In fact, we can parse it further. In the narrative of the game, the Niceland building is the status quo, and Fix-it Felix, Jr. is the tireless hero of that status. Ralph is presented as an invading enemy, and it is the player’s job — nay, duty — to identify with the status quo and to eject the vile marauder, regardless of whatever wrongs may have been visited upon him in the name of progress. The player’s role in the game, to thwart Ralph’s attempts at street justice, to take the side of the status quo over the side of what is right, is never commented on.
Now, let’s examine that “Jr” in Fix-it Felix, Jr. Felix, we are told, has a magic hammer that can fix anything (in the game, primarily broken windows and smashed bricks). Further, we are told, he inherited this magic hammer from his father, presumably named Fix-it Felix. What that means is, there was once a game called Fix-it Felix where a character named Fix-it Felix either defended a similar building from Ralph, or perhaps from a different bad-guy altogether.
The point is, Fix-it Felix, Jr. inherited his value to the community. Although he is presented as a working-class stiff, he is a hero to the community and the center of their social rituals. (I’m tempted to say that there is a feature waiting to be made that examines Felix, Jr’s relationship with his father — where is he? Does he still have his own game? What structure does he defend? Did he finally lose the battle too often?)
In the movie, the Groundhog-Day-style repetitive drama of Ralph’s rampages and defeats is presented in a lighthearted way, as though Felix and Ralph understand that this is just a show and everyone is merely playing their parts, in a Ralph-Coyote-and-Sam-Sheepdog kind of way, except that Ralph is truly reviled by the community. There’s a drama there, too, that oddly goes undramatized.