Wreck-It Ralph is about video games the same way Finding Nemo is about fish. I make the comparison deliberately. In both movies the setting inspires a cascade of imaginative in-jokes and references, but in both cases the settings are frameworks to subtly tell very human, very real stories. And like Finding Nemo, Wreck-It Ralph is written not just to appeal to parents as well as children, but to include parents in the message of the story. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but Wreck-It Ralph handles it well. There’s more of interest to Generation X in this tale than counting all the video game references they grew up with.
The story revolves around Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by King of the Bumblers, John C. Reilly), the villain of an imaginary but all-too-familiar 8-bit 1980s arcade game called Felix Fix-it Jr. Felix (played by Jack McBreyer sounding like McBreyer playing the same person McBreyer always plays) is the game’s hero, repairing the damage caused by Ralph’s Donkey Kong-esque rampages to an apartment building.
But behind the scenes, the arcade that houses Felix Fix-it Jr. is like Broadway. The avatars we see are actors performing a role. When the arcade closes, they abandon the games and gather “backstage,” relaxing at the bar from Tapper or, in Ralph’s case, attending a support group for game villains. There Ralph expresses his frustration at being the bad guy for 30 years. Even though he’s just doing his job, his co-workers treat him horribly and are terrified of him.
Ralph wants to be a hero, but both his fellow villains and his cohorts in his game tell him he cannot. He’s programmed to be the villain. That’s what he’s supposed to be. Frustrated, Ralph rebels, jumping from the game through the arcade’s secret backstage and into others.
Ralph ends up as a stowaway grunt in sci-fi first-person shooter Hero’s Duty, angering its main character, Sgt. Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch looking like a cartoon version of Lynch and acting like Lynch). Later he crashes into confection-coated racing game Sugar Rush, where he meets loud-mouthed girl Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who is being denied her chance to race due to her glitchy behavior.
The main chunk of the movie takes place in Sugar Rush as Ralph alternately fights with Vanellope and helps her with her goal of winning a race and a spot as a selectable player in the game. I’ve read a couple of reviews that have felt the movie drags during this section. I disagree. This is where the movie’s heart is.
To understand the relationship with Vanellope and Ralph, understand that millions of boys who grew up in the arcades of the 1980s are now dads with young children. Furthermore, it helps to understand the generally negative attitude surrounding arcades and gamers during that time, even though arcades were wildly popular. Adult society’s negative attitude toward the avocations of the youth is hardly new. Whatever it is kids are doing, it often terrifies adults. But it happens that the anti-video-game sentiment is an experience unique to Generation X. There is still activism against video game violence, but now there are actual studies to counter the emotional fear that those who play video games (or fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons) will abruptly turn violent, as if they’re programmed by the game to do bad. Like Ralph.
Ralph represents those Gen Xers who have internalized the fear that they’re bound to be screw-ups. It’s ingenious really. What better way to get these guys into the theater to listen to this story than to make it about arcade games?
In Finding Nemo, Marlin stood in for the “helicopter parents” in the audience terrified by the world around them and afraid to allow their children to experience any sort of risk. There was a story for these parents: You can’t protect your child from all risk. Your obligation as a parent is to help teach them to navigate it.
That Ralph’s efforts to become a “hero” result in him transforming into an ersatz father figure toward a lonely child is not some calculated focus-group decision to make the movie appeal to young girls. It’s actually targeted to the adults in the audience. Ralph’s story is about taking a lifetime of pent-up frustration and cultural disassociation and finding a way to use it to motivate yourself into making things better for somebody else, somebody who needs your help, like your children. It’s about recognizing that being told that you’re good or bad is not the same as being or doing good or bad.
I suspect that perhaps not as many parents will identify with Ralph as those who might have identified with Marlin in Finding Nemo (though, sadly, parental culture seems to still be stuck in the grip of those who fear any sort of risk). Many Gen-Xers aren’t exactly sitting around feeling powerless anymore (depending on your employment status, which interestingly enough, becomes a plot point in the movie). But for those who have internalized cultural childhood messages of generational disfavor, watching Ralph find a way to make every negative thing about him a tool for heroism may lead to warm feelings. Whether they’ll admit it or not, that’s a whole different Gen X quirk.