Thursday, November 8, 2012

Children Of the Candy Corn: Wreck It Ralph & Game Jumping

"The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants," writer Albert Camus once said, and the destiny of a little girl suffers in the name of humanity because King Candy employs this "logic" of which Camus speaks; fortunately, Ralph doesn't buy into it, making it one reason why Walt Disney's Wreck It Ralph is exceedingly sophisticated. Whereas Cloud Atlas took a complex plot and made it a mess, Wreck It Ralph takes an incredibly simple (even cliche) story and, with great insight into history and where we stand today, Disney creates a convincing, human story in the world of pixels. The question is, which side does it support, the socialists or the capitalists?
The capitalists.
As you know, I fully expected the film to go anti-capitalist, and I was ready to call it so several times during the film and even as I was walking out of the theater; so what changed by mind? Vanellope von Schweetz. From the opening lines of the film, the "class conflict" continuous throughout the narrative begins, signalling viewers to be alert. Part of what was confusing for me was that Ralph starts out seeing himself as socialists see him and giving into the propaganda that he is just a big, dumb lug being kept out of the upper-class (and the film plays through this); then it changes direction. Like Resident Evil Retribution, the military fighting the cyber bugs in Hero's Duty are really fighting the "glitches" of socialism; how can we say this with certainty? Class mobility has taken place. There isn't a revolution like what socialists are calling for in Cloud Atlas, rather, the two, politically dis-enfranchised characters--Ralph and Vanellope--have ascended to the status they sought through honest means (their talents and determination) rather than "redistribution" which is theft (both Ralph and Vanellope steal in the film, more on that below). It's an important "glitch" in the trailer that, at 1:27, the title card signals us to the film's anticipated release in February 2013, meaning, the film was intentionally re-scheduled for release the weekend before the presidential election because it had a political message it wanted to convey to viewers. In spite of its astonishing $50 million opening weekend, it doesn't seem to have had any results on the outcome of the election.
What's to brag about a Disney, animated film about video games?
Word play is extensive throughout the dialogue and the game theory expertly applies the differences between "play" and "game" in nearly every scene ("game" is based on rules which favor those in power whereas "play" allows for a creative interpretation of the rules so those who might not have a chance to win otherwise can use their talents to advantage). One example of Vanellope's use of "play" over "game" is her seeing Ralph's (stolen) medal from Hero's Duty as the "coin" she has to pay in order to enter the race; a perfect example of "game" is when Taffyta tells Vanellope she can't race because it's against the rules for glitches to race. Theoretically speaking, "glitches"--being a part of the code--means that the natural "encoding" all art engages in (the use of symbols and theory) deepens within itself  (or reflects itself reflecting) because of the code, bugs and glitches of the arcade games' inherent codes, so the film has an intense level of self-awareness.
One of the opening scenes clearly delineating class structure: Ralph--on the left--lives in the dump and Ralph immediately articulates that the place he lives in isn't like a dump, but he lives in the city dump (one of several word "plays" the film consciously employs; word play is valuable in interpretation because it points to expanded meaning and the invitation for the audience to "play" with them film's meaning). While Ralph lives in the dump, Felix and other members of the game live in the penthouse which Ralph looks at longingly in this image. Similarly, there are several images of game characters becoming homeless--like Q-Bert--because they lose their game; Vanellope, likewise, lives on the outskirts of Sugar Rush (on the margins of society) under the Diet Cola Mountain and, when showing Ralph how she sleeps, compares herself to a "little homeless lady." These are class distinctions (including the "penthouse" acting as a class distinction between Felix and Ralph). Then, towards the end, Vanellope is catapulted to being the "princess" of Sugar Rush, i.e., the rightful ruler, because King Candy had usurped her place (more on this important bit of encoded history below).
I made the observation previously that the story celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Fix-It-Felix game, and the anniversary is the reason for Ralph's sudden "soul searching" and realizing he doesn't want to be the bad guy anymore. There is a celebration party going on in the penthouse to which Ralph wasn't invited and--crashing the party--one of the other characters tells him he would have to win a medal to be accepted but bad guys can't win medals, so Ralph determines that he will. This simple scenario the narrative provides is the basis of the American Dream, the goal of overcoming one's present, lowly circumstances to achieve a state of greatness; but herein lies a clever, "well-played" trick of the film: it shows us how not to achieve the American Dream, through theft (i.e., the socialist program of redistribution).
