Monday, November 5, 2012

Having your cake and eating it too: Discussing the somewhat troubling finale of Disney's Wreck It Ralph.

Spoiler warning... this whole essay is discussing end-of-film events of Disney's Wreck It Ralph.  Like in the first sentence, so beware!!!
When is a Princess Story not a Princess Story?  That's the question that's haunted both of Disney's major animated efforts this year.  While Brave has gotten raves elsewhere (not here) for focusing on a young woman who doesn't want to get married, the film is at its core a loose variation on The Little Mermaid save for the fact that said princess doesn't want a man quite yet.  But despite marketing efforts that focus exclusively on Ralph (John C. Reilly), Wreck It Ralph is actually a two-pronged narrative, telling what amounts to a buddy film in which both Ralph and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) have their respective goals and desires.  The would-be glitch in the racing game Sugar Rush merely wants to race and be accepted for what she is, while Ralph merely wants a better life and for those in his game to understand that he's just playing a role, that he's not actually a villain.  The film's duel goals come to a head at the third act, when Ralph is informed by King Candy that if Vanellope races and wins, the compound effects will be the destruction of the game, the homelessness of its inhabitants, and the death of Vanellope, since as a glitch she would be left behind as the game cabinet is unplugged.  It's a stunningly powerful story turn, the idea that Ralph realizes that he must do something horrible (wreck Vanellope's race car and renounce her goals) in order to be 'the good guy'.  It's heroism in the Jack Bauer mold rather than the clear-cut heroism of, for example, Mr. Incredible.  But the film reverses itself almost as quickly, exposing said story turn as a fabricated lie and setting up Sugar Rush's ruler as a scheming villain who has brainwashed the citizens and denied Vanellope's true nature.  And what is Vanellope's true nature?  Why she's a princess of course!

Yup, right at the end of the film, when the citizens of Sugar Rush have regained their memories and order has been restored, young Vanellope realizes that she is actually the game's resident princess.  In retrospect (assuming you haven't pegged it earlier), her tale is a prototypical 'outcast discovers that she's actually incredibly special' story.  But the film, in its trickery, manages to have it both ways.  Yes Vanellope immediately renounces her royalty and the gown that goes with it, exclaiming that she is still the person she was five minutes earlier.  Yes her final fate is merely to be a champion race-car driver in her game, which serves as an inspiration to the female game-player who we see throughout the film (a young girl who, natch, enjoys *all* the games in the arcade and not just the candy-coated racing game).  But at the end of the day, Disney is still telling a proverbial princess story.  Disney is still telling a story not about a young girl who gains acceptance and respect from her peers by proving that she is good at her task of choice, but merely because she is preordained royalty in disguise.  And if you think that we won't see dolls, toys, and outfits based around the 30 seconds that Vanellope spends in a princess dress, well then you haven't noticed the millions of dollars worth of merchandise sold based on Merida's blue dress from Brave, an outfit she wears for one scene and outwardly loathes as a betrayal of her inner character.

This of course plays into the very end of the picture for Ralph as well, where he basically resigns himself to his lesser lot in life but merely gains a token amount of basic respect from his peers.  Ralph strives for a better life but is basically told to stay in his place while Vanellope is magically bestowed a better life due to her rediscovered lineage.  Without getting too political about a seemingly apolitical Disney cartoon, the message seems to be one of accepting your lesser lot in life unless you actually turn out to be from a higher social class (this is similar to the 'stay in your place' moralizing found in The Flintstones and A Shark Tale).  But getting back to the key matter at hand, the question is, without proclaiming it to be any kind of high crime, does the fact that Vanellope renounces her royalty atone for the fact that the Disney filmmakers snuck in another princess story?  What's arguably troubling is that Disney has officially renounced the fairy tale princess narrative due to the (not actually) disappointing box office of The Princess and the Frog even as Tangled became Disney's highest-grossing non-Pixar toon since The Lion King (and with $590 million worldwide, it's made more money than all-but five of Pixar's 13 releases).  But rather than stick to their word, however wrongheaded it might be, they have marketed a boy's journey (because marketing to girls is *dangerous*) and grafted a token princess finale to the film's major female character.  Disney doesn't want to make princess movies, but they're all too willing to have their female characters appear in princess gowns, even for a few moments, which of course allows them to sell more princess-based merchandise.  Coincidence or cynicism?  You tell me...

Scott Mendelson              


Maxwell Haddad said...

All I can add to this is that every Vanellope item available for sale currently at and at the Times Square Disney Store (which I was in yesterday looking at the various Wreck-It Ralph merch) has her in her green hoodie. There is nothing (as of yet, at least) Princess-y about her merchandise. There is, however, dolls for every single one of the other Sugar Rush racers and various other PINK! Sugar Rush merchandise which is clearly allowing Disney to target young females. In fact, at the Times Square store there was one who section to the left that was Ralph stuff and one who section to the right that was Sugar Rush stuff. Not quite princess, then, but still very "girly," and although I liked the film the cynic in me did perhaps wonder if the reason the film spent so much time in Sugar Rush was to make the film marketable towards both boys and girls.

Jed Pressgrove said...

Wreck-It Ralph satirizes social class situations. The scene where everyone in Sugar Rush treats Vanellope differently based on her princess garb confirms this. The fact of the matter is that the film goes out of its way to show that, first and foremost, Vanellope is a racer, not a princess. Why be cynical about a good and smart movie?


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