This is an archival piece that was originally published in 2014.
In Wreck-It Ralph, director Rich Moore has crafted one of the year’s smartest films. Disney Animation’s 51st offering, it’s a perfect blend of old-school storytelling with modern day visuals, humour and politics, and it does an incredible job of paying tribute to pop culture while at the same time criticising it, with the role of women in video games (both as characters and consumers) coming in for particular scrutiny.
Along with video games, Wreck-It Ralph also tackles a subject closer to Disney’s heart – the fairy tale. Referencing three Disney classics in particular (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty), the film uses fairy tale tropes, characterisations and visuals to make an important point about choice and identity. It does this not by parodying the genre (as the Shrek franchise does), but by respecting it, and twisting things just a little. Here’s how…
Wreck-It Ralph‘s two lead characters are the titular Ralph, a villain in a Donkey Kong-esque game called Fix-It Felix, and Vanellope Von Schweetz, a racer in a candy-themed Mario Kart take-off called Sugar Rush. Ralph is a bad guy dreaming of becoming a knight in shining armour (he game-hops in order to win a medal, the symbol of his heroism), while Vanellope is a damsel in distress (she suffers from a ‘glitch’ and is picked on by the other girls) who dreams of a seemingly impossible life (the love of a handsome prince in traditional fairy tales, racing here). The hero and heroine are in place.
This situation will never change for either of them. Ralph, for example, is repeatedly told that being bad is inherent to his identity. Even at the Villains Anonymous meeting he attends at the start of the film he is forced to accept this message through the group’s affirmation, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”
The same is true of Vanellope, whose essential nature as a glitch makes it impossible for her to transcend her position in life. The only way for her to get rid of her glitch and become ‘complete’ is to participate in a race, but if she does that, the gamers playing in the real world will think the game’s broken. The game will be shut off and Vanellope, whose glitch makes it impossible for her to leave the game, will die with it. Both she and Ralph are hopelessly trapped by the identities enforced upon them.
Keeping things in order is the film’s antagonist, King Candy (later revealed to be game-hopping retro racer Turbo), who has adjusted Sugar Rush’s code to wipe the kingdom’s citizens’ memories and infect Vanellope, who it turns out is actually princess and rightful ruler of Sugar Rush, with her glitch. King Candy therefore joins Ralph and Vanellope as a fairy tale cliche – he’sCinderella‘s evil stepmother or Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent, an old character facing death who is desperate to cling onto whatever power he can by oppressing the young heroine and denying her her birthright. In Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, that power is dictated by youth and beauty, but in Wreck-It Ralph, power is self-determination and identity. And unlike in traditional fairy tales, those things are not gained through love, but achievement and self-actualisation.
Ralph, Vanellope and King Candy aren’t the only characters with fairy tale analogs though. The film’s secondary heroes are Ralph’s nemesis Felix and Sergeant Calhoun, the lead character in a Mass Effect-esque game called Hero’s Duty. Their story is a romance, but they’re no star-crossed lovers. For one thing, the gender roles are swapped (Calhoun is the strong hero, Felix the moon-eyed one with the crush), for another Calhoun has a tragic backstory – she was almost married, only for her husband-to-be to be brutally killed at the alter.
Moore makes the shift from traditional to modern day fairy tale storytelling explicit in a smart sequence mid-way through the film in which Calhoun and Felix find themselves sinking into a pit of Nesquick Sand. They are surrounded by Laffy Taffy vines and soon discover that to save themselves they have to make the Taffy laugh so that they lower down and offer an escape route. It turns out the Laffy Taffy’s a fan of slapstick because they only react to Calhoun beating Felix across the face and the ridiculous faces formed by the bruises.
Calhoun and Felix grab the vines and are lifted up to a candy cane bridge, where the vines sing and form a heart around them – grand natural landscapes reflecting their affection as they do in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The scene plays on Tom and Jerry-esque cartoon violence, but also undermines the concept the traditional fairy tale romance as one of sweetness and light. Here, Calhoun and Felix show their growing affection for one another not with romance and song, but punches to the face.
Elsewhere, Vanellope’s Sugar Rush friends are counterparts of Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters, while King Candy’s sidekick, Sour Bill, plays a similar role to Lucifer, the Evil Stepmother’s bullying cat. It is, perhaps, significant that the only significant fairy tale trope not to make an appearance is a Fairy Godmother. In Moore’s world of self-actualisation, where one must carve their own destiny, such fantastical wish-fulfilment is an empty dream that needs to be avoided.
In Wreck-It Ralph‘s final act, Moore goes full-on fairy tale with action that seems derived at least in part from the conclusion of Sleeping Beauty. Here, Vanellope is taking part in a race that will decide which of Sugar Rush’s characters will be available as playable avatars to the gamers the next day. However, the race may not be finished, because the CyBug that Ralph inadvertently brought in from Hero’s Duty when he landed in Sugar Rush has bred, and its offspring have taken over the Sugar Rush kingdom.
Sugar Rush is quickly turned into a nightmarish wasteland of greens and reds, not dissimilar to the world Maleficent creates when she takes command of the kingdom in Sleeping Beauty. Just as the CyBugs dominate Sugar Rush, vines and thorns spread across Aurora’s kingdom, and at the centre of the carnage is a duplicitous villain who turns into a nightmare creature – Maleficent turning into a dragon, King Candy/Turbo turning into a dragon-like amalgam after merging with one of the CyBugs.
Standing against the villains are Prince Philip and Ralph, both with honourable intentions to save the leading lady, both ready to sacrifice themselves to do so. But while Aurora is passive (lying asleep) during the confrontation, Vanellope is not. When Ralph sacrifices himself to help Vanellope escape the game, the racer takes action, using her glitch to speed across the kingdom to Diet Cola Mountain and save Raph. Just as with Calhoun/Felix, the gender roles are switched here, and Vanellope’s heroics in jumping across a gorge reflect Philip’s jump with his trusty steed in Sleeping Beauty.
The film concludes with the game being reset and the destruction inflicted by the CyBugs being undone. Peace is restored to Sugar Rush, just as it is in Sleeping Beauty, and Vanellope’s true, regal identity is revealed. Instead of taking up the mantle, however, she rejects it in favour of “a Constitutional Democracy.” There’ll be no impositions, no fairy tale shackles, in Sugar Rush now – everyone will have a say in how they are ruled, everyone will have control over their own fate.
Wreck-It Ralph can, when analysed, seem harsh on the fairy tale genre, but I don’t think it is. Rather than criticising this type of storytelling, Moore finds great value in it as both a tool for entertainment and education; he simply asks that we modernise it to make it relevant for today’s society.
Like all great fairy tales, Wreck It Ralph asks us to fight evil, but suggests that true evil is not a dragon or an evil Stepmother, and that Good is not wearing a Princess dress or falling in love. Evil is any force that tries to impose a way of life on you, and Good is staying true to yourself and determining your own destiny.