This is the first "bad anon" meeting Ralph has ever attended, because it's the game's 30th anniversary. This means that Fix-It-Felix was made in 1982 (and the date appears in the opening images at the bottom of the game screen). Why is 1982 significant? Ronald Reagan was president, enacting his "Reaganomics" which could be described as hard-core capitalism (I know, we don't have to argue about terminology, but compared to what is going on today, it was hard-core capitalism). Ralph, being the "lower-class," at the bottom of society, outside the middle-class, symbolizes any and all Americans outside that (infamous) 1% of the rich, and--30 years after the Reagan experiment in small federal government--the "Ralphs" in America are being asked if they like where they are by socialists who want to "level the playing field" and Ralph--in the beginning--basically says, "No, I don't, and I want things to change." This is where it gets confusing, but only because Wreck It Ralph has a lot of points to make. After the Bad Anon meeting (pictured above) breaks up, Ralph is supposed to get on the cargo train with the other characters but he steals some of Pac-Man's cherries (you see him eating these in the trailer); then, he steals the Hero's Duty uniform from one of the soldiers, then he steals the medal from Hero's Duty and that's when he steps on a cyber bug egg,... timing in narratives is essential, because when events are linked in a time structure, it's usually because there is a (symbolic/moral/metaphysical) cause-and-effect relationship between one and the other. If Ralph had not been stealing the medal, he would not have released the cyber bug; releasing the cyber bug causes every game in the arcade to be endangered of infection. What do the "events" in this sequence resemble? The "redistribution" of wealth Obama has suggested because Ralph didn't earn that Hero's Duty medal (the film goes to extremes to make sure we know that Ralph didn't earn it) but the unearned Hero's Duty medal is juxtaposed to the earned sugar cookie medal Vanellope makes for Ralph that has "You're my hero" written on it, because that was earned and demonstrates all the other "gifts" that have come with it by helping someone else in need (the gift like her friendship and his own self-discovery of what he can do besides just wrecking things). 
After leaving Bad Anon, Ralph steals some cherries from the Pac-Man game and starts eating them; re-entering Game Central Station, he sees Q-Bert homeless and offers the cherry to him and his friends. It's not that a right can correct a wrong, rather, it's this sense of "helping out" and Ralph sharing what he has with others that makes capitalism a more human economic model than what socialists give it credit (Felix and the other characters of Fix-It-Felix don't readily offer Ralph anything, which shows them to be vain, shallow and greedy, which they are). Q-Bert, in turn for Ralph's kindness, goes to the Fix-It-Felix game and informs Felix where Ralph has gone which makes it possible for Felix to enlist Calhoun so they can save Ralph. So one good turn to someone else means you get a good turn.
We have to ask, why would a kids film  about Q-Bert be made when they obviously do not know who Q-Bert is? Because the film is being marketed to their parents who do know and remember. At the end of the film, Q-Bert and characters from that game join up with the Fix It Felix game and Ralph says their new game is considered retro and very popular. We have to ask, how many technological entertainments from 1982 are still existing today? None that I can think of because technology comes and goes so quickly nowadays so this "slip" of unreality (that Fix It Felix from 1982 would still be operating in a 2012 arcade) is meant to intentionally make us question "What's going on here?" Fix It Felix, being from the Reagan Administration symbolizes capitalism and Ralph as one for whom the American Dream hasn't yet come true (the idea of dreams not coming true was well-played out in Total Recall). In 1997, the game Sugar Rush came out and was immediately infected by King Candy; why? King Candy symbolizes socialism (I articulate this below) and 1997 was the start of Bill Clinton's second term as president during which time he and wife Hillary created three, state-run (socialist) child programs (including health insurance) "infecting" the capitalist system with impersonator code (King Candy). Please recall that Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters sites the beginning of Clinton's second term as the time when the two young siblings went to the witch's gingerbread cottage (made of candy like everything in Sugar Rush). So the socialism we are getting with Obama really started, the film points out, during Clinton's second term. Resurrecting a character like Q-Bert has more to do with politics than just nostalgia, he links us to the presidency and policies of Ronald Reagan unlocking for us our memories of history and why socialism is "the most powerful virus in the universe" (King Candy says that).
After trying to discover a way to get a medal so he can "advance to the next level," (see, isn't that a great pun loaded with economic innuendos for class advancement?) Ralph steals the uniform of a Hero's Duty soldier and sneaks into the game where he meets Calhoun, the squad leader:
What is Ralph's disastrous tour of duty conveying?
Those who do what they do do what they do because they can.
In other words, not everyone is equal.
