Monday, March 11, 2013

Film Star Focus: Wreck-It Ralph

Or, why I think Disney's Wreck-It Ralph deserved its Oscar nomination. Let it be known that I have not yet seen the other nominees (including the winner, Pixar's Brave), but I still think what this film was able to accomplish was more than deserving of its nomination, if not the win. Wreck-It Ralph might seem like a blatant cash-in, or a movie that would only appeal to the gaming demographic (and even then, only the younger one), but I'm here to put that theory to rest. The setting and slew of cameos might draw in the gaming community, but the characters and their journeys are what will bring people back for their 2nd, 3rd, and 50th viewings.

And so this brings me to the first of my latest line of features, the Film Star Focus. I may not be well versed in cinematography or film history/techniques, but I can at the very least spot a great character story when I see one. Thus, in this series I will be trying my best to flesh out the great (and not so great) characters and their journeys in their respective films.

Also, before we get too far along, since I'm aiming to tackle the full character arc, the following 'review' will involve spoilers. I will try my best to be tactful, especially for movies which I'm advocating to be seen, but I will touch on character-specific endings here. Plot may get spoiled here and there, but character finales are very much on the table. So with out further ado...

Wreck-It Ralph
~Wreck-It Ralph~
Walt Disney Animation Studios

On Video March 5th, 2013
Amazon ~ Powell's

For decades, Ralph has played the bad guy in his popular video game. In a bold move, he embarks on an action-packed adventure and sets out to prove to everyone that he is a true hero with a big heart.

As he explores exciting new worlds, he teams up with some unlikely new friends including feisty misfit Vanellope von Schweetz. Then, when an evil enemy threatens their world, Ralph realizes he holds the fate of the entire arcade in his massive hands.

Film Character Review

Our "Hero"

In the beginning, Ralph was a simple forest dweller, maybe a backwoods kind of guy, dressed in overalls and living in a tree stump. One day a bulldozer came along and moved his stump (and him) over to a dump in order to build a tall apartment building called Niceland. Ralph, suffering from a very short temper, climbed the building and started wrecking it.

Is it just me, or does this sound like the opening to a Bugs Bunny cartoon gone wrong?

The Nicelanders obviously don't want to be put out of their homes, so they call their building supervisor/carpenter/contractor (who happens to have a magical fixing hammer) by the name of Felix Jr. to fix the building. Once all the damage has been repaired, and Ralph (now deemed Wreck-It Ralph) has been chased to the roof, the Nicelanders award Felix a gold medal and then toss Ralph off the building with only a mud pile to break his fall.

Thus the stage is set for the world Ralph lives in. Felix is the good guy who gets medals, pies, and the gratitude and adoration of all the Nicelanders. Ralph is the bad guy who gets relocated to the dump, wrecks a building, and gets thrown off a building.

Of course, that's only part of Ralph's story. In reality, he is part of a video game, one that has been a staple in an arcade for decades. With each quarter the game starts over. Play after play, day after day, for 30 years he has had to relive the same story, go through the same motions, get tossed off the same building and fall into the same mud pile.

This is where we meet him. It's the 30th anniversary of his game getting plugged in and he's attending Bad-Anon, a support group for the arcade's bad guy residents. And if sharing his in-game story wasn't bad enough, he admits to the group that maybe he wouldn't be feeling so down if things were better after work. He confides:
Felix and the Nicelanders go hang out in their homes. Which he's just fixed and every—you know... They go to their homes, I go to mine. Which happens to be a dump.

And when I say a dump I don't mean like a shabby place. I mean an actual dump. Where the garbage goes and a bunch of bricks and smashed building parts — that's...that's what I call home. I guess I can't bellyache too much. I've got my bricks, I've got my stump. It looks uncomfortable, it's actually fine. I'm—I'm good.

But... If I'm really honest with myself — I see Felix up there getting patted on the back, people giving him pie, and thanking him, and so happy to see him all the time — sometimes I think to myself, "Man, sure must be nice being the good guy."
So this is our 'base' Ralph. He's at his lowest low and is reaching out for support and advice from his fellow bad guys. Not only is this extremely relatable for most of us in the audience, but even those who haven't been in his specific situation can at least recognize that living isolated in a dump isn't a fun place to be.

