Oh, gosh. Looks like I’m going after another one of Tumblr’s babies today. I swear I’m not doing this on purpose. I mostly like media. But I recently finally got around to watching Wreck-It Ralph, which I was lead to believe was a fantastic movie, and I found it severely disappointing. Well. More than disappointing, actually. I found it infuriating.
I realize that at least part of the reason I didn’t like this movie is because I had it so hyped up, but I think my irritation with it also stands on its own merit. So here we go with the ranting–the okay things, and the pissing-me-off-things. Let’s go, Wreck-It Ralph.
To start out, things I liked about the film:
1. The basic concept is clever and results in a lot of fun little jokes like the Pac-Man cherries.
2. Two of the four main good-guy characters are female.
3. The kid in the arcade who is seen most often playing the games is a girl. Yay for positive representations of girl gamers in popular media!*
4. Excellent cast. A++ on all fronts. All personal favorites of mine.
5. Though it goes without saying, the animation was absolutely lovely.
That’s about the end of it. Thematically and in terms of actual representations of gender? This movie sucked. I’m going to go through things in order of the magnitude to which they piss me off, starting with the least objectionable.
1. Vanellope is annoying as shit (and entirely two dimensional).
The problem I have with Vanellope is the same problem I had with Russell in Up. I find the character incredibly irritating on a visceral level, which I could forgive if she backed it up with any kind of real personality, but she doesn’t. Vanellope enters the story an annoying brat who doesn’t think of anyone but herself, and she ends the story an annoying brat who doesn’t think of anyone but herself, but now with a position of authority. She is never forced to examine her motives, or even to apologize for her ill treatment of Ralph upon their first meeting. She’s the definition of a two-dimensional character, there only to guilt-trip the protagonist and give him something else to stress over, and her importance to the story is largely external–it’s about who she happens to be and what was done to her, not what she does. Yes, she’s a female character with a prominent position in the story, but she is a very weak female character.
2. Ralph’s entire emotional set-up is inconsistent with the world-building.
Never mind, for a second, how frankly hilarious and delightful the idea of a villain support group is. Let’s just think about it in the context of the world this film asks us to buy into. This is a world in which video game characters play their in-game roles the way that people in the regular world go to 9-5 jobs. There’s a starting time, and a quitting time, and everybody understands that the events of the game are entirely reversible and irrelevant to their actual lives. The opening sequence even features two characters from Tekken stopping mid-fight to slap each other on the back and go out for drinks. Clearly, we are meant to believe that the roles the characters play are just their vocations.
Except, for some reason, for villains. While everyone else in the world gets to stop doing their job at quitting time, the villains have to carry around the stigma of villainhood, despite clearly exhibiting non-villain personalities. Where is the logic for this? That would be like if you saw an actor playing a character on stage, and then expected them to continue behaving like that once the curtains fall. The only thing that might explain the complete contempt other characters show for villains in this movie would be if there was some sort of universally endorsed, actively encouraged racism (and it would be a form of racism, because the villains were programmed as villains and had no personal choice in the matter), which would certainly explain the “security check” joke. If that’s true, then what we’re seeing with the villain support group is actually an attempt to placate a mistreated minority and convince them that they should accept their treatment rather than seeking equality. And that’s fucked up.
The story goes on to completely ignore all these other villain characters who, like Ralph, have been mistreated all their lives. But they don’t get happy endings. The other villains never show up again, are never redeemed in any way, and never get the appreciation they deserve. Ralph only achieves respect by rejecting his inherent self–the villain–and trying to become a hero, and once he has achieved it he does not use his new-found position to help other villains. And the other characters–most notably Felix–never see any consequences for their treatment of the villains. Which brings me to….
3. Felix is an asshole.
Felix is suppose to be the lovable good-guy Ralph is up against, and the story clearly intends you to like him. He’s the closest thing we have to a second protagonist, as he is often given his own screen time, separate from Ralph (the only other character who gets this is King Candy, the villain). His character design is certainly adorable enough. But here’s the thing–Felix is a dickwad.
