Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s newest animated adventure, is a humorous homage to video games and specifically the video games of the past. It’s a hefty dose of nineties nostalgia that had me mentally revisiting my childhood, both when Bowser and Q*Bert are on the screen and as the story gets down to its main theme. To begin, time-travel with me briefly to when I was twelve years old.
The scene is an elementary school cafeteria. Sixth graders line all four sides of the two long, two-foot high tables that run the length of the room. Bo and I are not friends. We both sit firmly ensconced in separate groups. Bo and his friends are likely talking about last night’s WWE Smackdown and which team they think will win the Superbowl this year. My friends and I are probably pouring over our Pokemon code books and debating whether or not Wolverine could take Obi-Wan Kenobi in a fight.
Because Bo and I interact as little as possible, when Bo suddenly turns and yells, “Elijah! You’re so slow! Could you be any slower?” and then turns back to his friends who are all laughing at an insult so expediently delivered, I’m shocked. I pretend I didn’t hear him, and my friends and I, after a moment of awkward silence, go back to our conversation.
That was the first I ever remember caring what anyone else thought of me, the moment I realized I was being judged not just by my teachers and coaches and other authority figures, but by my peers as well. Until that moment, I thought Bo and I were equals. Suddenly I was alerted that I was inferior, and I felt the need to assert my worth to the rest of the world. That need has never gone away.
Wreck-It Ralph‘s three main characters – Ralph (the ever down beat John C. Reilly), Vanellope (“vanilla+penellope” voiced almost too annoyingly by Sarah Silverman), and King Candy (Alan Tudyk doing a perfect Ed Wynn impersonation) – all deal with this same need. Ralph is the “bad guy” in his game, and the denizens of the apartment complex he routinely wrecks want nothing to do with him even after the arcade is closed for the night. In an attempt to win their favor, he goes “game jumping” in hopes of winning a medal in a different game, thereby proving his underlying “hero” status. While on this quest, he meets Vanellope, a “glitch” in a candy-themed racing game and her nemesis, King Candy, the monarch of their saccharine speedway.
Wreck-It Ralph is terrifically clever, packed with more visual and verbal puns than Pac-Man’s maze is with pellets. Some sequences are as idiosyncratic and entertaining as much of Pixar’s canon, while other sequences are “what one would expect” from an animated movie. At times the arcade universe’s laws are spelled out a little too explicitly, but at 108 minutes, taking any more time to demonstrate the world’s laws would have stretched the movie out into the plus two hour range. Although, considering the consistent thrills of this movie, a few more minutes of it would have likely been delightful.
In the end, Wreck-It Ralph‘s cliched solution is spelled out clearly – be proud of who you are regardless of what others think. This easy moralizing is the movie’s weakest point, because even if Ralph‘s message is true, real life rarely presents us with the kind of opportunity Ralph gets to prove his worth to those whose approval he seeks. Even if it did, “Bo” seems to always find another reason to judge us inadequate.
What’s more, even if we disregard “Bo’s” derision, frequently his overall judgement isn’t wrong. In sixth grade, many playground games of soccer had already proven my lack of athletic ability. Unlike Ralph, who knows deep down that he’s really a hero, I knew I wasn’t fast. Bo’s negative judgement pales in comparison to my own. Being proud of myself regardless of what others think is easy. A small dose of arrogance can solve that problem. Being proud of myself regardless of what I think is the real battle.
I eventually learned and am learning to root my self-confidence outside myself entirely in the assurance that I am accepted by God and loved by God not because of how fast or slow I am or because of any inherent worth, but because Christ traded God’s love for my sin. The following is an excerpt from Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith:
As a Christian, I am firmly convinced that the decisive moment of Jesus’ public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, “You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests.” In this core experience, Jesus is reminded in a deep, deep way of who he really is…
For many years I had read, reflected on, and taught the gospel words in Luke 3 in the story of Jesus’ baptism, but only in my later years have they taken on a meaning far beyond the boundaries of my own religious tradition. God’s words “You are my Beloved” reveal the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not. The ultimate spiritual temptation is to doubt this fundamental truth about ourselves and trust in alternative identities…
How much of our energy goes into defining ourselves by deciding “I am what I do,” “I am what others say about me,” or “I am what I have”? When that’s the case, life often follows a repetitive up-and-down motion. When people speak well about me, and when I do good things, and when I have a lot, I am quite up and excited. But when I start losing, when I suddenly find out that I can’t do some task anymore, when I learn that people talk against me, when I lose my friends, then I slip into the pit.
What I want to say to you is that this whole zigzag approach is wrong. I am not what I do, and you are not what you do, or what others say about you, or what you possess. “You are God’s Beloved!” I hope that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – “You are the Beloved!”
“Be proud of yourself” isn’t a bad message. It’s just too limited. There’s a deeper truth at work in the universe – that God is proud of you – and until we each learn that, we will always be trying to prove our worth to someone, even if that someone is ourselves. Wreck-It Ralph is a fun movie, but it only takes us so far. Jesus takes us the rest of the way.