This film presents as a piece of kiddie confection. Not only is it the trite and familiar story about overcoming social stigma to find True Friends ™, but the bulk of the film is actually set in a literal world of candy. It is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, for the most part, presenting a simple and apparently wholesome vision of Good triumphing over Evil. It does this with a certain amount of panache, and a certain amount of charm – it was a pleasant couple of hours. I found myself wondering afterwards what this innocuous bit of fluff was really about – what nasty regressive and conservative messages are secretly encoded, distorting the impressionable minds for which this entertainment was devised. Nothing could be this straightforwardly good, surely?
The obvious problem of the main protagonist is that he is a “bad guy” who wants to be “good”, but is constrained by the rules of his universe. Ralph is the necessary adversarial element to his game. His social function is conflated with his game function inside his little virtual world, so that the other characters inside his game belittle and shun him. In a sense, he lives the fantasy of his own life. One day he snaps, deciding he too can be a hero. He is spectacularly inept in this regard, bringing his entire macro-scale digital society to the brink of Armageddon, a situation resolved in large part by the action of the exact class of people who’ve oppressed him: the heroes. A Marxist reading of this is by now totally obvious – Ralph must, of course, be pacified, but the class structure in which he finds himself is totally inviolable and he ends the film where he began, only by now he is happy in his lot. Rather than a proletarian revolution, we have the failure of revolution – what’s important here is the class dynamic.
Then too, we have Vanellope, the hero of her own racing game who has been displaced by the “evil” King Candy. She exists when Ralph discovers her as a “glitch”, a sprite who does not quite obey the rules of the game, but randomly changes location at times. King Candy has edited the rules of his game’s universe to create this situation. When restored to her proper place, Vanellope very obviously retains her ability to “glitch” for in-game advantage: the classic win/win of the rich, where, literally, the rules do not apply to her. This is supposedly an improvement over the completely fair racing scenario under the rule of King Candy. Once again, the basically class-based analysis is obvious when you pause for a moment, and points to an essentially conservative political agenda of conformity and acceptance of your place in society and limitations. Class here is pre-capitalist, as determined by birth rather than “merit”, but entrenched all the same.
King Candy, for all that he is the “villain”, has established a meritocracy, where no single racing sprite claims structural dominance the way that Vanellope does once she is restored. Of course Vanellope wins and is the hero – the game is named after her. In this regard, Candy is actually something of a utopian, because he has left his own equivalently-powerful starting position as the titular character in a game and created a world where he must perpetually compete with others to be the playable character. Candy is the best not because of a macro-structure in the world construction, but because he works the hardest.
What Wreck It Ralph represents is a world of pre-ordained positions and roles, inviolable and acceptable on the basis of a kind of divine right or grand plan. Ralph creates a great deal of trouble essentially in order to change his world but in the end only reaffirms it. Conform, conform, conform. A charming childhood lesson.