So I know Wreck-It Ralph came out awhile ago and it is customary to cover culture stuff when it is fresh. Whatever. I know I’m not the only one who watches movies months after release. You know who else doesn’t catch the midnight showing of The Hobbit? The people this article is about: youngish parents.
It has become de rigueur for children’s movies to break something off for the grownups in the audience. Usually this takes the form of snappy references to Star Wars or The Stone Roses or Iran Contra or other stuff that only old people remember. That’s nice and all— better than the psychotic schmaltz you could be getting— but Wreck-It Ralph, like the best children’s movies, offers more than that Family Guy Lite patter. It has a large and coherent anchor point for parents to see themselves in a relationship with the child and her world. Ralph is a clumsy, conflicted, naive galoot willing to make any sacrifice for a little girl. That’s me in real life.
To be clear, Ralph isn’t a parent. He’s just a guy. That sets the parent-child dynamic of Wreck-It Ralph apart from other films in its category. Finding Nemo, Brave, Lion King, Kung Fu Panda—these all have actual parents in them. But they are stories aboutbeing parents, and with the exception of Brave the parental figures present unconditional love but no personal change. Wreck-It Ralph is a story about becominga parent. Ralph starts out as guy who lives in a dump and is reviled by the fancy (insomuch as they don’t sleep in trash) folks next door. Now this I can relate to. I was that guy with the recycling bin overflowing with 32s of High Life, throwing tvs out a second story window just to see them break, and using Bud Light boxes to cover myself when I fell asleep on the porch. I had a stupid repetitive job that no one celebrated. I wanted to be welcomed into adult society but only on my own terms.
Ralph strikes out to earn their respect by winning a medal in one of the other video games. He sort of succeeds in a Halo-esque shooter, but as a result triggers a series of mishaps that land him in Sugar Rush, a cutesy racing game. There he befriends Vanellope von Schweetz, a punky outcast. While Ralph’s wrecking skills made him the bad guy in his own game, they are perfect for helping Vanellope. Together they break into King Candy’s car factory to make a custom racer and when it turns out Vanellope has no idea how to drive, Ralph pounds out a course for her to practice on.
This is an image of fatherhood I can identify with. I’m not good at making stuff, my own life being the most extreme example. I can’t make an ideal world for my daughter, as the patriarchs of Aladdin or The Little Mermaid— whose daughters run off on them, by the way— try to do. That idea is logically incoherent: there is no ideal world for a person that pre-exists their participation in creating it. But here’s what Ralph and I can do: hurl our fumbling selves against the world. Smash it up real good. Make a clearing for her to become who she is.
The most insidious enemy is King Candy, who convinces Ralph that it is really in Vanellope’s best interests not to race; that by doing so she will embarrass herself in front of a global audience and have her optimistic defiance crushed with a finality that mere exclusion never could. Ralph buys this line (it makes a certain amount of sense in the rules of video game world) and wrecks her car to protect her from herself. It’s a hard scene to watch.
But guess what: King Candy was full of shit. King Candy is actually the worst guy in all of video game history, a villain whose selfishness destroyed his native program and who has arrogated the throne of Sugar Rush by tampering with the game’s memory. What Vanellope thought was best for her really was best for her. And not just for her: when she crosses the finish line she breaks King Candy’s hack and restores all sorts of goodness to the realm. I believe any viewer can share the pleasure of this most deliciously just moment not in spite of it being a figuration of the revolutionary destruction of patriarchy, but because it is a figuration of the revolutionary destruction of patriarchy.
The lesson of Wreck-It Ralph is very different from that of its peers. Finding Nemo and company give you a “truth is in the middle” resolution where both parties learn to be a little more empathetic. Dad, don’t be so uptight. Kid, don’t be a little shit. That’s timeless stuff and worth repeating. But what if, contra Kurt Cobain, you think the figure of the father is hopelessly flawed and maybe being a dad is better?
“Dad,” at least as Cobain uses it, isn’t quite right— I’m not trying to go full ice cream for breakfast and bedtime is never. I understand that kids need authority to feel secure and to correct them when they do wrong. I’ve got no problem with that. There are plenty of questions where I think my moral intuitions are correct enough that I would be happy to impose them on my (or anyone else’s) children. Hell, I want to impose them on the world in general. At their core is the observation that the evil in the world comes more from grown men than little girls. Wreck-It Ralph agrees and offers a solution so simple even a dude who eats pizza out of the trash can do it. Smash those fuckers and their bullshit empire.