Film Comment: I do not like Ralph

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Wreck-It Ralph is the new kids movie from Disney. It’s the adventure of Ralph, a bad guy in a videogame, and his attempt to subvert his position in society and become a hero.

Except it’s not.

Ralph is the bad guy in a videogame who says he wants to be a hero, but really he just wants the medal that the hero gets rewarded with.

Now I think we can all agree that if a bad guy wants to become good, that’s a character we can get behind, but what about if a bad guy still acts like an ass, and just wants a medal too. Is that a character we can all support?

Movies tend to go out of their way to encourage the viewer to sympathise with the main character. In a book by Blake Snyder, he advises writers to make the hero “Save the Cat”. The idea is that, in order to gain audience sympathy, the character has to do something good to begin with, so that whatever happens later, the audience will have already established a positive emotional link with the lead. For example, the hero can save a cat. Awww, isn’t that cute, what a nice guy etc. Wreck-It Ralph is an interesting study, because it tries to establish audience sympathies so cack-handedly that every time they try to make Ralph sympathetic, he does something so dumb or self-centered, that many people will actively root against the “hero”‘s progress.

For example (aka Here Be Spoilers).

We begin the film with a run down of Ralph’s life, he lives in an arcade machine, and his role is to destroy a building, at which point the hero Fix-It Felix appears, mends everything, then all the citizens throw Ralph off the building, into some mud. Ralph then slinks off to his home in a garbage dump to sleep among the bricks.

Now, you might sympathise at this point; he’s only doing his job, he’s living in a dump… and I agree. Poor thing.

Ralph is part of a support group for bad guys. All the arcade games are connected through their power sockets, and the support group is in the Pacman machine. They meet and discuss their feelings, at his first meeting Ralph declares that he wants to be a hero, to much consternation from the others. Yet when Ralph leaves the support group, having told them all he wants to be is good, he appears to steal fruit from the machine and sneaks it through a customs area between arcade games. A bad thing.

“But then he gives some to the homeless Q-bert.”
“Yeah, but then he invites himself to a party where he isn’t wanted.”
“But it’s the Wreck-It Ralph anniversary, surely they should have invited him.”
“But then he smashes up the place.”
“By accident!”
“Even so it proves they were right not to invite him. And he kills Felix.”
“By accident, and the hero comes back to life.”
“But then he smashes the cake.”
“But again, only by accident.”
“But at what point do we stop saying “by accident” and start asking Ralph to take personal responsibility for his actions?”

And so it goes.

Not to retread the entire plot line, but Ralph decides to go into another arcade machine to claim a medal. In doing so his own machine can’t function properly, wasting customer time and money and potentially making all the videogame inhabitants homeless because it might get shut down. Meanwhile in the new machine, a sci-fi military shooter, Ralph “accidentally” ruins one customers turn by messing up her game, then “accidentally” unleashes the bad guys in the game onto a third arcade machine…

At which point you’ve either decided that you’ll forgive everything bad Ralph does because “it was an accident” or you’re pulling your hair out because Ralph is so ignorant and selfish.

Other concerns arise. Sergeant Calhoun, from the sci-fi military shooter, follows Ralph to stop the bugs. She’s a strong female marine, a nice positive role model? Sure, except her entire waist was liposuctioned into her breasts. Or how about Vanellope, the girl from the third game who teams up with Ralph, and is being bullied because she’s a glitch? Well, she did steal from Ralph… And are we supposed to sympathise with the guys from the original Wreck-It Ralph machine, as Fix-It Felix joins Ralph to try to get him back to the machine and stop it closing? Well, if we support Ralph, then surely the people who throw him off the roof and don’t invite him to parties don’t deserve our sympathies…?

Now, I’m not arguing that all films should have very clear dividing lines between the good guys and bad guys, that there should be no shades of grey. But I am arguing that you shouldn’t make your hero act like a jerk repeatedly while you’re trying to make the audience care about them.

Some people love Wreck-It Ralph. I do not, because I do not like Ralph.

Wreck-it-Ralph currently in cinemas, Certificate U. 

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