Some further thoughts on Wreck-it Ralph













Curt Holman writes:

about 30 minutes in, I wondered to myself, “Is this going to be a kid’s film with no ‘real’ bad guy?”

Conceptually, Wreck-it Ralph is a close relative of Toy Story, and a comparison of their respective plots is instructive.  Spoilers obviously follow.

Both Wreck-it Ralph and Toy Story are love stories about two characters who don’t like each other but are forced to work together to achieve a goal, and in so doing gain respect and admiration for one another.  See also Finding NemoRatatouilleBoltUpCars, etc. There is no force or individual whose goal it is to keep Woody the Sheriff from getting home to Andy, and there is no force or individual whose goal is to keep Ralph from gaining acceptance from his peers.  

Both stories have antagonists, but in each case those antagonists don’t make their presence acute until the third act.  And, as Mr. Holman points out, the antagonist in each case doesn’t have a case against the  story’s protagonist. King Candy has nothing for or against Ralph — Ralph is, at most, a minor irritant to him.  King Candy’s problem is Vanellope and the threat she causes to his domain (although the nature of her threat isn’t even known until late in Act II).  Ralph’s real antagonist, as with Woody, Marlin, Rene, Bolt, Carl and Lightning McQueen, is himself.  He’s his own worst enemy.  The only thing standing between Ralph and his goal is himself.  His fight is not against an enemy, his is a journey of self-discovery, his question is “Who am I?”

Now then, let’s review the plot of Toy Story, which is simple and beautiful. Sheriff Woody is Andy’s Favorite Toy.  One day, Andy gets a new toy, Buzz Lightyear, and suddenly Woody is no longer the favorite toy.  Woody, jealous, throws Buzz out a window.  Realizing he’s gone too far, he tries to rescue Buzz, and in the process they both become lost and far from home.  Woody’s efforts to get them both back home end them up in the heart of darkness, neighbor boy Sid’s bedroom.  Woody getting Buzz out of Sid’s clutches and getting them both into Andy’s arms before Andy moves to his new house (the ticking clock) forms the action of Act III.

That’s gorgeous.  It’s universal and elemental.  Everyone can relate to being replaced in a loved-one’s affections, and Woody’s goal is directly tied to his situation with Buzz — if he does not succeed, he will be lost and have nothing and his beloved Andy will be gone.  By the end of the narrative, Woody has learned to accept Buzz and Buzz has learned to accept his mediocrity.  It’s gorgeous and it’s not a mystery why the movie was a huge, ground-breaking hit.

Now, let’s review the plot of Wreck-it Ralph. Ralph wants to be accepted by his peers, ie the people of Niceland.  (Oddly, he is already accepted by his peers, if by “peers” you mean bad guys from other video games.  But Ralph doesn’t accept their acceptance — he wants the acceptance of the good guys, or rather the acceptance of the people who want him dead.)  To gain the acceptance of the folks of Niceland, Ralph seeks a medal. There’s nothing wrong with this goal, except that the viewer immediately understands that Ralph’s goal is misguided, and Ralph should understand it too.  “A medal” isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about Ralph, and Ralph is foolish to think so.  

Already, right there, Wreck-itRalph is miles away from the beauty and simplicity of Toy Story.  By the end of Act II, Ralph has gotten involved with Vanellope in this bizarre racing scheme in this strange society run by this weird king, all in the pursuit of this medal, which, everyone knows, is a false goal that will net Ralph nothing. After many shenanigans, Ralph gets his medal but has wrecked Vanellope’s car in the misguided notion that he’s helping keep her and her society from dying that —

You see what I’m getting at.  Where is the elemental beauty in this scenario that is the hallmark of Toy Story?  What does the possible fate of Vanellope, the land of Sugar Rush, the winning of the race, have to do with Ralph’s goal?  Rather, Ralph finds his story completely hijacked by Vanellope’s — he becomes her friend, betrayer and savior, and then, only then, does he know who he is and can return happily to his game.  As I asked yesterday, what is more compelling in Vanellope’s story than in Ralph’s own?  Ralph is an indigent displaced by a society who hates him, why doesn’t he deal with that?

None of this keeps Wreck-it Ralph from being inventive, swift, clever entertainment, but the screenwriter in me can’t help but think about the movie it might have been.


14 Responses to “Some further thoughts on Wreck-it Ralph
  1. BenjaminJB says:

    Are you saying that the bigger issue of Ralph’s relation to society gets displaced by the quasi-romance/buddy relationship of Ralph and Vanellope (and maybe Ralph/Felix)?

