Wreck-It Ralph’s Playful Retelling of Recent American Political and Economic History
Whilst film-makers often deliberately infuse their films with messages relating to current concerns – the allegorical explorations by Romero in his zombie films immediately spring to mind – more subtle or even subconsciousness reflections of recent events often find their way into films.
In the following piece I explore the way in which Wreck-It Ralph, a film that may appear to be simple childish confectionery, can be read as a playful retelling of recent American political and economic history. Whether many of the similarities with recent events are conscious inclusions on the part of the writers – some who have previously worked on The Simpsons and are therefore not strangers to political commentary – is of course in question but, as I hopefully illustrate below, the film certainly supports this kind of reading.
“I was just tired of living alone in the garbage”
“Well now you live alone in the penthouse”
So goes an exchange between Ralph and one of the Nicelanders, the well-to-do residents of the large building that it is Ralph’s job to constantly wreck in the game Fix-It Felix Jr. The conversation between the two occurs when Ralph returns to the game world of Fix-It Felix Jr. having attempted to get a medal and earn his ‘rightful’ place in the building, to live amongst the Nicelanders in a swanky penthouse.
The search for a medal is inspired by the medal that Fix-It Felix earns every time he rescues the Nicelanders, but the one that Ralph manages to procure is from the game Hero’s Duty. Shortly after winning the medal Ralph finds himself in the game world of Sugar Rush – described at one point as a “candy-coated heart of darkness” – and loses the medal to Vanellope von Schweetz, a precocious ‘glitch’ who uses it to enter a race. At this point the medal transforms into a coin.
Ralph’s quest becomes something symbolically fascinating when one focuses on these two scenes; what he ultimately finds himself coveting is money and a symbol of economic success, property.
Watching Wreck-It Ralph with this in mind leads to an intriguing reading of the film and as one looks deeper at a number of the characters and scenarios the similarities between them and the recent political and economic situations in America begin to pile up. ‘Average Joe’ Ralph’s plight is one that in many ways represents the modern American dream, a desire to break free from the monotony of a menial job that appears to have no reward or sense of satisfaction.
He dreams of financial success, which is in turn linked to property ownership, and the kind of celebrity worship that Felix enjoys (desire for celebrity worship has recently become an important part of the modern American Dream).
Ralph is eager to please the Nicelanders, the one-percenters, but also strives to be one of them and move out of the slum that he currently lives in. When the reality of Ralph’s situation and the class immovability that he faces becomes clear Ralph does what so many others in the real world do, he turns to therapy. He does not find solace here though, amongst a group of characters who have the exact same problems. This is a common anxiety that Ralph is experiencing, one that results from being repeatedly sold a false dream, an impossible dream that like Felix he can ‘win’ day after day.
Ralph looks further afield for answers and to try and fulfil his dreams. First he travels into Hero’s Duty, a game that involves a state of endless war, one that can never be won, a war waged against a constantly regenerating enemy. The enemy, which are referred to as bugs, are reminiscent of that great work of American allegory, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Echoes of the ‘War on Terror’, PTSD, and paranoia regarding ‘Homeland Security’ are strong in this sub-plot in Wreck-It Ralph and the way in which the bugs later invade the game world or Sugar Rush, not through a visible assault but by more covert means, hiding within the world waiting to strike speaks directly to American paranoia regarding foreign threats.
Sugar Rush is run by the less-than-benevolent King Candy, who on the surface appears jovial and rather harmless but actually resembles more of a dictator figure. A left wing reading of this character would certainly suggest that King Candy shares some similarity with the former president of America, George W. Bush. That King Candy is revealed to actually just be an older racing character (Turbo) reinforces this reading, with the character of Turbo standing in for the former president and father of George W. Bush, George Bush Snr.
King Candy even uses the electronic underpinning of the game world to rig the game to stop Vanellope – read Obama – from entering the race, and also suggest to others that she doesn’t even belong in the world of Sugar Rush. These scenes draw an interesting parallel with the controversies surrounding possible electoral fraud in Florida and spurious claims regarding Barack Obama’s birth certificate. A line dropped from the script in which King Candy comments on not wanting a “race riot” suggest that the film could have had even stronger leanings towards more risqué political content if it were not for a few of the wrinkles having been ironed out during production.
Vanellope ultimately triumphs though, thanks to Ralph defeating the foreign threat and the reveal of King Candy’s true nature, and despite having the option to be the same kind of royal that King Candy was Vanellope casts aside this prior regime and states that she wants Sugar Rush to be a true democracy. Significantly she also chooses to keep her glitches, those unique characteristics that led her to victory but may seem so worrisome to the more conservative residents of Sugar Rush.
Ralph returns to his game and although he doesn’t make it into the penthouse, he has realised that’s not what really matters. Amusingly though his dump has been transformed – shades of urban renewal – and he now lives in a new house. Whilst Vanellope may not be in charge of the world of Fix-It Felix Jr. it would appear that the new administration and a shift in attitudes is having a positive effect on Ralph’s life. Whilst Ralph’s life may not have actually significantly improved, the future is now a little brighter and the glimpses he gets at Vanellope winning the hearts of her world and beyond give him hope.