Score one for this year’s winter film season! With a half-dozen movies premiering on Mockingbird’s *must* see list (including The Hobbit, Les Mis, James Bond, Django Unchained…), Wreck-It-Ralph kicks off the winter with a pixelated parable of judgment, love, and identity so potent, you half-expected to see Martin Luther listed as a guest-writer in the credits. Okay, so perhaps I’m a bit over-enthusiastic in my praise of Disney’s newest in-house release, but when movie critics call Wreck-It Ralph “pixar-esque,” well, we’ve kind of got to take notice.
Perhaps there’s no better world to play out the drama of law-trapped characters than the unforgiving landscape of arcade video games, where achievement and failure are as heavy and as real as the roll of quarters in your pocket. Or perhaps there’s no better metaphor for the bound will than one’s “programming” if you’re a video game character. Either way, I loved Wreck-It Ralph’s characters, its nerdy inside jokes, and above all, its refusal to play by the boot-strap yanking self-improvement fable it could have easily been.
Here’s the problem though: I’m discovering that as I write about Wreck-It Ralph, so many of the things this movie does well have already been written about here on the blog. So, to exemplify how grace and Mbird anthropology weave themselves throughout the narrative of Wreck-It Ralph, I’m intentionally going to draw connections between previous articles written on the site and how Ralph gets it right…
Heads Up- Here Come the Spoilers… Don’t Want to “Wreck” the movie for you!
For example, the real enemy of Wreck-It Ralph is Ralph himself. It is his inner conflict that spurs the story forward. Ralph lives the unappreciated life of a video game villain, and as he reaches the thirty-year milestone of his work as a bad guy, his inability to escape his identity drives him to the point of despair. This leaves us with Ralph being the protagonist, antagonist, bad guy, and object of sympathy (i.e. good guy!) all at once. See also Woody from Toy Story and Marlin from Finding Nemo, as told in our Gospel According to Pixar series.
Dealing with his identity crisis, Ralph finally visits Bad-Anon, a 12 step-inspired support group for video game villains struggling with their unchangeable negative coding. The scene is beyond inspired. As they finish their meeting, they hold hands and repeat their bad-guy mantra: “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 then me.” That’s some serious Step 1 stuff there, acknowledging powerlessness and facing the dark reality that “badness” will forever be part of one’s identity. Read more about that in Mockingbird’s newest publication, “Grace in Addiction.”
But alas, Ralph must go on a quest to find a medal, to provide self-justification to his existence, to gain the acceptance and approval of his game’s citizens, and to prove he’s really not a bad guy. He leaves his own personal arcade game and goes game-hopping, and before too long, he succeeds in acquiring his medal. He ends up, however, ruining two other games in the process: first-person shooter Hero’s Duty and the saccharine Candy-Land inspired racing game, Sugar Rush. Needless to say, we’ve covered the subjects of ambition, success, and gaining other’s approval here, here, here, and here, which makes our man Ralph as human as any of us.
On Ralph’s journey, he meets cutsie racer Vanellope von Schweetz, a glitch in the Sugar Rush racing game. Vanellope is exiled by her fellow racing cohorts for being a glitch, because in the video game world, glitches get games unplugged, leaving their characters homeless, i.e. “gameless.” But racing is for Vanellope what the medal is for Ralph- the validation of her identity. What neither character is able to see, however, is that their own quest for glory puts themselves and their whole world in danger. The movie hits an emotional high point when Ralph destroys Vanellope’s newly built race car to prevent her eventual deletion and non-existence. Who hasn’t at one point loved the thing that was killing them? Who hasn’t had that thing ripped from their cold, dying hands to prevent them from actual death? Who hasn’t resented God for doing the exact same thing in their own lives?
When Ralph finally returns home with his medal, he discovers his own game is about to be unplugged because of his absence. After seeking, finding, and acquiring his medal, the result has been a climactic tragedy- Ralph has literally wrecked his entire game, to the point of having it unplugged and removed from the arcade. His quest for glory has not ended by achieving it; to the contrary, his hole is now deeper than it ever was! If Ralph had any hope of shedding his identity as a bad guy, it is no longer possible. It is here that Ralph reaches the end of his rope and begins the process of “hugging the cactus.” Whatever the solution to his plight, it won’t be found in his quest to change his identity as a bad guy. That label is permanent. From this point forward in the movie, however, the audience hears no more of Ralph’s medal quest.
And yet… Ralph finds the one clue to saving Vanellope from a life of exile that eventually sets everything right. Ralph returns to Sugar Rush, confronts King Candy (a bland Pixar-villain there to drive the story forward), and the other story lines begin to merge into the movie’s climax. And of course, our titular bad-guy saves the day. As the invading swarms of cy-bugs engulf Sugar Rush, threatening to destroy it, Ralph heroically steps up to the plate, offering himself as a sacrifice to save his new and only friend Vanellope. The great irony of the film is this: Ralph finally becomes the hero he wants to be, not by trying to change himself, but simply out of love for his neighbor. No amount of internalizing and self-help turned Ralph into a hero, but the love he received first (1 John 4:10) from Vanellope enabled him to perform a great Gospel act: laying his life down for a friend. And we know how rarely that happens (Romans 5:6ff, John 15, etc.). And as he’s falling to his expected doom to save his friend, he cannot identify himself as hero, but as a bad guy, repeating the mantra: “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 then me.”
So sure, there are a few moments that smell more like a theology of glory or some misguided quest to “be yourself” (like Vanellope’s decision to renounce her formal Queenship because “that isn’t who I am”), though we’ve really only scratched the surface on other Gospel insights from the movie (like Ralph’s inability to fix and Felix’s inability to wreck, or the reason Ralph enjoys his job once again at the movie’s conclusion). But in total, the movie’s theme is easily summed up by Luther’s famous quote: “the quest for glory cannot be satisfied, only extinguished.” Or, put more succinctly, “you can’t change the program.”