It's a familiar example, but an important one: being only five-foot-two myself, I am quite certain that I would lose a basketball game to bad boy Dennis Rodman; on the other hand, ask Rodman to write a twenty-page paper on the importance of Moby Dick and he'd be lucky to get twenty words on the page. Everyone is equally talented, but not everyone is equally talented at all talents. Socialism would have us to believe that (the upcoming Billy Crystal and Bette Midler film Parental Guidance examines this philosophy in the scene of the grandson's baseball game when there "are not outs," everyone gets to stay at bat until they hit the ball) but Wreck It Ralph makes a more definite and personal statement about each individual and our talent: we own our talent and our talent owns us, no one can take it away from us and unless we know our talent and the value of our talent, we don't know our own self. This thesis forms the core philosophy of Wreck It Ralph and it's strategy against socialism (this discussion is continued in the caption for the image below).
Ralph triggering the medal award ceremony in Hero's Duty after he has stolen the medal. The grandiose honor the military commander behind Ralph bequeaths on the winner is meant to trigger our own response: that's not right. We inherently know that it's not right for someone to receive credit for something they didn't do and it's also wrong for someone to not receive credit for what they did do. The film intentionally creates this "superficial" award so, when Ralph's real award for being a hero comes from Vanellope, we judge its value on the human scale of sincerity and love. Why is this an important philosophical argument to make? Because socialism doesn't believe this, in practice, it holds that everyone is equal in all things and the government owns your talent, not you. The reason Ralph is so disgruntled is because he doesn't have the freedom of mobility to explore the positive side of his talent for wrecking (think of the limited mobility of Communism existing in East Berlin during the Cold War and how difficult it was for anyone to exit or enter the Soviet Union or any of its controlled countries). Once Ralph steps outside his boundaries, he's also stepping outside himself and getting to know himself in a way he hasn't before (this holds true also for Felix who realizes the negative side of "always fixing everything" when he's in the "fungeon" and can't get out). The reason the bond between Ralph and Vanellope becomes so strong is because she acts as a mirror to show Ralph himself in a way he hasn't seen himself before (and that is what happens for all of us in our relationships) and Ralph does the same for Vanellope. Because both characters have been without that friendship for so long, they value it more than other characters within the film because they don't take it for granted. Why is this important? Human beings are cheap in a socialist society, the government doesn't think twice about letting people die or suffer (consider, for example, President Obama's "aiding" of the people suffering from Hurricane Sandy, while they were without all basic necessities, he was campaigning in Las Vegas, then shooting hoops waiting for the election results). Wreck It Ralph wants to remind us of the importance of relationships and how it not only helps us to discover ourselves and our purpose in society (in a socialist government, the only purpose is to serve the government) but how we help others discover their purpose as well. In this scene, the cyber bug of socialism (explained in next caption below) is released when Ralph "puts his foot in it" and releases socialism because he buys into believing that he deserves something he didn't earn which is the basis for redistribution of wealth.
Now, let's talk about the two leading women of the film, Calhoun and Vanellope.
It's tempting for me to say that both females are symbolic role reversals away from the tradition of symbols, for example, the passive female usually symbolizes "the motherland" while the active male symbolizes the economy or the founding father. In Wreck It Ralph, both Vanellope and Calhoun symbolize the motherland, but the motherland's identity has been further articulated than ever before, incorporating the economy/economic model of the land to be part of the identity of the motherland. Calhoun easily represents for us the military because she's not only the leader but the dominant military presence within the film (and we can all see how that would be a role reversal from a traditional female); besides being eligible as a symbol of the motherland because she's female, she also gets married  twice (for more on Calhoun, please see the caption in the image below).
Calhoun has a "tragic case history" because she fell in love with another soldier and on their wedding day, she didn't do a perimeter check and a cyber bug broke through the window of the church and ate Calhoun's groom. The window is "the window of reflection." Calhoun, as a female and symbol of the motherland, is not aggressive military but protective; her groom, however, symbolizes active military because he was male. For the protecting factor to be "wedded to" the militaristic factor would have created a socialist state (symbolized by the cyber bug) because communism is determined to be world-wide and must be spread and that is symbolized in the plague of cyber bugs. When Calhoun marries Felix, on the other hand, it's because Calhoun as the motherland is protecting the civilians and their interests.
Who is Vanellope?
As a child, she symbolizes "the future"; as a race car driver, she symbolizes the economy; with her name being "von Schweetz," she's not only German, but nobility (technically, royalty) and, as a "glitch," she's imperfect and temporary. If you are paying close attention, some of these characteristics appear to be in stark contrast to one another.