Furthermore we can see a lot of his personality by how he acts and speaks. He's a bad guy, but this doesn't mean he's a villain. He's not evil — heck, even in-game he's more victimized than anything. But in the real world (so to speak), he's just a guy stuck in a rut. He's annoyed, maybe, but not angry or vengeful. And he's at Bad-Anon, which means he's branching out for help.

Well, sort of.

The group acknowledges his troubles and tries to comfort him as best they can, giving advice like, "You are bad guy, but this does not mean you are bad guy," and "Labels won't make you happy. You must love you." They even have a Bad Guy Affirmation:
I'm 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.
But this stuff isn't what Ralph is there to hear. As he sees it, he's not like these guys. If you look at the back stories of Bowser, Zangief, or Eggman/Robotnik, they've earned their bad reputations. They steal, maim, and conquer for their own ends. So what could they possibly know about Ralph?

Ralph leaves the meeting and travels home. Along the way, we are shown even more of Ralph's life. It seems the mere title of Bad Guy is not only damning in his game, but earns prejudice from the world at large. From the Surge Protector who stops him at every crossroads to interrogate him, to the random good guys who scatter from his path, Ralph is continually isolated and persecuted. He does his best to seem nonchalant about the whole thing, and even takes a moment to give food to some homeless. If we had any doubts about whether he was good or not, we shouldn't now.

As Ralph rides the train into his home station, he is greeted with fireworks above the apartment building. It seems the Nicelanders are throwing an anniversary party, with guests from throughout the entire arcade, from Sonic the Hedgehog to Mario. But did Ralph receive an invite? And remember that temper problem he has?

You can probably guess where this is going.

Ralph knocks only to have the door slammed in his face. A moment later, Felix is shoved out to have a talk with him. Here Ralph is very passive aggressive, playing dumb like he didn't know exactly what day it was or what the fireworks were for. And when he brings up that he's always wondered what cake tasted like (no one seems to throw it in the garbage), Felix has no choice but to give the big guy a break and invite him in.

Inside the party, Ralph is once again confronted with the Nicelanders' low opinions of him. A cake is wheeled out with replicas of all the characters on top of the apartment. All the characters except Ralph, who is down in the mud pile with a villainous look about him. Once again, Ralph takes the somewhat passive aggressive stance, suggesting that 'the little guy' might join everybody on top. This leads to an argument with the Nicelander who owns the penthouse suite, who is obviously more well off and speaks out more.
Gene: You see, Ralph, there's no room for you up here.

Ralph: Well, what about this? We could make room. Here, we could take turns. *switches Felix on top for Ralph in the mud* Easy.

Gene: Felix needs to be on the roof because he's about to get his medal!

Ralph: Well, how about we take that medal, and give it to Ralph. Would that be the end of the world, Gene?

Gene: Now you're just being ridiculous. Only good guys win medals. And you, sir, are no good guy!

Ralph: I could be a good guy, if I wanted to, and I could win a medal!

Gene: Uh-huh. And when you do, come and talk to us.

Ralph: And then would you finally let me be on top of the cake with you guys?

Gene: If you won a medal, we'd let you live up here in the Penthouse. But it will never happen, because you're just the bad guy who wrecks the building.
And there you have it. If Ralph brings back a medal, the symbol of victory which is only obtainable by being a good guy, he will finally be acknowledged by his peers.

And so begins Ralph's quest for a medal. After a couple botched game-jumping adventures he eventually stumbles upon...

The Sidekick

Vanellope (Vanilla-Penellope) von Schweetz is a resident of the candy and sweets-themed racing game, Sugar Rush. Just as Ralph thinks he's home free, she unknowingly stops Ralph's quest by stealing—er, borrowing an important item from him. But thankfully, Vanellope is far from just a random plot-device and the initially antagonistic relationship between the two is suddenly turned on its head when Vanellope reveals her own story.