    It’s a wildly different movie, but in a similar vein, I was a little disappointed in the ending of The Dark Knight Rises that showed any social/economic differences in the city wished away by a cross-class romance with Bruce and Selina. Yay, true love can defeat social inequity! Why should Ralph need to deal with his displaced status when he has friends? Argh. (Or am I reading your post wrong?)

    • Todd says:

      Ralph’s relation to society isn’t displaced or even ignored, really — instead, it’s reflected in Vanellope’s situation. Ralph leaves his game only to find himself in another game, in the person of Vanellope. They’re both outcasts in their societies. Ralph discovers who he is through helping Vanellope discover who she is.

      The problem the narrative sets when it sets aside Ralph’s relationship to the people of Niceland is that Ralph, ultimately, cannot change. In order for his game to work, he has to be the building-destroying rage monster: that cannot change. The status quo must be upheld. Because the upholding of the status quo is built into the narrative, Ralph must find the change he needs in another character.

      The real issue may be that the narrative, really, belongs to Vanellope — she’s the one who changes the most, who has the longest and fullest journey to make, from outcast to rightful ruler. Vanellope succeeds in changing the status quo of her game, why was that not possible for Ralph?

  2. LintMan says:

    I think Ralph confronting the injustice and predjudice of his game world head-on would have made for a very different (and likely much less light-hearted) movie.

    So instead of Ralph trying to fight their predjudice, we get Ralph trying to earn their respect, opening the way for a heroic adventure tale. The hitch comes in that just “getting a hero’s medal” doesn’t make him a real hero any more than wearing a stethescope makes someone a real doctor. Instead, Ralph must earn it. Vannelope provides his means to do so – From his forgiveness of her theft and recognizing her as a kindred, to helping her prepare for the race, to getting her freed and her car fixed, then finally through his self-sacrificing effort to save Vanellope at the end. This is all the (internal) change that Ralph needs, and with it comes the external changes he desired – friendship and acceptance.

    Personally, I like that a lot better than what could potentially have resulted from a hackneyed “don’t judge a book by its cover! Bad guys are people too!” moral lesson ending.

    • Todd says:

      No doubt the Wreck-it Ralph movie that I’m thinking of would have been different, but it needn’t be less light-hearted. All great family movies deal with very real issues, it’s all in how the filmmakers treat the material.

  3. Nick says:

    I’m hoping we can generalize this bit here:

    “he becomes her friend, betrayer and savior, and then, only then, does he know who he is and can return happily to his game.”

    Todd, you often discuss identity crisis as a central psychological drive for protagonists. Is there a clear way to reconcile the protagonists’s search for identity with the fact that said identity is changing? It seems that protagonists are searching not so much for who they are now, but instead seeking definition of a new identity, forged by actions that constitute plot. Maybe I’ve answered my own question here – the protagonist wants to know who they are and, in the process, becomes someone else.

    In any case, you point out an identity crisis in Wreck-It-Ralph (which I have not seen) but not one in Toy Story. Perhaps story is stronger when characters do not directly seek out new identities and instead embody them out of necessity?

    • Todd says:

      Both Woody and Buzz act out different identity crises in Toy Story. Woody identifies himself as Andy’s Favorite, and then his identity is shattered when Buzz enters the house and he must re-identify himself as “just another toy” in order to be at peace in the world.

      Similarly, Buzz identifies himself as an actual space ranger, and through his adventures with Woody comes to learn, in a particularly brutal way, that, he, too, is “just another toy.” When the both of them come to this understanding they’re able to move on and become friends. In a way, all the Toy Story movies are about toys who start out thinking they’re special and gradually come to accept that they are not.

  4. Dash says:

    I can’t help but feel that the reason Ralph doesn’t deal with the real problem is because, well, no society has ever been able to truly deal with the same problem. In many ways, I left the theater viewing Wreck-it-Ralph as a tragedy. There were many ways it could have ended , but it ended in a return to the status quo with a couple of band-aids applied. Even before the movie was released, I predicted how it would end (I have a blog entry to prove it). It was a good film and engaging as all get-out. But, if you actually take the time to think about it, the way it ended is the only way it could have ended because of the message it would send if it didn’t end that way (potentially confusing sentence, but bear with me).

    For example, if the movie had been about Ralph actively confronting and overcoming the social injustice he faced, the message would have been something like, “Hey, kids! Are you a member of a group that’s been displaced and treated like crap? Don’t stand for it! Tear down the status quo!” That’d be too risky for a Disney movie… Or pretty much any movie these days.

    Or, if the movie ended with Ralph successfully leaving his game for good and finding success elsewhere, the message would have been something like, “Hey! Don’t like your station in life? Drop it and find success elsewhere!” I’m not even gonna touch what’s “wrong” with that with a 10-foot-pole.

    One thing that I find interesting is that Ralph had NO REASON to go back to his game (sure, he made a hasty promise, but he could have just lied – I would). It’s not like any of the residents of that fancy apartment complex were his friends. None of them could even hold a decent conversation with him – as evidenced when Ralph showed up at the party. I was hoping that he’d tell Felix to go make himself pregnant when it was time to return. It would have been interesting to watch that world collapse once its underclass decided not to be there anymore.

    • Todd says:

      I don’t think “Upend the social order” is a message that commercial filmmakers shy from. Antz, to name only one movie close to my heart, although not Disney, states its moral plainly at its end, says that you can’t run away from a corrupt society, you have to engage with it and change it.

      I, like you, didn’t understand why Ralph needed to go back to his game where he was so reviled, except then he would end up homeless, according to the rules of the movie. What strikes me as odd is that they dreamed up a really complicated backstory for Vanellope so that she could upend her social order and regain what is hers, but they couldn’t do the same for Ralph.

      • Dash says:

        True. However, Antz was made in the late 90’s (doesn’t feel like it, though, does it?). The sociopolitical landscape has changed considerably since. While it may not have been a message to shy away from back then, now it’s practically a different story.

        Ralph didn’t necessarily have to wind up homeless. He could have “Gone Turbo” in a newer game, and no one would have been the wiser. Though, that would have probably involved setting up a not-so-heroic hero or something to avoid making Ralph look like a jerk.

        I also found that odd. Though, thinking about it, I think I may have come up with a reason (and believe me, this is really, REALLY far out there). What if that apartment complex is meant to represent places like America or Australia or parts of Africa and Europe where land was taken/stolen and developed? Had Ralph successfully upended the social order of “Fix-It Felix, Jr.”, and gotten his land back, and sent the squatters packing; what kind of message would that send? In the case of Vanellope, she only really had to regain status. Gaining and losing status is actually a really simple thing. We see it happen with public officials on the news all the time. But, Ralph somehow regaining his land and home – that would be difficult and complicated.

        I’d actually argue that they didn’t so much dream up a complicated backstory as much as they went to such great lengths to hide what happened. It all fell into place once they explained what “Going Turbo” meant. Then it made sense why the only person in Sugar Rush who knew the term was the king; and why his vehicle was so different in design from all the other racers. When I saw the movie, I initially wondered why they treated Vanellope in such a manner. Then, they explained that one detail that they’d brought up near the beginning – “Going Turbo” – and it all made sense. In a way, it was kind of like a good who-done-it.

  5. Jaymark108 says:

    I think you’re mischaracterizing the Nicelanders in your critique. My impression of the movie is that the Nicelanders were well aware that all the characters were part of the game’s “stage play”, and that Ralph isn’t a Bad Guy in the sense of a great evil that must be shunned. They aren’t scared of him, and they pretty much just ignore him while the arcade is closed.

    The Nicelanders ignore Ralph because they see him as a clumsy oaf who ruins their fun (and tries to steal the thunder from their community’s alpha dog). Calling him the “Bad Guy” is just an excuse to get him to leave them alone. What if Ralph’s job title was a Janitor? “Why are you coming to the office party?” they would say. “You’re just the janitor.”

    As we can see from the party scene, Ralph IS a bit of a clumsy oaf–and he does try to steal the thunder from Felix. The Nicelanders just don’t know about Ralph’s friendly, kindhearted qualities, because they haven’t taken the opportunity to notice them. Likewise, Felix doesn’t hate Ralph–he’s the nicest of the Nicelanders; he just takes Ralph’s role for granted. Why isn’t Ralph happy with his station in life? Not because being the janitor is a bad job, but because he’s not appreciated for his vital service.

    Ralph states at the beginning of the movie that he DOES like his job. He “doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore,” not because being the bad guy is an undesirable position, but because he is looking for respect. Going Turbo (finding another game where he would be better appreciated) wouldn’t be a better ending, because he would be abandoning people who need him, which isn’t one of his character traits. Wreck-It-Ralph seems to be pushing the idea that abandonment is what truly makes an evil character–the Nicelanders are seen as antagonists in the first act, pushing Ralph into his Hero’s Journey.