Not everything is "sweet" in Sugar Rush and Vanellope hanging upside-down should alert us to that. What other female have we seen hanging upside-down? Carolyn Stoddard from Dark Shadows; instead of turning into a werewolf like Carolyn, Vanellope turns into a princess and, knowing this, we can understand why Vanellope is upside-down. When Ralph mentions in the clip below, "Why don't you go home?" Vanellope begins mimicking him, why? Two reasons, first, because Vanellope doesn't have a real home, she's socially, politically, economically and emotionally marginalized in Sugar Rush. As a glitch, Vanellope can't be a part of the game, or so King Candy tells everyone and all these elements will come together, in just a moment, when we discuss the second reason for Vanellope hanging upside-down. 
This clip is where Vanellope and Ralph first meet, after Ralph has crashed the space ship from Hero's Duty wherein a cyber-bug escaped with him (landing in Sugar Rush to lay eggs and take over the game) and, in the process of the "crash" (read, "economic crash,") Ralph lost his "stolen" medal, which he realized was on the upper most branch of one of the candy-cane trees (everything in this clip is important):
Vanellope being "on a limb" when she and Ralph first meet means she's in a dangerous position, just as Ralph is (if he dies in Sugar Rush, he doesn't regenerate). Vanellope's danger is that, as a glitch, she could cause harm or damage to herself or others at any minute. Note also that the first topic Vanellope introduces is Ralph "not belonging" in Sugar Rush, because, as a marginalized character not allowed to play "in the game" of the Sugar Rush race track, she herself doesn't belong and yet she can't leave the game, because she's a glitch (when everyone in Sugar Rush has to abandon the game because of the cyber bugs, she can't exit because of her code). Vanellope is in a state of social, political and economic paralysis, like Ralph.
If Vanellope is royalty and the rightful ruler of Sugar Rush, why does everyone treat her so meanly? King Candy took over Sugar Rush, and to do that, he sealed the memories and history of Sugar Rush so no one would remember that Vanellope was the princess and rightful royal ruler. This is the second reason why Vanellope "hangs upside-down," because her "kingdom" is upside-down: the trespasser is ruling and the ruler is ousted (just like Snow White in both Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman).
Knowing that Vanellope's last name is "von Schweetz," means she's German, and why would something deliberately "German" be deliberately compared to a deliberate glitch? Because Germany made two recoveries from World Wars: one recovery led to Germany becoming socialist and starting another World War, and the second recovery led Germany to becoming one of the most economically advanced and stable models of capitalism in the world. This later example (which we'll see in the metaphor of the race track) is the reason why a German would be considered "royalty" in a pro-capitalist narrative because they are a royal example of what to do right; the question is, with an American government wanting to turn our society to socialism, why hasn't the successes of Germany been remembered? Because that history has been locked up (please see caption in image above).
When Ralph and Vanellope first meet in the clip above, as is typical in first encounters, we reveal a great deal of ourselves, and part of what is revealed is what Ralph thinks of himself: a wrecker. What does he tell Vanellope? I'm here to cut down these trees, i.e., destroy them. Why does Ralph tell her "we" are here, in the plural? Because he knows the cyber bug is there to destroy Sugar Rush as well even though he will lie later and tell Calhoun the bug drowned. Why does Ralph do this? Self-concern. It's a well-documented fact and criticism of capitalism that individuals only care about themselves, and in this scenario the films creates about Ralph letting loose the cyber bug, he shows how any of us might behave this way, but how we can make amends and actually become better for it by not caring about ourselves and our own fortunes and well-being, rather, but putting others first. This is what makes Ralph the hero because he sees in the needs of others his "hero's duty" to employ his talents and skills--be they ever so humble--and help save others even if it means his own life.
Now that we know "she's German," we know why she imitates Ralph when they first meet: the Germans imitated American capitalism so they could recover from socialism; German socialism is why Vanellope doesn't understand why Ralph has such "freakishly big hands": hands, as part of the arms, can symbolize strength, but also "the hand of friendship" (as seen in the image above); because socialism weakened Germany so much, it doesn't understand how capitalism (the Reaganomics from 1982 when Fix-It-Felix was created) made America so strong; additionally, because of the imperialist agenda of Nazi Germany and the taking over of countries in Africa and the international intent of conquering the world, Vanellope would not understand why America would have such a "big hand of friendship" to extend to others instead of using using that power to dominate and control. Why does Ralph ask, "Why are you so freakishly annoying?" Probably as a reference to how "annoying" the Germans starting World War II was to America and the problems East German socialism caused to America's CIA (America and Germany have not always been allies, Germany has "annoyed" America in the past).