When we first meet Vanellope, she's completely alone, she's antagonistic for seemingly no reason, and she steals from our protagonist. But as we learn more about her, her attitude becomes more understandable. She's antagonistic because that's the only way she's been treated by everyone else. It comes off as an attack on Ralph because we know he's done nothing to deserve it, but Vanellope doesn't know him and any edge she can get can only work to her advantage. She steals from Ralph, again, because she sees an opportunity for happiness and swipes it before it can be taken away from her again.

See, Vanellope is a glitch in her game — a character that wasn't coded properly and essentially isn't supposed to exist at all. This means that her appearance and location tend to pixelate randomly, especially when she's emotionally charged, and is unpredictable enough that she could potentially be a hazard to the other racers. As such, she is ostracized by everyone in the game, ridiculed by the other racers, and most importantly to Vanellope, completely forbidden from racing.

Of course, Vanellope's a scrapper and manages to cheat the system and buy her way into the next race. With all the prejudice against her, it's no wonder that one of her main goals in preparing for the race is to get her 'glitch' under control, aka repress it entirely. And Ralph, seeing so much of his own situation mirrored in her, is on board for helping out.

But as our two heroes are training for the big race, we also have a side-story involving...

The Supporting Cast

Fix-It Felix, Jr., the good guy from Ralph's game, and Sgt. Calhoun from the action-packed first person shooter, Hero's Duty. Their goals are basically to restore order, which means bringing Ralph back to his game before the arcade opens in the morning. And despite their goal seeming to clash with Ralph's, they're not actually the villains of this story.

Felix, who we've seen from the beginning and met fairly early on, is not a bad good guy. He's not mean-spirited, self-centered, or just putting on a good face for is job. He has a cheery voice, good looks, a perfect smile, and the perfect job. He never uses foul language, doesn't get into fights, and is an all-around likeable fellow. He's genuinely an innocent do-gooder through and through, which you would think would put him at odds with Ralph but...

Really, if you think about it, his job is not even to beat Ralph, or lock him up, or really do anything about Ralph at all. You'll notice during the gameplay segments, the two never come into contact with each other. All Felix does is fix the building. It's always the Nicelanders who actually throw Ralph off the top. The same held true at the party: Felix was polite to Ralph, but stood by while one of the Nicelanders picked a fight.

Just as Ralph isn't really a villain, Felix isn't really a hero. Before today, he's probably never had a challenge in his life. Between the player being on his side, the Nicelanders praising him, and being the good guy of his game, he's probably never had to work for anything. Even his tool, his magic hammer, was given to him by his father. Just one of the perks of being a good guy, right?

Sgt. Calhoun would beg to differ. She may be the leader of her squad, and the main character players interact with in Hero's Duty, but she's also been "programmed with the most tragic backstory ever."

The enemies in her game are giant virus-like bugs that eat, kill, and multiply. The one day she didn't perform a perimeter check...her fiance was killed. Blaming herself, she's put her whole life into her job. And she will stop at nothing to restore order. Even if that means venturing into the candy-coated world of Sugar Rush and teaming up with the pint-sized and somewhat smitten Felix.

Lessons Learned / Ending Arcs

I don't want to go too in depth with the plot, since I'm strongly endorsing anybody who hasn't yet to see this movie, but I do still want to cover why these characters worked so well and stuck with me so strongly. So if you don't want any ending-type spoilers at all, skip down to the Bonus Features title.

So, starting with Calhoun and working my way back up to Ralph...

* Calhoun, unfortunately, had the least character development. She starts out as all business and job-focused, most notable when rejecting romantic advances from Felix. There's a moment when it seems that everything has come to a head, her backstory is replaying before her eyes, but...she just runs away and, seemingly, all of her inner turmoil happens off-screen. The next time we see her, she's knee deep in the action and looks like it's back to business as usual. And then, once the action is wrapped up, she's suddenly ready to accept romance/Felix into her life? Talk about a 180.

But, while I'm disappointed with the execution (though I understand, as it's not her story), it still does get across that she did learn a lesson or two during the course of the movie. Basically, life/love and work do not have to be exclusive of one another; you can be good at your job and have a relationship at the same time. On a second level, perhaps she also learned not to let the past inhibit her future. You shouldn't blame yourself forever, especially if it wasn't all your fault, but learn from your mistakes and move on. Again, not a super strong message from her and more inferred than appearing naturally in the material, but still valid lessons to take away from a kick-ass character.