    Over the course of the movie, the Nicelanders and Felix get to see that Ralph is both (1) important to the community and (2) actually kind and helpful. At the end of the film, Ralph has integrated into the game and the other characters welcome him. They are still performing the same jobs, but the role of the janitor is appreciated, rather than being beneath the other workers.

    That’s a subversive ending! Ralph is like the gay person, or the transgendered, or the poor minority–someone who deserves to be a member of the wider community, but is pushed out because of innocent character traits. Instead of being pushed out, the community itself needs to transform by becoming aware of the outsider’s good qualities and seeing how that person actually fits into the group, while still being himself/herself.

  6. Ben says:


    I think we are looking at this problem the wrong way….

    What I take from the movie is that Ralph simply wants one thing: Acceptance. Like most of us would, he craves acceptance and affection from his fellow game inhabitants, but he is rebuked and hated sadly because his role is the “Bad Guy”, or to disrupt the peace and tranquility of their world whenever a quarter is inserted. This leads to the aforementioned medal/hero plot-hook that sends him game hopping in the hope that if his quest is successful, the nicelanders would see he is a good person, because only “good-guys get medals”, and be his friend.

    If this was truly about a commentary on social order or demanding respect, Ralph could have easily gone on strike and refused to play his role in the game, showing how un-fair the nicelanders had been to Ralph and that he should be given a chance to join them. However, this doesn’t even occur to Ralph as he doesn’t want to create strife or harm, only to belong with the nicelanders. This is shown later in the story when Ralph shows great remorse over how his actions have harmed the very people he wanted acceptance from.

    This all plays well into the Sugar Rush story ark as Ralph sees another like himself in the Vanellope von Schweetz character. At first, he does everything he can to get his medal back in order to accomplish his overall goal of acceptance with the nicelanders, but slowly realizes that by helping Vanellope, he gains the friendship and companionship he has always wanted. At that point, the purpose of the hero medal is more of an excuse to be with Vanellope, as seen with Ralph’s reluctance when King Candy gives him the medal later on.

    At this point, I comment on this:

    “You see what I’m getting at. Where is the elemental beauty in this scenario that is the hallmark of Toy Story? What does the possible fate of Vanellope, the land of Sugar Rush, the winning of the race, have to do with Ralph’s goal?”

    At this point, everything that happens in Sugar Rush is apart of Ralph’s spiritual awakening, or that he he had attained his true goal all along: that the friendship with Vanellope was the acceptance that he had always wanted and needed.

    At that, I ask all of you, why do you help your friends in times of need? Answer: Because they mean something to you and that their happiness is worth more than anything in the world….

    …including your own happiness.

    In the end, this is what I got from Wreck-it Ralph.

  7. Garry says:

    Ralph’s real conflict isn’t with the people of Niceland or with society. It’s really with himself. That’s what the Bad-anon meeting scene is supposed to highlight. He doesn’t accept who he is. In the transformative scene in his journey, he does. “I am bad, and that’s good.” He finally realizes what Zangief was saying “I’m a Bad Guy, but I’m not really a bad guy.”

    Venelope offers a contrasting adventure: she also discovers who she is, but her acceptance is both internal and external – her transformation is aided by and shown by external changes in her game. But in her heat, she’s still Glitch, and will always be.

    Ralph is the complete opposite. Nothing in his game really changes. External relationships with Niceland people become better, but Ralph, ironically, doesn’t really care anymore. He has changed; and because of this internal change, his entire world is different, even though it’s the same world.

    • Todd says:

      That’s certainly the movie. My only real question is how the movie got there, when there was a perfectly obvious conflict sitting right on the protagonist’s doorstep?

  8. Isaac says:

    One thing that I really liked about this story was Felix’s character arc. He represents Persons of Privilege — he’s the hero of the game, the game is named for him, he inherited his gear from his dad, and he is beloved by all around him. To him, the status quo worked, because he benefited from it.

    The script, I thought, did a very nice job of pointing out the problems with this while still keeping Felix sympathetic. He doesn’t really understand that Ralph is unhappy, because he can’t see past the end of his golden hammer — to him, everything is going great, so he assumes that everyone else is doing great too, like a rich guy who honestly doesn’t understand that the poor guy who works in his office just can’t afford to drop fifty bucks to take his wife out somewhere nice. So Felix is clueless, but not evil, but the movie does *not* forgive him his cluelessness. He has to have the fact that not everyone has it good rubbed in his face like sandpaper before he gets it. In a perfect world, people watching the movie might realize that they, too, were as clueless as Felix was.

    I know folks are talking mostly about Ralph, but I just wanted to drop my two cents about how happy I was about how that subplot played out.