Case Study: 'Wreck-It Ralph' and Audience Emotion
As an aspiring writer, I’ve learned that the best way to learn is through study, practice, and imitation.
“And if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” - Ralph, Wreck-It Ralph
When you go to a movie like Wreck-It Ralph, you expect a few things. It’s Disney, so it’s going to either be amazing, or it’s going to be ho-hum, so-so, cinema-fodder. Granted, Disney typically does a better job knocking films out of the park. But how do they do that?
As an aspiring writer, I’ve learned that the best way to learn is through study, practice, and imitation. It’s also not about creating a carbon copy of their stories and slapping my own spin on it. Trust me, I’ve done that. I didn’t like how I felt, because the stories I wanted to tell were still inside me, waiting for the right time to come forward. It’s for this reason that I want to start a series of articles that have to do with creating great pieces of literature, either in essay format, or in long-form novels.
With that in mind, I’d like to delve into what makes Wreck-It Ralph an emotionally resounding film, what motifs exist, and how they are repeated in the setting, characters, and conflict. To freshen up your memory, a motif is “a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition” (Apple Dictionary). Having studied Wreck-It Ralph, I feel that the best way to understand the film is to look for the film’s motifs to understand its ultimate message. I’ll do this by analyzing what I like to call the “three pillars of storytelling,” which are character, setting, and plot.
Let’s start off with the setting. After studying Wreck-It Ralph, I’ve learned setting isn’t just about the time, place or circumstances the characters of the story find themselves in. A setting is designed with one thing in mind: to establish the premise.
Setting: Premise in Mind, and in Action
A premise to a story is like an introductory paragraph to an essay. It establishes the major points, the backbone of relevant information, without going into much detail. By it’s very nature, it’s designed to be an overview. You might wonder what the other portions of a story might be when compared to an essay. In the case of a story, our characters, their backstories, and their motivations will communicate the major points of your introduction: they are the way you communicate your introduction in greater detail, the body paragraphs of your work. Taking this idea of character backstory a step further, and we see the sequence of how the details are revealed, or "plot," could be compared to how the argument of an essay is made.
So let’s focus back on the premise for a bit. A story’s premise must be simple, it must communicate the conditions of the setting, and it must establish the ground for the dramatic question of the story, the reason why the story deserves to exist. The premise is the reason the story exists, and the dramatic question is the reason you should care about it. The premise does NOT answer that question. It only lays the foundation for it to be answered by the proceedings of the story itself. A great rule of thumb is, if you can’t summarize a story’s premise in one sentence, it needs work. In order to understand the premise and the dramatic question (hereafter “DQ”), let’s take Wreck-It Ralph into account. The entirety of the movie takes place within an arcade, or better said within several game consoles within said arcade. But this is what you would say if you asked what the setting of the story is. I submit that the premise, the idea behind the movie, is that “video game characters are sentient, and emotional beings, just like humans.” It is a statement of fact. And because of the premise’s simplicity, it is very easy to ask the dramatic question, the questions that initiates the entire story and gives you a reason to care: if a sentient video game character that normally gets shunned because he’s a "bad guy" got sick of his role, could he change? This is both the dramatic question to the film, and the "thesis statement" of our essay analogy.
Characters: Audience Proxy
This is where we begin to get to know our characters. As a viewer, you will be introduced to the premise, setting, and conflicts of the story through these characters. These function as a proxy to the viewer, or reader as the case may be. That said, as a writer creating a novel or a screenplay, it’s important to note that your audience will only ever see your characters first, not your premise. You will know and understand your premise by the time you begin to shape your characters, so it doesn’t make sense to put the cart before the horse, right?
Nah. This is only one method, based on an analysis of a film. After all, this entire essay is about learning how to create an emotionally resounding story. The process is different for every author, and every screenwriter. However, this method of analysis might prove useful to someone struggling to understand how the premise can help craft a character.
To start our discussion about character, I ask you to think of the one thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. Is it money? Is it for your family? Is it for the company at work? As a human being, you and I each have a motivation for doing what we do each day, even if it’s to veg out and do nothing. It’s the same for a fictional character like Ralph, and this simple fact is what makes a compelling character: they are just like you and I. Our empathy as human beings is what gives creativity, the arts, and certainly stories from film or literature their emotive spark. But a spark on its own is not enough for an emotional experience. Let’s continue...
