Week 52: Wreck-It Ralph

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!

gamer girlAnd 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.

sugar rush

mean girlsAnd 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.

Sergeant-Calhoun-sexy-bodBut 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.

tamara first weddingCue 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.

felix wedding

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

Vanellope.jpgAlthough 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-glitch.gifVanellope, 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.

Princess VanellopeI 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!




  1. Krystl Louwagie · January 10, 2016

    This is one I’ve wanted to see this one for a while, looks like this isn’t quite dismissing my desire. 😉


    • Lacey Louwagie · January 11, 2016

      Oh, you haven’t seen this one yet? It’s definitely worth a watch, with some really sweet and funny moments. 🙂


  2. Pingback: My Year – Final-ish Thoughts (and Top 10) | A Year in Disney Movies
  3. Rachel · March 4, 2017

    I have to respectfully disagree with you on Calhoun. Please don’t be frightened by the length of this; I just like analyzing things. I’m not a mean pretentious ranter, I promise! If I’ve misunderstood or omitted something you said, please let me know; I don’t want to sound condescending or rude.

    There’s an interview with the movie’s director Rich Moore (https://www.moviefone.com/2012/10/31/rich-moore-wreck-it-ralph/) where he states that Calhoun was originally going to be a guy, but they thought that “big male action hero” was done to death so they made her a woman very early on – there isn’t even any concept art of a male Calhoun as far as I know. They were also inspired by Jane Lynch’s acting work and felt she’d provide a good voice for a Marine sergeant, making the idea more appealing. Additionally some of Calhoun’s quirks are inspired by various military-type women from film and gaming. So the creator’s intent was not “oh let’s just throw in a token female at the last minute and feminists will love it”. In a way, Calhoun represents how modern games are more likely to have prominent female characters than those from the golden era of arcades.

    Calhoun and Felix weren’t initially going to be paired up; that came about when the crew was having trouble adapting Felix’s design from 2D to 3D. (https://books.google.com/books?id=jUmjDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA28&dq=%22as+soon+as+he+was+paired+with+Calhoun%E2%80%9D&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjp6ZDC77bSAhUm0oMKHV4VCfoQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=%22as%20soon%20as%20he%20was%20paired%20with%20Calhoun%E2%80%9D&f=false) They had put the two of them in a few scenes together and found it was easier to design Felix when he was alongside Calhoun, and then thought “huh, they’d make a cute couple” which is how that story thread first started to develop. They were always two complete characters who came together rather than two halves completing each other. Throughout the movie Calhoun warms up to Felix when he shows her that he takes his job as seriously as she takes hers, and he puts his life on the line to save Sugar Rush even though he has no offensive weapon or reason to stick around. While I would’ve liked to see more interaction between them during the movie, they’re “smaller” main characters (Ralph and Vanellope being the “bigger” ones since they steer the plot more) and couldn’t be allowed to take too much time away from the larger story. However, I was glad to see that their wedding was put in an epilogue; i.e. it’s implied their relationship developed over time and they didn’t just run off to get married the next day.

    Calhoun’s backstory is a genderswapped version of the “Woman in the Refrigerator” trope – her fiancé Brad dies in her programmed backstory so that she has a personal grudge against the cy-bugs. There’s a Hero’s Duty interactive comic that further fleshes out some details. The tragedy of her backstory isn’t the event itself, which is sort of a humorous parody of gritty games with over-the-top dramatic character backstories. It’s tragic because she’s an actual person whose programmers set her up to be miserable and have a hard time forming close relationships (platonic and romantic) with others solely to make her entertaining to people who play her game. Loving Felix and coming to see him – as well as Ralph and Vanellope – as family shows that she’s becoming her own person outside of her backstory and living her own life in spite of it, rather than forever obsessing over a guy who she knows never really existed. Her PTSD wasn’t cured; instead she has someone she loves who can make her life easier and give her a break from the bleak setting of her game, plus two other companions who have also had tough lives and can relate to her. So I never got any impression that she’s teaching women to make their entire lives revolve around a man – she doesn’t need Felix to be “complete”, but it’s not unrealistic that she’d want someone sweet and hardworking like him since he would be a comforting presence to her.

    Many of the crewmembers, including Moore himself, are lifelong lovers of video games and wanted the film to be as “lifelike” to the world of arcades as possible. I understand the point you conceded – i.e. they were going for accuracy with regard to female characters in games of that genre but this might elude children. However, I think there’s a misunderstanding with regards to age ranges for these movies. There are kids’ movies that are aimed squarely at kids without intended appeal to others – stuff like Minions and Trolls, which are mostly meant to have goofy jokes and keep kids busy for two hours. But movies like Wreck-It Ralph and Toy Story have broader appeal – not only can kids and adults enjoy it together, but kids can rewatch it as teens and adults, and get something different out of the experience each time. While it’s not inappropriate for kids in any way, every little detail isn’t meant solely for them. Some of the details would be a little more familiar to people with a gaming background (young and old alike), Calhoun’s backstory being one of these; this is similar to how adults would relate more to Ralph’s frustration of being excluded by his coworkers and kids would better understand Vanellope’s bullying situation.

    Feel free to talk to me about this – I don’t bite and I fully intend to avoid contributing more hateful sniping to the Internet! I can further elaborate on anything here if you’d like, I just didn’t want this to become even longer than it is.


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