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 Nemo, Ratatouille, Bolt, Up, Cars, 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.