Felix clearly knows, at the outset of the film, that Ralph is a good person. When Ralph crashes the 30th anniversary party, Felix is sent out to placate him, which he does by shuffling his feet and pretending to be nice. He lies to Ralph’s face about what’s going on in the apartment, and he backs up Gene–the biggest asshole in the film. Rather than stand up for Ralph, Felix cowers and makes excuses and claims ignorance. Basically, Felix is that kid who wants the popular kids to like him, so he’s mean to the outcast kid in the corner.
The character might be redeemable if he had ever bothered to apologize, but he doesn’t. He leaves Ralph to fend for himself, and it’s not until Ralph has won over everyone else that Felix finally admits openly to their friendship. Frankly, it’s hard to like a character who’s that spineless.
4. Screw. Sergeant. Calhoun.
Now I know Sergeant Calhoun is widely regarded as a huge step forward for the Disney canon in terms of sexism, but hear me out. There is nothing feminist about this character. If anything, this character is a subversion of all that feminism is trying to fight for in the media world. Sergeant Calhoun is the ultimate proof that giving a female character a gun does not make her a Strong Female Character. Let’s just walk through it, shall we?
First impression: Look at her boob and butt armor. Look at it looooong and haaaaard. In a game full of men in bulky, practical, bug-fighting space suits, she gets a fitted cat suit with shiny, polished bits on her lady lumps. Because feminism.
Her language: When Sergeant Calhoun is addressing her troops, she insults them, like any good sergeant would. How does she insult them? By calling them “ladies.” She starts multiple sentences that way. “Listen up, ladies,” she snaps, inspiring her men to straighten up and fly right. “Alright, ladies,” she admonishes them when they finish. Because FEMINISM.
Her value to Felix, her future love interest: The first thing Felix notices about Sergeant Calhoun–the thing that catches his attention and literally renders him lovestruck–is her face. Sergeant Calhoun is in high definition. Felix doesn’t fall in love with her because she’s smart and tough and independent. He falls for her because she’s pretty. (Felix, on the other hand, has to earn Calhoun’s respect by demonstrating that he has guts.) FEM. IN. ISM.
Her backstory: Sergeant Calhoun’s defining personal characteristic is her PTSD over a dead fiance. While I will happily award points for the reversal of the women in refrigerators trope, I will also aggressively take them all away again for turning her PTSD over the hardship into a punchline. (Also, you know, it totally sucks that the only place a gender reversal of that ghastly trope can appear is in a comedy where no one will take it seriously.) FEMINISM.
Felix has to rescue her. The defining moment of Sergeant Calhoun’s relationship with Felix–the moment when she begins to recognize him as a potential love interest–is when he has to rescue her from the Nesquik sand. This rescue is absurdly contrived, because it requires Sergeant Calhoun to suddenly go so reflex-deaf that she can’t manage to grab her own damn strand of laffy taffy, despite being a trained goddamn military professional, in order to let Felix Tarzan-carry her. Calhoun also, randomly, goes soft when Felix asks her to hit him in order to make the laffy taffy laugh, despite demonstrating nothing but harsh pragmatism up until this point in the film. Because it is totally in her character to spare somebody’s face when their lives are on the line, I guess? FEMINISM, GUYS.
And then there’s the scene where they’re in the pod and Felix is staring at her and it is clearly making her uncomfortable, and she demands that he explain himself and he takes that opportunity to hit on her. Oh yeah, guys, this is totally a dream couple. Seeing it now. OTP, for sure.
Like I said. Screw Sergeant Calhoun. Screw Felix. Screw this movie. I’m out.
“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.” -Villain’s mantra, Wreck-It Ralph
*There’s even a moment early on in the film where the gamer girl goes to put her quarter in on Sugar Rush, and is rebuffed and insulted by the two male gamers already playing the game. This was a really interesting moment to me, because it was like a tiny little vignette of what happens to girls who dare to like gaming: they get rebuffed and insulted by male gamers. I’m not saying Disney is offering commentary on the sexism inherent in the gaming industry, but it could totally be read that way.