This commercial for Sugar Rush isn't in the film, however, it will give you important glances as to the race Vanellope has to win and how capitalistic the marketing of the game is:
Why is a race so perfect for an economic analogy?
There is always the possibility of  "crashing."
As stated above, its usually the active male principle symbolizing the economy, but Wreck It Ralph transforms the motherland (Vanellope) by making the economy a part of the motherland's identity, not something adjacent to or contingent upon or politically motivated by. "I knew racing was in my code," Vanellope tells Ralph after finally figuring out how to drive (how to control the "engine of the economy"). Vanellope has three different race cars in the film: the first she made on her own and the other racers tear it apart, then the one she and Ralph try to make and Ralph tears apart at the behest of King Candy and Fix It Felix fixes for Ralph. Why are there basically three cars (the car Felix fixes is different from the original so I am counting that as a third car)? Because Vanellope has to win the race to get Ralph's medal back for him (advance him socially and economically) so the car is the engine of the economy and the first car was "invented" by Vanellope, translating that we can't just "invent" economic principles and expect they will work because they don't stand up to the scrutiny of others (the other racers tearing it apart).
The second car is much better than the first, yet still leaving much to be desired since Ralph and Vanellope make it themselves but don't know anything about making cars demonstrating how the economy the politically disenfranchised create without any one else's help is a mess and neither Ralph nor Vanellope know enough to make a good car; the inherent flaws of that "engine of economic growth" must be wrecked at King Candy's provocation (more on him below). After the car is wrecked, and Fix It Felix repairs it, Vanellope has the car that wins the race; why? It's not that Felix has made the car better (it's an even bigger mess now) but now the upper-class Felix symbolizes has contributed to the vehicle of the economy so now the race can be won (please recall that Iron Man's Tony Stark [Robert Downey Jr] also fixes everything, including in The Avengers). It's the combined effort on the economic model that allows Vanellope to out-race King Candy and win back her kingdom; so, who is King Candy?
"Have some candy," King Candy keeps telling everyone and that's where the phrase "Children of the candy corn" comes from. Referencing the horror film Children Of the Corn, where all the kids killed their parents to worship a demonic cult, so those children living off the state's candy corn of freebies are like children who have killed their parents (the "mother"land and the founding "fathers") to live according to appetites, not republic principles like Vanellope promises to establish after she has been restored to power. A second film is linked with King Candy: The Wizard Of Oz. Outside his palace, Oreo cookie march around like the guards outside the castle of the Wicked Witch, and they sing, "Or-e-o" in the meter of the guards in The Wizard Of Oz, so (if we are paying attention) we will link King Candy with the Wicked Witch and know that he, like she, is only after power and will do anything to keep it.
We learn that Sonic had been the best game for a long time, but when a new, better game came along, Sonic became jealous and infected the new game so both of them were unplugged. Sonic then went into the code of Sugar Rush, locked up everyone's memory then told the characters of Sugar Rush that Vanellope von Schweetz was only a glitch and he, King Candy, was rightful ruler; since no one could remember anything, they bought his story and Vanellope was forbidden from racing. What is it that hates competition, like with the new racing game? Socialism hates competition, and that's why games are a perfect analogy for capitalism because capitalism requires competition to keep its edge. Sonic infecting the other, newer game references the attempt in history of socialism trying to take over the world after World War II but capitalism (the best capitalism seen in America for years that caused tremendous economic growth thanks to the Eisenhower administration) was then forced to compete with the countries going socialist and the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Cold War made capitalism look bad to some Americans who refused to accept capitalism; today, King Candy--in the guise of President Obama--has disguised his socialism as the rightful ruler of America because no one remembers history so he can get away with it.
Why are the cyber bugs attracted to a beacon? Because the light symbolizes the truth, and the truth has power because people are willing to  sacrifice for it, as with the soldiers in Hero's Duty and Ralph willing to sacrifice himself to cause the mountain to erupt, and that strength of character is stronger than the appetites of socialism.
In conclusion, Wreck It Ralph is a complex and enjoyable film (probably more so for adults than children) and delivers a consistent, patriotic message about our dreams, our sacrifices and relationships. Further, it provides a chance to walk down memory lane and see the dramatic advances we have made in technology because of private enterprise competing with itself instead of government control.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner