Not much was made of the rules that Disney and PIXAR broke last year, but if you look closely enough, it’s clear that 2012 was a ground-breaking moment for the myths our brother mouse typically prescribes. ‘Brave’ and ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ are two sides of a rather elegant coin: one a revisionist fairy tale in which a take-no-prisoners princess shakes off the pressure to conform to something more ‘ladylike’, and finds she can have a pretty decent relationship with her mother, both of whom end up more human (and funkier) as a result; the other an inversion of bully stories, in which the strongman is freed to use his clumsiness for good, and discovers what might more superficially be described as his ‘feminine’ side along the way.
‘Wreck-It Ralph’, released on BluRay this week, is the tale of Ralph, doomed to be the villain in a Mario Bros.- style game, trying to break free from his bumpiness, and Vanellope, a girl with a glitch who just wants to be allowed to take part. It’s gloriously inventive – an opening sequence covers the gamut of video game nostalgia, evokes the power of 12-step programs (the computerized ‘bad guys’ keep their meetings anonymous by meeting in PacMan’s central pen – at last we know what that’s for), and even has a morose Satan giving advice on how to make peace with inner conflict. It’s visually alive – with a delicious revisualization of Grand Central station as an architectural cornerstone; and its narrative is endlessly imaginative – blending the archetypes of Donkey Kong and racing games with cookery and dress-up, and inviting both Ralph and Vanellope to participate in all of it (not to mention the love affair between a butch female soldier and the wistful Felix), this movie’s take on playing with gender is kind of revolutionary.
It’s been criticized (including by me on first viewing) for having a villain – in the form of King Candy – who may see to represent the long line of Disney ‘evil queer’ stereotypes (think of Scar in ‘The Lion King’, Kaa in ‘The Jungle Book’, and Jafar in ‘Aladdin’). But a second look at the context suggests otherwise – Candy is a more faux foppish royalty than homophobically effeminate, and the heart of this film has a macho guy baking cakes while a princess becomes something like Indiana Jones.
So it’s a film about how different is good, masculine and feminine are inventions that only serve us as far as we want them to, and most of all, the age-old notion that you’re fine just as you are. That’s not far off a military recruiting slogan of course (‘be all that you can be’ fits with how the casual militarization of childhood in video games is not ignored here, along with continuing the unfortunate tendency to deal with the bad guy by simply killing him); but ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ does a much better job of imagining a hero’s journey that’s more about becoming human than warrior. It’s a perfect companion piece to ‘Brave’, and a huge leap forward in the way Disney teaches us to imagine finding the gift within. It’s also over-the-top entertaining, deliriously funny, and the best kids’ film for adults that the Mouse has produced in years.