* Fix-It Felix was actually the character who impressed me the most in this movie, spurring me to write the review in the first place. There is one crucial scene, after Calhoun has her breakdown and runs off, where Felix is locked in jail because he's perceived as being Ralph's associate. When Ralph busts in to save him, Felix is both happy and furious to see him:
Felix: Do you have any idea what you put me through?! I've been higgledy-piggledy all over creation looking for you. I almost drowned in chocolate milk mix! And then, I met the most dynamite gal. Oh, she gives me the honeyglow something awful. But, she rebuffed my affections! And then—I got thrown in jail!

Ralph: Felix, pull yourself together—

Felix: No, Ralph! You don't know what it's like to be rejected and treated like a criminal.

Ralph: Yes, I do. That's every day of my life.

Felix: ...It is?

Right there. Pause right there just a moment.

Imagine you've had the life that Felix has had. Everyone loves you, nearly everything's done for you, no conflict, no fighting, just a steady job that gets you free pies and more medals than you can count. A good life for a good guy.

Then, suddenly, everything gets harder. Things don't go your way. Someone doesn't like you. Another person treats you badly for no good reason. Bad things a good person?

Felix has gone his entire life thinking good guys got good lives, good treatment because they deserved it. And conversely, bad things would only happen to bad guys because they deserved it. But suddenly, everything has changed. And in that slight pause he realizes that...if bad things don't only happen to bad people, then perhaps Ralph isn't a bad person after all.

Maybe I'm reading WAY too much into this, but I felt that one little moment, which lasts literally less than a second, was the crux of the entire epilogue of the movie. None of the Nicelanders were there, and really they have no reason to have changed their opinions of Ralph, considering he was the one who endangered everything in the first place, so who else would have stepped in except Felix? It also makes Felix's cooperation with Ralph for the rest of the movie more meaningful than just, 'Oh Felix is just nice like that'.

Sorry if I'm fangasming, but if nothing else in this movie made me love it, I think that one little moment might have made up for that. Now if only it were longer...

* Vanellope's character arc also impressed me in how easily it mirrored Ralph's. Vanellope spends a good amount of time (relatively speaking) hating and repressing her glitching. Understandable, of course, since it's the one thing that everyone has labelled her and disses her for. But when the action ramps up, it turns out to be the one thing that can save her.

The whole glitch aspect can be seen as a metaphor for a bizarre talent, a label, or race/skin color/nationality, but I see it most literally as a disability. Its resolution for Vanellope was mastering it and making it work as an asset instead of a weakness. And in the end, even when it seems like the glitch won't be a problem anymore, she decides to keep it. It makes her unique; glitching is a part of who she is, and she's not about to give that up.

And in an abstract way, accepting herself for who she was ended up earning her the friends and respect she was so dearly seeking the entire time. And if you're getting an underlying message like that, how bad can this snarky character really be?

* But now we come back to Ralph. Being the star of our film, the one we've followed through the most time, it only stands to reason that he has the most to learn throughout the course of the movie. And isn't it aggravating to know that the answer was at the beginning the entire time?

Remember that Bad Guy Affirmation they recited?
I'm 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.
Yep, turns out that Ralph realizes that there's no one he'd rather be than himself, and he's happy to accept himself, job and all, back home where he belongs.

But, you might say, what type of message is this sending? Go back and settle for the horrible treatment he got every day? If your life sucks, just deal with it?

I've heard a couple of people react like this. But think back to how he acted at the beginning of the movie. He's passive aggressive with Felix and acts like the fool the Nicelanders think him to be, and at Bad-Anon he even downplays his own discomfort and unhappiness. Maybe he tries the passive-aggressive tactic so it's easier on him if his request is ignored? Perhaps he thought that acting dumber would make him seem less threatening and more likeable? And what tough guy hasn't downplayed his own problems so as not to lose face in front of the fellas? Regardless, he was never genuine to anyone he cared about.

Until Vanellope. In her he saw a kindred spirit, someone who was being treated badly for seemingly no good reason. But by this time she's already stolen from him, so he's got no reason to be super nice to her either. And so he acts naturally around her, discovers more about her, reveals more about himself, and slowly but surely a friendship is formed.

