Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Wreck-It Ralph": review

I have to wonder whether "Wreck-It Ralph" is a modern retelling of the Bhagavad Gita.

You may recall that, in the Gita, the warrior Arjuna, a member of the Pandava clan, has his doubts about fighting the Kaurava clan, which is composed of relatives (cousins, mostly) and respected teachers. Feeling the heat just before a major battle, Arjuna turns to his faithful charioteer for moral advice, and it just so happens that his charioteer is none other than Krsna, i.e., God himself. Krsna tells Arjuna that Arjuna must act according to his ksatriya-dharma, his warrior's dharma. A ksatriya is a member of the warrior caste, which means his dharma—his role, his duty, his very nature—is to fight and kill. "I don't want to be the bad guy," says Arjuna. "But that's your dharma," replies Krsna, "So get out there and hack away!" No one seriously interprets the Gita as advocating violence and bloodshed; the Pandava/Kaurava war is more a metaphor for internal conflict and moral strife, with Krsna providing a path of praxis that will lead one out of the spiritual quagmire and into a state of moksha, or liberation from the cyclical bondage of existence (samsara).

Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the eponymous protagonist of this Disney Animation Studios film, finds himself in a somewhat similar bind. Ralph is a burly video-game character, nine feet tall, nearly seven hundred pounds, with gargantuan arms and fists that act as meaty wrecking balls. Like the toys in "Toy Story," Ralph and other game characters have inner lives—dreams, desires, and hopes for fulfillment. At Litwak's Arcade, Wreck-It Ralph has been wrecking the same apartment building for thirty years. The game he's a part of is called Fix-It Felix. Felix himself (Jack McBrayer) is a cheerful, spry goody-goody with a magic hammer that, somewhat paradoxically, repairs everything it strikes (I'm trying to imagine Jesus instantaneously healing the sick by punching them hard in the forehead). Players play Felix, fixing up Ralph's wreckage; when they win, Felix receives a gold medal during a rooftop ceremony. In that same ceremony, Ralph is picked up by the apartment's residents and thrown off the roof; he tumbles to the ground and splashes in a mud puddle.

After three decades of this abuse, Ralph has had enough. As the game's resident bad guy, he lives a filthy, marginal existence in a dump that sits off to the side of the apartment that he wrecks. He's hated by everyone, and when the residents, plus Felix, celebrate the game's thirtieth anniversary, Ralph isn't invited. This leads to an altercation inside the apartment at which Ralph declares that he'll come back with a hero's medal as proof of his goodness and lovability. Ralph also confesses his desire not to be the bad guy during a meeting of Bad-Anon, a group devoted to helping evil video-game characters cope with the stress of being perennial villains. Angry and despondent after his rejection at the apartment party, Ralph discovers that a gold medal with the word "Hero" on it is awarded to players of a much more modern video game called Hero's Duty (think: Call of Duty, Metal Gear, etc.—first-person shooters).

Ralph leaves his own game, steals some battle armor and a laser rifle, and heads off through Game Central Station to enter the stark, war-torn realm of Hero's Duty. He finds himself with a platoon led by the gritty, no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch in amped-up Sue Sylvester mode). It doesn't take long for Ralph, a holdover from happy, cheerful, 1980s-era video games in the spirit of Donkey Kong, to experience the full horror of modern video-game warfare as swarms of CyBugs—enormous insectoid robots that do little more than eat, fight, and multiply—attack Ralph and his platoon en masse in unrelenting clouds. When the game resets, Ralph ditches his armor and pursues the gold medal in his own manner, climbing the tower where the medal is to be found. He gains the medal, but accidentally triggers another round of CyBugs. One bug latches on to Ralph's face; he stumbles into an escape pod and launches himself randomly out of the world of Hero's Duty, through Game Central Station, and into a pink-themed kart-racing game called Sugar Rush. The escape pod ejects Ralph and the CyBug; Ralph ends up in a candy tree while the bug sinks into a sugary morass.

Once again completely out of his element in this new, saccharine world, Ralph loses his medal to Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman, taking full advantage of her naturally cartoonish voice), a cute, clever, yet annoying little waif eking out a lonely, marginal existence of her own inside Sugar Rush. Vanellope wants to race in a kart alongside the other characters in her game, but she can't enter the race without a gold coin. Seeing Ralph's gold medal, she steals it and uses it to enter the race, which is presided over by King Candy (Alan Tudyk, the guy who played Wash the pilot in "Firefly"), a bubbly, daffy monarch who also has a yen to race and is shrewder than he looks. The other racers are kids straight out of a teen drama: because Vanellope is a despised "glitch," they tell her, in a moment of cyber-racism, that she will never be one of them, after which they gang up on Vanellope and destroy the car she had made herself. Ralph, who up to this point had little reason to like the insulting, caustic Vanellope, takes pity on the girl. They strike a deal: Ralph will help Vanellope make a new car, and Vanellope will return Ralph's medal once she wins the Sugar Rush race. Will Ralph indeed get his medal? Will Vanellope win the race and find fulfillment? Why is King Candy so keen on keeping Vanellope from racing? And is that CyBug truly dead?