For each of the main characters of Wreck-It Ralph, protagonists or not, not a single one looks, sounds, or behaves like a human being on the surface. I mean, Wreck-It Ralph is a cartoon in the first place. Ralph has enormous, square shaped “ham-hands” used for smashing, and Vanelope is apparently a child who drives what appears to be a gas-powered, high-speed racer. These are things no real human would have allowed of their children, or would physically appear like. These attributes don’t get us emotionally invested in the character, or the premise and story at large. But looks alone are part of what engages us with the character; this surface-level character description is designed to keep our interests piqued. What makes us stay with a story, and invest in it, is still our empathy. I argue that empathy is the real reason we participate in the arts. Empathy is the feeling of having passed through something similar to the fictitious characters we are watching. In short, these characters become the proxy for ourselves.
What’s more, each of the major characters have very human needs and desires, and their actions and physical and emotional depth comes from that singular desire reflected through the lens of the story’s premise. The premise of our story is “video game characters are sentient, and emotional beings, just like humans.” The dramatic question is, “if a sentient video game character that normally gets shunned because he’s a ‘bad guy’ got sick of his role, could he change?” In this way, the DQ allows us to engage our empathy, and the characters allow us to play out our own experiences in a mental exercise of catharsis, or purifying of pent-up, residual emotion. When creating emotive, resonant characters, one must use these guideposts of premise and DQ to propel the character into his emotional arc, and in Ralph’s case, he wants to be accepted. Oddly enough, as I analyzed the film, I found that Venelope also followed this central desire. Even King Candy, the apparent antagonist to the story, is just the chagrinned and embittered Turbo, burrowing his way into the code of another game to prevent himself from losing his purpose (being ‘the greatest racer ever’). In the end, he wants to be accepted.
But why do these three characters, who arguably have the greatest amount of screen-time together, and being a major character, have the same theme? For this story, it’s the perfect arrangement. The zinger at the end of the story, the resolution and epilogue of the story, hits home when we realize that Ralph and Vanelope accept and validate one another, flaws and all.
Plot/Conflict: Forces of Antagonism
I remember hearing once: a hero is only as good as his villain. Think of Luke and Darth Vader, The Avengers and Thanos, Voldemort and Harry Potter. In some situations, the antagonist is the world around the character, such as Hidden Figures. But it’s not good enough to say “the world surrounding a character is against him,” either. The world was literally against Superman in Batman v. Superman, but the story in that film fell flat unless you were really looking for the nuggets. The point of this exercise is to highlight the power of simplicity, and there really are only two simple principles necessary for developing a powerful source of antagonism: the inner, and outer threats.
The inner and outer threats exist to provide the necessary background and forward momentum of the premise and DQ. The inner threat intrinsically imposes drama and potential for loss for a character personally. Think of this as the emotional or spiritual threat to the protagonist (or antagonist). This threat originates from within the character. The outer threat is a force, person, or circumstance outside of the character’s person. It is a threat that comes to the character from the outside, threatening the character’s physical being.
In the case of Wreck-It Ralph, Turbo is the outer threat with a tinge of inner threat. He teases Ralph, and imposes his will on Vanelope, calling her a glitch when he himself is the virus in the system. Poetically, Turbo is a tragic progression of Ralph himself, a cancerous proceeding of what would happen if Ralph took his desires too far. His actions, attitudes and decisions are based on a singular motivation, and judging by the actions taken, no matter how good or how evil, he echoes the central theme, as stated by the main protagonist, Ralph.
Turbo was in the situation Ralph found himself. He found his validation in his programing. Ralph was supposed to be a wrecker, and Turbo was supposed to be the best racer. But as Turbo’s source of validation was being threatened, he chose to act violently, and the choice Turbo made carried personal consequence to him, and directly affected the world of the story.
This is another minor point I’ll touch on. A great story has lasting consequences. When we always begin with the premise in mind, every other decision MUST affect the characters to either prove or disprove the dramatic question that premise evokes. And there doesn’t have to just be one dramatic question. There ought to be several lesser dramatic questions that support, or negate the arguments of the primary DQ.
It’s important to note that Turbo/King Candy is NOT the main antagonist of the story. He’s not. He’s the outer threat, the PHYSICAL embodiment of Ralph’s emotional potential for evil, a perfect foil to Ralph’s innocent-natured desire for acceptance. In Turbo’s case, he allowed his desire for acceptance to be corrupted by jealousy.
