The Heart of Wreck-It Ralph is in the Small Choices

The second time I watched Wreck-It Ralph, a number of slightly strange choices they made in the story jumped out at me. It wasn’t that the choices were all that strange in and of themselves, but rather that they weren’t what you’d typically see in a children’s movie. As I thought about them, I realized that each of these small changes was essential to the story emotionally–specifically, essential to establishing Ralph and Vanillope’s friendship. I tear up every time I see Ralph diving into the volcano and hear him recite the Bad-Anon affirmation. But the reason it’s so emotionally impactful is because of all the small decisions the filmmakers made to bring you to that moment. I think this is a difference between a movie that only children watch and one that people of all ages can enjoy: children don’t necessarily notice this extra depth, but it gives it more substance for adults.

Here are all such emotionally-impactful decisions that I’ve noticed so far. Warning: spoilers for all the significant moments in the film below.

  • When Ralph breaks into the kart-making minigame, as well as later when he breaks into Felix and Vanillope’s cells, most films would have shown a zany action sequence. But such a sequence would have absolutely no bearing on the heart of the movie. The point of those scenes is that Ralph is using his wrecking ability to help a friend, and all that’s required to establish that is a wall and Ralph wrecking it. Anything else would have been superfluous to that point. Sure, it would have been a shared experience that would have built up Ralph and Vanillope’s friendship. But since the film isn’t mainly about friendship but rather about Ralph’s trying to find significance, it’s more impactful to have their friendship built in a scene where Ralph is creating something (i.e. the kart-making minigame).
  • In the kart-making minigame, Vanillope dispenses with her usual jokes about everything and simply says that she loves the kart. This is significant because of Ralph’s insecurity about whether he can to do anything but break things. This is his first glimpse that someone could see past his shortcomings–and, in fact, not even see them at all. Since this is where their friendship really starts, this moment wouldn’t have worked if she had made a joke about the kart; Ralph would have been crushed, as he already was when he first saw the kart.
  • In the scene where King Candy tricks Ralph into thinking that Vanillope’s life was in danger if she raced, it’s striking how sincerely he comes across. You don’t even see an aside glance of him making an evil smile, as you’d expect. But it’s most striking in the fact that he just gives the medal to Ralph. One would expect him to bargain: you can have this medal if you stop Vanillope from racing. But Ralph and Vanillope’s friendship has progressed to the point where he would never do something to hurt her. He had to be convinced that it really was for her own good, and for King Candy to offer him the medal just to “hear him out” was the only way to convince him of that.
  • The camera cuts away from Ralph when he first starts wrecking Vanillope’s kart, just showing her reaction. The scene parallels the earlier destruction of her first cart by the other racers, but in that case the destruction was shown from the start. But the scene functions on a totally different emotional level. The other racers had no relationship with Vanillope, but Ralph is her only friend. Whereas the first kart was only the symbol of her hopes to race, the kart is also the symbol of their friendship–so they couldn’t just show it being destroyed. The audience needed a moment to prepare themselves emotionally. If they had just shown the kart being destroyed from the start, the significance of it would have been devalued.
  • A typical movie would have “raised the stakes” by saying that Vanillope had to actually come in first place in the race to reset the game. As far as I can tell, the game-resetting is one of the few things in the movie that has no basis in the reality of video games, so it would have been just as arbitrary to say she needed to win. But if they had done this, they would have lost out on this priceless exchange:

    Ralph: “OK, remember: you don’t have to win. Just cross that finish line and you’ll be a real racer!”
    Vanillope: “I’m already a real racer. And I’m gonna win.”

    If Vanillope had to win to save herself from being a glitch, she’d be acting out of self-preservation. But that would rob her of the opportunity to actually have the motivation of a racer in that moment. Surprisingly, the race is more significant emotionally because she is racing to win because she wants to, not because she has to.

  • When the cy-bugs are approaching the exit to Game Central Station, Calhoun and Felix move behind the game barrier and leave Vanillope behind. This bothered me at first because it doesn’t fit with their character at all. But then I realized that it’s symbolic. She is the only one who is ultimately at risk. They are able to escape the game, but she isn’t. By reminding us of this visually, this narrows the focus to the character who is part of the central plot. Calhoun and Felix are secondary characters; the story is about Ralph and how he grows from seeking validation in externals to seeking validation in his friendship with Vanillope. If Calhoun and Felix had been stuck in danger, the message would have been diluted to a generic “save people in danger.” By emphasizing that it was only Vanillope who was in danger, the focus on the friendship is preserved.
  • When Vanillope finally crosses the finish line, she does it not under her own power but by Ralph pushing it. There is no surface-level reason why this needed to be the case; she didn’t have to leave her car because it was broken (if it even was), but because the cy-bugs were attacking. And Ralph has already played his central role in saving Vanillope. The fact that he pushes her across the finish line is, again, symbolic: it represents the larger reality that he has helped someone else to achieve her dreams, and that achievement wouldn’t have been possible without him.
  • Not only did King Candy steal Vanillope’s role and her palace, he stole her kart as well–that’s made clear by the fact that it fits into the “throne” in the palace. Yet at the end, when Vanillope re-inherets her role as ruler, not only does she keep her old outfit, but she keeps racing the kart she and Ralph made as well. A less subtle film would have used the King Candy kart to emphasize what she had accomplished, and would have shown Ralph hanging out in Sugar Rush to show that they are still friends. It actually bothered me on my first viewing that it’s unclear at the end how often Ralph and Vanillope get to hang out. But upon a second viewing, it wasn’t unclear at all: Ralph says “to be continued” about their name-calling banter, and Vanillope is racing the kart that symbolizes her and Ralph’s friendship. That’s all you need to see to know that their friendship continues.

Did you find Wreck-it Ralph as emotionally impactful as I did? What other subtle filmmaking decisions did you notice that contribute to the impact?

One Response to The Heart of Wreck-It Ralph is in the Small Choices

  1. Mike Rinehart says:

    All great points Josh. This was one of the few films that I had seen in a long time that didn’t treat the audience like they were stupid. And as you pointed out it didn’t rely on a lot of gimmickry to “add entertainment value” It is simply a great story that had strong characters and plot that succeeded in getting the viewer emotionally invested in the characters.

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