Critical Analysis, Movie Analysis

Cynics and Heroes: Examining Character Arc in “Wreck-It Ralph”

Cynics & Heroes

 

While zoning out on YouTube one day, I came across a video essay on Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph that got me hot under the collar. The creator claimed that Wreck-It Ralph is, in fact, a dark, classist story that teaches children that you cannot overcome the situation into which you are born. He claimed that Ralph does not have any real story arc—that by the end of the film, he’s right back where he started.

His main proof of this theory? The line spoken in the villains support group. The same line Ralph repeats while falling to what he believes is his death in order to save his new friend Vanellope and every game in the arcade.

I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be… than me.

This creator claimed that this line, combined with the fact that Ralph returns to his game and continues wrecking things, shows that Ralph will always be a bad guy; he was unable to change his destiny. After a long, hard, failed struggle to throw off the “class” of video game villains he was born into, he is now resigned to accepting it.

I beg to differ. So let’s examine why Ralph’s story is, in fact, an arc and not a cynical loop.

The Meaningful Echo

The Meaningful Echo is a trope found frequently in books, movies, TV, and sometimes even songs (Taylor Swift is a big fan). A line spoken early in the story is repeated near the end, but now it has a whole new meaning. The line is often something “ordinary.” It’s often said casually. Sometimes it has no real meaning at first. Other times, it has some minor meaning upon first use, but when it is repeated, that meaning has been expanded into something extraordinary and emotionally charged. It makes the audience feel with enough force to cause a physical reaction.

When the “I’m bad, and that’s good” line is first spoken in Wreck-It Ralph, it is delivered with a drone. Ralph attends a weekly villains support group, Bad-Anon, lead by the ghost from Pac-Man, whose voice is monotonous and calming enough to put you to sleep. Ralph attends on the night of his game’s 30th anniversary. He’s feeling dejected and unwanted, so he finally seeks out people in the same position.

The Pac-Man ghost tells him, “We’ve all felt what you’re feeling, and we’ve come to terms with it.”

These characters have accepted their positions in life. They are not seeking improvement, only comfort. Ralph, on the other hand, refuses to accept things and says he wants to feel what it’s like to be the hero just once. This prompts one of the villains to warn, “You can’t mess with the program, Ralph.”

When Ralph still protests that he wants more out of life, he is told by the Pac-Man ghost, “We can’t change who we are, and as soon as you accept that, the better off your game and your life will be.”

He then prompts the group to recite “the bad guy affirmation,” aka the “I’m bad, and that’s good” mantra. You can see where our other creator got his initial idea for his argument, right?

But it is important to examine the context in which the line is spoken here, and how it is spoken. It is delivered in a chorus of droning voices. It’s something all these villains say every time they meet. It’s ordinary to them. It’s the mindset of ordinary villains in this fictional world. They are going through the motions. When the audience first hears these words, they are little more than a parody of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous that gets a mild chuckle out of the adult viewers.

 

Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail about Ralph’s journey through the video game world. If I examined every scene and gave a full summary, we’d be here all day. But if you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. It’s a fun-filled ride, and if you’re a video game fan, you’ll love it even more.

What’s important for my argument is that Ralph receives two medals on his journey.

The first is a golden medal stolen from a game called Hero’s Duty. Ralph learns that players battle their way through the horrifying, destructive Cy-Bugs to the top of a tower, where they are granted the Medal of Heroes. Determined to get the medal and win the title of hero he so deeply desires, Ralph blunders his way through Hero’s Duty and retrieves the medal by pure chance. He does not earn it. It is little more than a hunk of metal (or code).

If it was this medal that Ralph clutched to his chest as he echoed “the bad guy affirmation” in the film’s climax, our YouTube cynic’s argument would hold more weight. If Ralph returned to his game at the end of the movie (instead of in the middle) with nothing to show but an ill-gotten golden hero medal, he might have won the bet with the nasty apartment dwellers in his game, but he would not have really changed their opinion of him. They would still treat him with hostility, especially after his absence nearly caused their game to be unplugged. More importantly, Ralph himself would not have changed in any way. His character arc would be a loop.

But, Ralph receives another medal. It is little more than an iced cookie, bestowed upon him by Vanellope von Schweetz, the sassy “glitch” from the bright, candy-coated racing game, Sugar Rush. One side says, “To: Stinkbrain,” hearkening back to the name she called him when the two weren’t exactly on friendly terms. It’s safe to say that Vanellope is not apologetic for or ashamed of who she is, unlike Ralph, and she never holds back her personality. That is why the message on the other side of the cookie medal means so much. It reads, “You’re my hero.”

Ralph has earned the trust of this little girl. He has earned a place in her world and in her heart. Now, one could try to argue that he loses that trust very quickly when he destroys her racing kart. But he does that because he cares for her, and he has been mislead to believe that destroying the kart will save her from being erased from her game. He knows it will make her hate him, that he will lose the affection of the only person who has ever shown him kindness and comradery, but he does it anyway in an attempt to save her life. However misinformed he is, that in itself is an act of heroism that makes him worthy of Vanellope’s medal. And by the end, he has re-earned her trust tenfold.

In the climax of the final battle, Vanellope’s life is truly at stake. The Cy-Bugs and a mutated Turbo have overtaken her game, tearing it apart. Because her code has been meddled with, she cannot escape like the other characters. The Cy-Bugs can only be destroyed by a beacon, like the one in their game, and without it, they will tear apart every game in the arcade. So, Ralph faces down Turbo alone. He realizes that to save Vanellope, her game, and all the games in the arcade, he must smash into the Mentos in the deadly, boiling hot mouth of Diet Cola Mountain to set off a chain reaction, creating a beacon. He knows that the Cola will kill him, and that if he dies outside his own game, he will be erased forever. And yet, he falls towards the mountain with giant fist outstretched, ready to “wreck it” and die in the process.

He reaches for Vanellope’s medal around his neck, plummeting toward sure death, and says, “I am bad, and that is good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be… than me.”

When this line was first spoken in the film, Ralph did not even participate. He didn’t believe these words had any real meaning. He certainly didn’t believe “There is no one I’d rather be than me.” He wanted to be someone entirely different. He wanted to be the generic idea of the hero. That is where our cynic’s argument falls flat. Sure, Ralph doesn’t achieve the ideal he originally set out to find, but that ideal, like the Medal of Heroes, may be grand and shiny on the exterior, but it doesn’t really amount to anything. Even the soldiers in Hero’s Duty who fight day in and day out to reach that medal don’t see any value in it. The soldier Ralph talks to calls it stupid.

Vanellope’s medal is not engraved with a generic hero label. It reads, “You’re my hero.” Vanellope is the only person who has ever accepted Ralph just the way he is. She never berated him for only being able to wreck things. She has never asked him to be different. Never asked him if he wished he was different. Because that would make him like everybody else, and in her world, being like everybody else isn’t a pleasant image. She took him as he was and gave him something worth fighting for, and because of that, he became a true hero. He became braver, less selfish, and more adventurous in his journey with her, but he did not have to change the essence of who he was. He did not have to change what made him unique.

That is why being her hero means something to him, and changes his character for the better. He is comfortable with himself, even if the world he lives in labels him as “bad.” If being “bad” makes him Vanellope’s hero, then that’s good. He doesn’t want to be the stereotypical “good guy,” and that’s not bad. There is no one he would rather be… than that little girl’s hero.

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