Along the way he also uses his destructive qualities for good. And a couple times he does use them for bad, too. But it turns out that, despite his moniker, wrecking is what he does, not who he is. Wrecking buildings may be his job, but that doesn't mean it has to be all that defines him. A good friend can define him, too.

So when Ralph says the Bad Guy Affirmation, that he's bad and that's good, he's finally separated his job as a wrecker, a bad guy, from who he is. And when he says that there's no one he'd rather be than himself, he's including all aspects of his life, which now includes his friends. It's about taking the good with the bad, the within and the without, forming an identity, a life that encompasses it all, and then embracing that life. "There's no one I'd rather be than me."

But without getting too super sappy (too late?), the lessons learned are a combination of the three(ish) learned by the other characters. Your job should not rule over all aspects of your life. Bad things do happen to good people, so don't passively think you deserve everything that's happening - try to change something for the better. And most prominently (and maybe importantly), act naturally, accept your faults and make them in to strengths, and be YOU.

Not bad lessons from a movie about video games, huh?

/ spoilers

Bonus Material

And that's how I see Wreck-It Ralph. I've probably watched the film 20+ times by now, and I don't think I'll ever get sick of it.

If you did have to skip the spoilers for now, I can't stress how highly I'd recommend you watch it. There are some really phenomenal lessons that I was able to extrapolate from the film and I'd love to know if it's just my repressed academia going into hyperdrive and making me temporarily insane, or if anything I said actually made sense.

But if critical interpretations of characters and themes doesn't float your boat, or if you're just looking for more reasons to check out this movie, the animation is amazing. I don't think I've ever seen a truly ugly Disney movie, but for something not Pixar (despite John Lasseter helping make it) this was on a whole other level. As well it should be considering it's centered around video games, right?

It's an ongoing joke/complaint that video game movies are horrible. Between trying to adapt storylines that are too long for movies, characters that have more connections through you controling them, and graphics that don't usually translate to live-action well, if at all, there is good reason to be apprehensive when hearing that a 'video game movie' is coming out. But instead of following one video game, Wreck-It Ralph pays homage to characters, styles and genres encompassing the entire media of video game-dom.

From the retro games such as Pacman, Q*bert, or the original Donkey Kong, we have Fix-It Felix, Jr. From first person shooters like Call of Duty or Halo, we have Hero's Duty. And of course, from the racing games such as Mario Kart or Burnout, we have Sugar Rush. But the movie also visits and has cameos from tons of games such as DanceDanceRevolution, Street Fighter II, Sonic the Hedgehog, Metal Gear Solid, Tapper and even more.

But that's not to say that if you don't play video games, you'll be lost. I can probably count the number of characters I recognized on both hands, the number of games I played on only one hand, and I still loved it. I'll grant you, I am somewhat video game literate - I follow news and watch playthroughs for entertainment, but I think the characters are more than enough to carry even the most casual gamer through. I'd say that unless you had no idea what a video game was or for some reason have a hatred toward video games as a whole, you'll probably find something to enjoy about this movie.

And maybe that's why it didn't win the Oscar. The characters might be universal, the lessons even more-so, but the setting does require at least a little background knowledge going in, even if it's just what an arcade is. So despite the visuals, the setup, the pacing, the characters, and the morals, it still had too much going against it.

Did I mention how amazingly they set up the plot of this movie? The first time I watched it, and there are some great twists and turns that I did not see coming, I was blown away by how everything fit together perfectly. One action leads to another, and there are no moments of "Oh, he did that because it served the plot." No, I mean it, nothing, NOTHING is convenient, and nothing comes outta nowhere. My one complaint of the film is the very small issue of arcade layout vs power-strip placement. But that is literally all I can think of.

If nothing else, please treat yourself to a well-written plot with superbly written characters. They are so rare in so many movies nowadays, let alone children-friendly ones.

And so I leave you. Thanks for reading, if you did. And please share your own thoughts in the comments. Good day.

Disclaimer ~ All pictures from Wreck-It Ralph and blockquotes belong to Disney.