Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind The Times Film Discussion #1: Wreck-it Ralph

These days I don't get to see films until they're available to stream somewhere online. (Legally.) So when I talk about a movie, it will usually be several months after everyone else has finished talking about it. For example, here I am going to say something about Wreck-it Ralph.

(Some spoilers coming...)

For some reason I'd thought going in that this was going to be a mediocre film. I think I had read some bad reviews or something. But by the end, I was really happy I'd seen it with my kids! I try to think seriously about the messages my kids are getting from mass media. Though I don't forbid them to watch stuff with messages I disagree with, I do try to keep track of what they're watching so I can have, you know, casual conversations with them about it. Keep them critical. Make sure they're interested in thinking about what they're watching as much as they're interested in watching.

As it turned out, there wasn't much to worry about in Wreck-it Ralph. In fact it hit several of my happier ethics buttons.

For example, take gender roles. For the most part, women and girls in this movie aren't trying to land a man or become a princess. (There's one important exception, I'll discuss it in a moment.) Indeed, the protagonist's primary companion, Vanillope, is a girl whose great ambition is to be a racecar driver, and another important female character is a kick-ass futuristic military commander from a First Person Shooter video game.

(I think, on recollection, that she did have armor that exaggerated her female shape, so that's unfortunate. But it wasn't like super sexed up scanty-clothing-armor, so it wasn't egregious. One could argue they had to give some kind of nod to sex-specific body armor, since she was being portrayed as a popular figure from a video game. The choice to cast Jane Lynch for her voice also tended to drive the mind away from any Lara-Croft-inspired stereotypes.)

Another interesting detail about gender role: One of the fictional video games featured in the game, Sugar Rush, features what you might think of as a very "girly" motiff, with all female racecar drivers, everything being in bright colors and made of candy, and a kind of "bubblegum techno" soundtrack. But the kids portrayed as playing the game are boys, and the film doesn't seem to call particular attention to this fact. Not calling attention to this, btw, is a good thing. This means it's portrayed as not either "acceptable" or odd, but rather, simply as natural.

There are a couple of problems. The kick ass futuristic military commander mentioned above turns out to fall for the first guy who admires her. Of course, she "rejects his advances" at first, but it becomes clear this was because she has issues and was playing hard to get. (I'm phrasing this a lot more bluntly than it comes across in the movie--what is revealed is that her first fiance was killed by the CyBugs which are her arch-nemesis, and this has made her reluctant to fall in love again). But all we are shown about why she would end up loving the male character she ends up marrying in the end--every detail of their relationship, the entirety of the justification for her falling for him--is the fact that he found her attractive. Boo.

And of course Vanillope functions, at least to start with, as a kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl for the protagonist, and that's unfortunate. But the resolution of the film ends up involving fulfillment of her dreams just as much as his, so the MPDGness of her character is redeemed to that extent.

She does get a princess dress at one point as a reward for having fulfilled her dreams. (Oh no!) But she almost immediately gets rid of it and declares a Constitutional Monarchy, preferring to race instead. (Yes!)

Another happy ethics button it hit for me was the idea that compassion is the key to navigating moral complexity. And for the movie to hit that button, of course, it had to actually have some moral complexity. And it did, at least for a kid's film. Characters' motivations were not worn on the sleeve or articulated in a sentence shortly after we met them. And in several important cases, initial enmity was overcome by compassion. For example Vanillope seems to be Ralph's enemy at first, capriciously stealing something very valuable to him, mocking him mercilessly as she did so. And we shouldn't think that this was somehow excusable--there's no question that she wronged him. But when he sees her later on in a position of extreme vulnerability and heartbreak, he has compassion for her and rushes to protect her, even though she wronged him. And as their story develops, it reveals their willingness to try to understand each other even when they seem to be at odds with each other, and their growing eagerness to forgive each other for actions that are no mere slights. In the end, this becomes the ground from which they overcome the evil force in their world (which, I mean, having an implacably evil force in a world doesn't hit my happy moral buttons, but it's a kid's movie and I can't have everything).

There's kind of an anti-classist statement in the film too. The world of the film is divided between a majority of Good Guys (I include within this class those we might think of as innocent bystanders, as these characters always identify with the "Hero" characters in the video games portrayed in the film) and a minority of Bad Guys. The Bad Guys do work that no one wants to do, and are treated poorly, despite being normal people with all the same kinds of worries, desires and other motivations as any other normal person. This is portrayed in the film as a systemic wrong which no one is really even fully conscious of. I think this is a pretty excellent thing to see in a kid's movie because it's accurate to the world we live in. The idea isn't articulated in the film, but it's shown and criticized implicitly through the plot. That's important.

Have you seen this film? Or read reviews or other comments that might engage with the points I've made here? What are your thoughts?

No comments:

Post a Comment