First Theatrical Release: November 2, 2012
First Home Viewing Release: March 5, 2013
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Vanellope von Schweetz, Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, Taffyta Muttonfudge and a handful of other girl racers, and a girl gamer with glasses. Vanellope talks to the other female racers about racing.
When my husband and I had just finished watching this movie for the first time on DVD a couple years ago, I said, “That had just enough cuteness for me to like it,” and he said, “That had just enough humor for me to like it–despite it having a little too much cuteness.”
Wreck-It Ralph follows the “outsider seeking redemption” motif that Walt Disney loved so well, and it succeeds in what it sets out to do. It has equal amounts humor and heart, enough video game references to keep the geeks really happy, and a universal enough story to satisfy everyone else.
Still, when broken down into its component parts, it’s pretty much standard fare.
Not Breaking Any New Ground Where Gender is Concerned
Ralph may have a talent for destroying everything he touches, but even he could not successfully dismantle the gender stereotypes permeating this movie.
I think Hollywood pats itself on the back every time it decides to put one more chick in a movie. Here, let’s make Ralph’s cohort a cute little girl. Oh, and let’s make the squad leader in Hero’s Duty a lady. The feminists are gonna love us!
And yeah, representation is a good first step. This movie did pass the Bechdel, after all. But I sort of cringed at everything else (except for that girl gamer with glasses at the beginning of the movie. I liked her.)
So, our main female character is Vanellope, and she’s super cutesy but not altogether “girly.” She outright rejects the game’s attempt to transform her into a princess at the end. She captures my heart because she feels like a REAL GIRL to me, vulnerability, annoying habits and all. But I’ll talk more about her later. What I’m interested in presently is the WORLD in which she exists.
Vanellope lives in what is the only obviously”girl” game in the movie. We know this is a girl game because it is full of pink and glitter and formulaic pop music. And while it may get points for being a racing game (a more typical “boy” interest), it loses points for also being a game that apparently requires no strategy or investment to play (although, to be fair, all the games in Wreck-It Ralph seem a little on the mindless side, particularly Fix-It Felix Jr.) But the message of Sugar Rush is one we have come across in countless girl toy aisles: to grab a girl’s interest, it has to be cute, sparkly, and pink. Shallow is fine, too.
And while Vanellope may have some additional depth, the other girl racers are all cut from the exact same popular, “mean girl” cloth. Because girl-on-girl aggression, groundbreaking when it was first discovered, has also become just another stereotype.
But none of that bothers me as much as the character of Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, despite the fact that she is voiced by the awesome Jane Lynch. She may be the fearless leader of a military squadron, but her uniform does little to conceal her teen boy fantasy bod. Sure, you can argue that this is “realistic” to the gaming genre, but it seems worth remembering that kids are watching this movie who are a lot younger than the ones who are playing the games being spoofed here. But hey, let’s feed four-year-old boys the same images hormonal 14-year-olds are drooling over, I’m sure it will be fine.
Tamora is tough, no doubt about it, and it’s refreshing to see a woman in charge in what is clearly a testosterone-driven game. You can tell the directors were excited about the reveal in their first shot of her. “Ha ha, you didn’t expect a lady there, did ya?!?” But similar to Meg in Hercules, her entire “tough girl” personality has seemingly been formed from her past relationship with a man. Regarding her brusque attitude, another soldier tells Felix: “It’s not her fault. She’s programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”
Cue backstory of the sergeant in her wedding gown, where her fiance is snatched right up off the altar and eaten because she forgot to “do a perimeter check” that day. She has a couple flashbacks to this moment during the rest of the movie, making her relationship with her dead fiance the defining event of her entire life. But don’t worry [spoiler alert] — by movie’s end things have come full circle and she’s wearing white again, this time marrying Felix.
Because even strong women can never be fulfilled without a man.
Now, one could argue that this is all a satire on the conventions of the video game genre, and I can concede that point. The problem is that children are not able to understand satire. Children are literal thinkers. They won’t have the larger context of the conventions being poked fun at. THEY are building their world based on what they see, and accepting that this is just the way it is.
To All the Glitches Out There
Although the story follows the titular character as he attempts to find acceptance despite the fact that his “role” in life is villainous, it is almost just as much Vanellope’s story, as she also struggles toward acceptance in the world of her own game even though she is a “glitch” that supposedly puts the whole game in danger of being shut-down.
I often find the overly cutesy portrayal of children in animated movies to be a little annoying, but I’m impressed by Disney’s execution of the character of Vanellope. I love her enthusiasm and her resiliency, but her “glitchiness” is what makes her so utterly relateable.
In the characters of Ralph and Vanellope, the movie presents us with two alternate paths to “outsider” status. Ralph is struggling for acceptance despite the role he has been assigned in life and the things that he has done — this reminds me of someone who can never stop living down past alcoholism even after years of sobriety, or someone who the neighborhood will always see as a delinquent because he was busted for stealing in high school, regardless of what he does to redeem himself. This type of arc is certainly relateable to many viewers, I’m sure, but not so much to me (as I have a pretty squeaky-clean past.)
Vanellope, on the other hand, is not judged for something she does, but for something she IS. Her anxiety over “glitching” at the wrong moment will resonate with anyone who has ever battled a chronic health condition. I’ve suffered from chronic migraines since I was 15, and like Vanellope, I’ve often been riddled with fear that a migraine will “strike” in the wrong place or at the wrong time — on vacation, on your wedding day, the day of an important job interview. I imagine kids with epilepsy have similar fears about when a seizure will strike, or kids with Tourette’s about when they will “twitch,” or anyone with anxiety anticipating the next panic attack. These are all just regular people who occasionally fall prey to the failures of their own body’s chemistry despite even the best efforts to manage it.
I didn’t remember exactly how Vanellope’s storyline resolved itself, but I was dreading the moment when she was “cured” of her glitchiness. What message would this send to all the kids who probably won’t find a magic cure but instead need to learn to just manage their conditions and accept themselves? So I was pleased when the reset of the game didn’t actually cure her. Although it didn’t explain why the glitch wasn’t resolved, my husband (who is a software programmer) assures me that if a game’s code was sufficiently butchered, it could be very difficult to restore ALL of it to default, especially “if it’s a really big code base.”
So, Vanellope remaining a little “glitchy” is both emotionally satisfying and not a total plot hole. Which is why this is a 4-star movie for me despite all the gender stuff I ranted about in the first half of this post. Ralph, you better thank Vanellope!