Monday, 4 March 2013

And death shall have no dominion

[just noticed that the blog has accumulated 10,000 page views, which may not add up to a hill of beans, but thank you anyway]

[and this post contains SPOILERS (I note that they're always in caps) for the plot of Wreck-It Ralph, in case that puts you off]

These days I mainly go to the cinema to see children's films, with my 7-and-a-half year old daughter. (Between work and commuting and family life, there's not much time left.) This weekend we went to see Wreck-It Ralph, because it had gained glowing reviews, and we hadn't been for a month or two. And it was fine, really: nicely animated, good with the retro video games look (the square, bouncing characters who lived in Fix-It Felix's apartment building were particularly fun), and I got a lump in my throat in a couple of scenes. All good. I don't think the film has any great claims to originality (its narrative is a Jungle Book/ fairy tale/ Toy Story mash-up), and I don't really think it's better than Brave, as has been claimed in places (and I don't think Brave is top-drawer Pixar either, despite its gender focus and beautiful rendering). But what struck me was that two key scenes in the film, the ones I found most emotionally affecting, were scenes in which the film cheated its way out of unresolvable dilemmas, dilemmas to do with death and loss, difficult things to approach (if at all) inside a children's animated film.

The first is when Ralph, inside the 'Sugar Rush' game, is approached by the King of the game and told that, if the young girl racer/ glitch Vanellope were to win the game, she would become an avatar, and if children were to play as this glitchy character, it might lead to the shutting down of the game. For all the other characters in this game world, it would render them refugees; but as a glitch, Vanellope would be unable to migrate to other games, and would 'die' when the power was shut off. Ralph, having helped Vanellope build the car, prevents her from driving it and, true to his name, wrecks it. Now, this is interesting, I thought; the film is proposing a kind of rites of passage, but for the locum parent rather than the child. Ralph, of limited understanding and knowledge, encounters a kind of adult, no-win situation: either he destroys the car and betrays Vanellope's dreams, or he allows her to race and allow a set of events to unfold which might result in her 'death'. Properly, Ralph chooses the least-worst scenario, and wrecks the car; unfortunately, his incapacities (of speech and thought) mean that he can't explain to Vanellope just why he has done this, and she sees it purely as a betrayal (just like ol' Baloo trying to explain to Mowgli why he should go to the man-village; 'You wouldn't marry a panther, would you?', with the same results).

So, an entry into the adult world, I thought, interesting. But then the film cheats itself out of this dilemma, and the audience's possible alienation from Ralph-as-betrayer, by revealing that the King's story was not true, that Ralph had been deceived. There was no need to destroy the car; indeed, the imperative is to reconstruct it, and allow Vanellope to race (her dreams and narrative resolution stitched back together). This possibility had been flagged up by the prior behaviour of the King, who is explicitly typed as a malign version of the Mad Hatter in the Disney Alice, so it's narratively legitimated, but emotionally, a cheat, not least because it loads the scene with significance and seeks a response, then invalidates it as the scene's outcome is narrratively inconvenient. The overall narrative logic - Vanellope resolves the film by winning the race - is at odds with the the emotional logic of the developing parent-child relationship; but the film cheats because it wants us to have both.

The same is true of a later scene, where Ralph 'saves' the world of 'Sugar Rush' by wrecking a Mentos plug in the throat of a Coca-Cola volcano, causing an eruption that will draw invading 'cy-bugs' to it. He can only do this by killing himself in the process, smashing down on the surface to plunge the Mentos into the boiling Coke below (thereby immolating himself). This he does, and a tear came into my eye as, in slow motion, Ralph seems to fall to his death, a sacrifice that will save Sugar Rush and Vanellope (but, somewhat forgotten, would condemn his own game and its characters to permanent 'Out of Order' status). This, once more, completes a kind of emotional logic, a kind of redemption-through-heroic-sacrifice for Ralph - he had, inadvertently, brought the 'cy-bug' into Sugar Rush in the first place; and as a locum father, is willing to give himself so that his 'daughter' may live on.

And then, again, the film cheats itself out of the impasse: Vanellope uses her glitching power to pilot her race car to the mountain in time to save the falling Ralph. And all's well.

But I thought: wait a minute. Twice this film has pulled the same trick, got me to respond emotionally to moments of loss (innocence, life) but has then, through narrative prestidigitation, invalidated them. Ralph's act has emotional meaning because he sacrifices himself; but the narrative of the film can't allow him to die. (It's like when the gang are about to go down into the Pit in Toy Story 3 - where at least the makers had the good grace to indicate that rescue was nothing more than a literal deus ex machina, the Claw.) The emotional responses produced in Wreck-It Ralph are a con, because they run counter to the narrative logic and are quickly got round; an exercise in button-pushing, no more.

This set me thinking about death and loss in children's films, and how even recent films that come close to a truly affecting moment end up looking away (just as Baloo's 'death' in The Jungle Book is undone by a joke and a swift restitution of the the double-act with Bagheera). In Toy Story 3, noted above, or in Brave, where the human 'light' going out in the mother/bear's eyes is wonderfully done but then swiftly reversed,  film-makers sail close to death and loss to gain an emotional punch, but finesse the problem narratively to allow the audience to have their cake and eat it. Just like in video games, nobody dies, the film resets, and we can leave the theatre with a song. 'Look for those bare necessities...'

This is not to say that I want my daughter and I to sit through films where main characters are killed off all the time (though I think it's to the credit of a film like Bridge to Terabithia that it takes death and loss of a primary character head-on). But I want even children's films not to cheat me, to get me choked up and then say - it didn't matter anyway. You might argue that Wreck-it Ralph's logic is that of the video game, with multiple lives, the possibility of the reset; but the film goes out of its way to assert that, for Vanellope, and for any character who 'dies' outside of their own game world, it is the end. Except, of course, for when it is not.

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