Know Your Role, by David Bax
All the best movies that are ostensibly for kids have more than a little something for adults as well. In some cases, that consists of no more than superficial pop culture references (Shark Tale) while, in others, it means a film that is just as much about the adult’s experience of the world as it is about the child’s (Finding Nemo). Disney’s newest movie, Wreck-It Ralph, has plenty of things that will entertain the young and old alike. Still, despite the fact that it, of course, contains no excessive violence, swear words or sexual encounters, it does hold within it a philosophy of the world that I would consider unsuitable for children.
Ralph, the titular character, is the bad guy in a 30-year-old video game at an arcade. As a by-product of his role – and despite his being a pretty decent guy – he is generally mistreated, feared and ignored by the other characters in his game and in all the others. You see, when the arcade closes, these digital creations travel through the cords and circuits to hang out with one another. Ralph is only really welcome to hang out with other bad guys, though. Being fed up with his lot in life, he sets out to win a medal – the mark of a hero – and return to his game in a way that demands respect.
Director Rich Moore has fun juxtaposing the old games with the new; the brightly colored kids’ games with the violent and dystopian first-person shooters. After that, he relishes in throwing these disparate characters together in recognizable locations (they drink at a pub called Tapper’s, for instance). In addition, each of the relatively few games Ralph enters has its own rules. There’s a basic intellectual pleasure in figuring out the rules of these games and seeing how Ralph can break them or how he is affected by them. Meanwhile, the gameplay itself, be it shooting or racing, is fast and exciting in its own right.
These constructive elements are just the underpinnings, though, for the plot and characters. The former is just complicated enough to keep us always looking forward to the next development without distracting from the more primal and visceral pleasures of the action. The latter are done a great service by the voice cast. John C. Reilly is the perfect actor to embody someone who is far more nuanced than he seems at first glance. Sarah Silverman, as a glitch in a candy-centric driving game, has perhaps never been better. Other recognizable voices include Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Ed O’Neill, Edie McClurg and plenty of others.
After all that praise, you may wonder how it is I could come down against the film. For that, I must first issue a warning. Though I don’t intend to get into plot specifics, those who are particularly wary of spoilers may want to skip to the final paragraph.
Despite its tale of someone striving for self-improvement, the film seems rather to land on the opposing side of the American dream. It’s certainly not a story of someone improving their social position. But it’s also not really about being grateful for what you have. Ultimately, Wreck-It Ralph appears to be saying that we are all born into the position that was meant for us. We should be happy and make the most of it but we must always know our place. The most generous the film gets toward its “bad guys” (who never chose to be such) is to allow the hero characters to show them some respect. As long as they stay where they belong. This worldview is subtly illustrated in an instance where Silverman’s glitch makes a joke about her being like a homeless person. There’s no animosity toward the homeless, per se, but it’s a patronizing belittlement of their plight just the same. Society’s most unfortunate members are just another brand of delightfully roguish characters. This tacit recognition of what amounts to a caste system permeates the film. This is not a political problem on the left/right spectrum as we tend to define it in this country. It is, to be blunt and broad, simply un-American.
Young minds will enjoy the visual and emotional thrills of this film. Young minds are also quite impressionable, often remembering more than we think they will. For that reason, Wreck-It Ralph, with its regressive social messages and themes, is not a movie for kids.