I just got back from seeing Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph”. It was excellent; not just fun but moving and meaningful. I think that Disney buying Pixar and putting John Lasseter in charge of all animation may have been the best thing to happen to it in a long time; it has brought increased levels of heart and sincerity to Disney’s animated films, and none more so thus far than “Wreck-It Ralph”.
I’m sure that I’ll have more, and more specific, thoughts on “Wreck-It Ralph” as I continue to mull it over, and after re-watching it on DVD a few times, but even at this early stage I have a (spoiler-free!) observation that I would like to raise:
In addition to the film’s positive themes of self-sacrifice, forgiveness, warning against envy, and making the best of your lot in life, one of the best, and more subversive, messages of the film is that just because you were “born that way” does not mean that you have to embrace your innate nature, that instead you do have agency and the ability to master yourself.
Ralph is the “bad guy” of the game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” He smashes the building, Felix fixes it, Ralph gets thrown off of the building into the mud, and Felix gets a medal and pie. While Felix gets to live in the high-rise apartment with the other game characters, Ralph sleeps in a dump alone. Ralph watches the other game characters having fun together and feels lonely and envious. As he tells his Bad Guy Anonymous support group, he wishes that he could stop being a “bad guy”. They react in horror to this thought and explain to him that a “bad guy” is what he is, that he cannot change that, but that it does not make him a bad person.
The first two parts of this is repeated several times through the film; the last third is what Ralph will finally take to heart in the end. Ralph is told that he is a “bad guy”, that he has no choice but to be a “bad guy” because that is the way he is coded. In short, that he is and will always be a “bad guy” because he was born that way.
It is currently in vogue in our culture, as epitomized in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, to assert that we are each born a certain way and that we cannot change ourselves, but rather must embrace that innate nature in order to be fabulous and happy. While I am all for the message that we should love ourselves and embrace diversity, I think that it is very dangerous and damaging to preclude the possibility that we might try to improve ourselves or use our reason to master our baser instincts in order to turn away from disordered behaviors. After all, taken to its extremes, isn’t a narcissist “born that way”? Isn’t a psychopath “born that way”? If we exalt the way we were born, why should any of us strive for self-improvement?
Ralph was “born that way”, in that he was coded to be the villain. Ralph wishes to change himself and his lot and, ultimately, does so. Ralph comes to realize that he has a responsibility to his game, that he has a job to do, and that he can find joy in doing that job, but that his job (the role he was “born” to fill) does not define him, that who he is exists separately. He does not need to be a bad person in life; he can choose to control himself, to reign in his baser instincts, in order to be the better person he longs to be.
That we are all capable of mastering our base instincts should not be a subversive message, but in our current culture the idea that we have agency and can choose whether to embrace, or shun, our innate inclinations is radical. “Wreck-It Ralph” is wonderful, among other reasons, because it shows us that we can find joy and fulfillment through continuing to work within our lot in life while choosing to be the person we want to be in spite of the hand we were dealt.