The moment of Ralph and Vanellope's deal is when the film's plot truly kicks into gear, and it happens about halfway through the story. Still, getting to that point is worth the trip; the visuals of "Wreck-It Ralph" are exciting, hilarious, and engaging; the voice acting and characterizations are compelling as well. The metaphysics of the story seems a bit muddled; if I were to classify "Wreck-It Ralph" by genre, I wouldn't call it science fiction. The idea that video-game characters in an arcade can visit other video games by traveling through the power lines is more like magic than actual science, so I'd style "Wreck-It Ralph" a fantasy adventure. Science fiction makes at least some attempt at respecting real-life physical laws, but there's little in this movie that's realistic. To watch and enjoy "Wreck-It Ralph," disengage your disbelief, sit back, and just cruise blissfully over all that gorgeous, undulating scenery.

This was, for me, a laugh-out-loud movie. Sergeant Calhoun gets all the funniest moments; there's just something about Jane Lynch's comic delivery (and the fact that Lynch's movie avatar is a younger, sexier version of herself) that leaves me gasping. Watch, in particular, for the Laffy Taffy scene.

Ultimately, Ralph, like Arjuna, accepts his bad-guy dharma: he's a wrecker—that's his purpose. It's what he's built for. In some ways, "Wreck-It Ralph" recalls themes also explored in the Matrix films. Agent Smith, in "The Matrix Reloaded," sermonized Neo on the importance of purpose (i.e., dharma) to a program's survival and sense of well-being. "Ralph" evokes other movies as well, such as "Toy Story," as mentioned above, because the video-game characters come alive after the kids leave the arcade. Also, when Ralph glues one antagonist to a candy plant and says "Stick around," I'm reminded of Arnold Schwarzenegger's same line in "Predator," delivered after Arnold pins an enemy to the wall with a ghoulishly long knife. And the intertextuality doesn't stop with film references: "Wreck-It Ralph" is a trove of references to actual video games, past and present. While Mario and Luigi are conspicuously absent (Kong is also a no-show), Bowser appears as one of the Bad-Anon support-group members. Sonic the Hedgehog makes an appearance, as does Clyde the Ghost from Pac Man—in fact, Pac Man himself has a gluttonous, dialogue-free cameo. Q*bert, Pong, and Dig Dug show up (with Q*bert speaking Q*bertese). Pop-culture references abound, too, the most important such reference being to what happens when you combine Diet Coke and Mentos candies.

Some things are left unexplained. For example, the residents of Niceland, the apartment that Ralph is always wrecking, are animated in jerky 8-bit style even during the Pixaresque 3D segments, but neither Ralph nor Felix moves jerkily. How game characters travel freely between and among video games is a mystery, and so is the rule that, if a character dies outside of her own game, she's dead forever, unable to respawn.

But back to the Bhagavad Gita. Ralph ultimately accepts who he is, and although he manages to find a measure of heroism within himself, he does so not by fighting his dharma as a wrecker, but by acting in a manner consistent with his programmed nature. He embraces his inner Arjuna.

"Wreck-It Ralph" was recommended to me by my brother David, who had seen it with his wife (here they are). Overall, I liked the film a lot, mainly because it made me laugh out loud at several points. For me, the gold standard of modern animated films is "The Incredibles," which was a smooth conflation of the spy and superhero genres, as well as being a movie with impeccable story structure, astute comedy, and adult themes (like marital infidelity) woven into it. "Wreck-It Ralph," while not quite as good as "The Incredibles," possesses its own kind of maturity, too; although I doubt the scriptwriters had deliberately set out to retell an ancient Hindu story, the end result was, like it or not, Gita-ish in nature. "Ralph" is fairly predictable on the grand scale, but the story contains an unexpected twist or two that will keep the savvy viewer guessing, on the small scale, about what will happen next. The movie has a good heart, even if Vanellope von Schweetz comes off as an annoying little runt early on. And the unlikely romantic subplot between the bereaved, leggy Sergeant Calhoun and stubby Fix-It Felix provides an added layer of hilarity.

See "Wreck-It Ralph." A good time will be had by all.

ADDENDUM: I don't think I was crazy to approach this movie from a religious-studies perspective. Here's an intelligent review, from two years ago, that also evokes dharma.



Chip Lary said...

Good review. I don't know if the filmmaker's had religion in mind when they did it, but they definitely had a love for the last couple decades of video games. I loved this movie. It was very entertaining.

Charles said...


I really wish critics would stop referring to it as "Joseph Campbell's" Hero's Journey. Campbell may have popularized it to the general public, but he most certainly did not come up with it, and doesn't deserve to have it named after him. (This is from the review you linked to in the addendum, by the way.)

Anyway, I remember seeing this on a plane heading to somewhere, and I enjoyed it. Didn't make the dharma connection, but I rarely think too deeply about stuff on planes.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, that was definitely a Who's Who of video-game cameos. I wonder if the sequel will feature games like Space Invaders, Gorf, Galaga, and Defender (more aliens for Sergeant Calhoun to face). Wikipedia relays some scuttlebutt that Mario will appear in the sequel. I was never a big Mario player (except maybe for Donkey Kong), so this isn't exciting news. Might be interesting to see some of the old vector-graphics environments revisited, too, such as with Asteroids and Battlezone.


I realize the "monomyth" predates Campbell, but isn't he famous for having laid out the monomyth more explicitly than anyone before him had?

While I'm at it: I know you've said before that Campbell's paradigm is no longer taken seriously. What's come to replace it? It obviously still has deep roots in pop culture; most of the public (myself included) is unaware of how the scholarship on the subject of heroic stories has evolved. Where has it evolved to?