Cap and I really liked Wreck-It Ralph. I like video games anyway, I found it satisfyingly twisty, I LOVED Sergeant Calhoun and her crazy figures of speech, and I thought the ending was quite touching. So we were excited to check out the sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet. We watched it one night–and it has been bothering me ever since.
Ralph Breaks the Internet follows best-friend-duo Ralph and Vanellope online in search of a replacement part for Vanellope’s broken game. Ralph is gung-ho to get his friend’s game fixed, but Vanellope is more gung-ho about the racing game they encounter while online. Bored with her life at the arcade, she wants more danger and adventure, and this game seems just the ticket. This leads to conflict between the two friends, because Ralph doesn’t want her to leave the arcade: they came here to save her game, not relocate. Threatened by her love of the new racing game, Ralph unleashes a virus, which crashes the dream game and (you guessed it) nearly breaks the entire Internet. In the end, Ralph realizes he needs to let Vanellope follow her dreams and be part of the online game. They keep in touch. The end.
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
It was indeed rotten of Ralph to release a virus and be willing to destroy the game his friend loved just to try to keep her with him. That was wrong, and it could be a useful moral lesson. But the movie doesn’t save its condemnation for that. From the moment Vanellope wants to “move games” and Ralph isn’t happy about it, we sense the film’s disapproval of him.
I, for one, was confused at this. Being a (mostly) responsible adult, I had questions about Vanellope’s desire to move games: Is she giving any thought whatsoever to the other characters back in her game? Or to how her game might need her since she’s its princess and most popular character? (The film eventually brushes this concern off with a brief address, but it came much later.) Does she remember that her game is in crisis and now might not be the best time to jump ship?
Furthermore, from the first film, we know that Vanellope understands loneliness: how crushing it is to be ostracized. She and the filmmakers know full well that Ralph’s entire life was spent suffering in this very way until just recently. So Ralph’s feelings on the matter are at least understandable: “I finally have a friend; I don’t want her to go!” Why, then, is all the sympathy reserved for Vanellope?
As you can see, I had a lot of questions about Vanellope’s desire to move games. But the film didn’t.
And therein lies the problem: both characters have desires. But Vanellope’s desires are never questioned in the way that Ralph’s are. One character gets critically scrutinized; the other gets a free pass.
“WHAT YOU WANT”: A DOUBLE-MINDED MESSAGE
Why are Vanellope’s actions right, according to this film? Because it’s what her heart wants, based on the evidence of her (admittedly hilarious) Disney Princess song. In other words, the moral is “what you want to do equals what you ought to do.”
But Ralph’s heart wants things, too. What he wants stands in opposition to what Vanellope wants. How do we determine which “want” is more important? The film doesn’t give us a method of weighing one desire versus the other: how does one navigate responsibility, friendship, dreams, and diverging paths? In reality such issues are complex, requiring great discernment. But the film simplifies things: it roundly condemns Ralph’s desire and elevates Vanellope’s.
Thus, the film congratulates pursuing dreams, which is not bad—but it also seems to expect that if someone has a dream, everyone else should fall in line and support them, or be labeled a villain. It’s typical Disney, I guess, but this just seemed an especially un-nuanced presentation.
Through Ralph’s character arc, the film tells us that sometimes we have to let go of what we want in order to serve our friends. BUT HERE’S THE THING: somehow that doesn’t apply to Vanellope! It’s one-sided.
Some personal goals are worth pursuing. But it’s flat wrong to assume our hopes and dreams are inherently moral. Because decent society is built on the idea that what we ought to do is not always what we want to do. On the idea that other people need us, and that we need them. And fulfillment comes not from chasing the stars and never looking back, but on loving those in our paths well.
Breaking with these truths is breaking way more than just the Internet.