But in the frame of the premise, it would appear that the true antagonist to our protagonist, the one thing keeping Ralph from being happy and whole, is himself. He cannot be happy until he learns a new way of thinking about himself and the world around him. But this also is NOT the correct antagonist. And because of this, I have learned that what makes Wreck-It Ralph work so well is the narrative principle of the LIE. The principle goes as follows: the hero of the story believes a LIE that is perpetuated throughout the story until both the climax, and the resolution prove the LIE wrong. The LIE can be anything, so long as it directly relates to the premise and dramatic question of your story. If the premise is about emotional video game characters, and the dramatic question is “if a sentient video game character that normally gets shunned because he’s a ‘bad guy’ got sick of his role, can he change?” The LIE must be a logical progression of that premise and DQ. In this case, the LIE NEEDS TO BE THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF YOUR FINAL POINT. What's more, the LIE cannot be resolved by the character that believes it. The lie must be overcome by the forces of antagonism assailing the protagonist.
For Ralph, his LIE is: NO, he cannot change from being a bad guy, or better said, he cannot change his nature. This is touched upon when the premise of the story is begun in the very first scene of the film when Ralph attends a "Bad Guys Anon" meeting. The group recites the BGA ‘prayer:’ "I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me."
But the truth of the story is, YES, even a “villain” in a video game can be a good person. The premise, DQ and LIE each need to echo the same thing, and in the case of Wreck-It Ralph, the truth must declare that the circumstances of the premise (being a bad guy in a video game) do not determine the worth or goodness of the character (Ralph).
In this way, Vanelope Von Schweets is the second most important character to Ralph himself. That’s because she helps prove enough resistance to Ralph to give him the choice to change. This also makes her the true antagonist of the story.
Yes, I know what you are thinking: Vanelope? No way, she’s so sweet, and she's a hero! But think about it! The saying ought to go, “a hero is only as good as the antagonistic forces he overcomes or vanquishes.” In this light, Vanelope serves as the story’s overall antagonist, because she, in the most intimate way, proves or disproves the premise and DQ argued in Ralph’s dilemma. Ralph’s goal is to be accepted, by anyone. Initially, he cannot see that this is Vanelope’s goal as well. But as their mutual goals align (and naturally so; it’s the same goal!), they each learn to accept on another. In this way, they each begin to actively challenge the LIE behind the DQ and the premise. And while it is true that Turbo does challenge Ralph physically, he does so in the opposite way by emphasizing the LIE, that he cannot change, that he is just the bad guy in another game, and directly preventing Ralph from protecting his friend (and thematically denying him his newfound acceptance).
And if you're still convinced Vanelope is NOT the antagonist of the story, I have a remedy. Vanelope is the antagonist Ralph overcomes, and Turbo is the antagonist he vanquishes. But we can see that the manner in which Vanelope and Turbo are each faced is the true power, and moral behind the plot. Revealing the aspects that make the story what it is, revealing the natural progression of the Dramatic Question and Premise, and how this is done, is as important as the premise and DQ. In this case, the two antagonistic forces, Vanelope and King Candy, are each overcome or vanquished in different ways. Vanelope is overcome by kindness. It’s not a passive kindness, either. Ralph is forced to play nice with her in the beginning, but by the end he is conscientiously choosing to be kind, and to make her happy. It’s this kindness and compassion that allows Ralph to find his ultimate goal: to be accepted. In Turbo’s case, Ralph vanquishes him in a big “boss fight.” And that’s it. His quarrel with Turbo is only related to Ralph’s DQ in that he (Turbo) is preventing Ralph from protecting his friend, and saving the arcade. And yes, there is another subplot that creates for more tension that threatens the entire arcade, in the form of the Sci-Bugs. But those bugs are NOT the main antagonist of the story. They are a secondary antagonist to the protagonist, Ralph.
Here’s another place that Disney movies succeed or fail: the use of secondary and primary antagonists. The primary antagonist will always directly challenge the protagonist’s DQ in the most intimate way. We know if this primary antagonist will be inner, or outer, based on the characteristics of the DQ. As another aside, this will also help you determine the genre for the work you are creating, because certain genres follow certain parameters of premise, DQ, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict.
For Ralph, his DQ is an inner struggle, rather than an outward fight. But the secondary antagonist will have a much more general sweeping effect on the circumstances of the world. In other words, the secondary antagonists will passively attack both the protagonist, which prevents him or her from achieving their ultimate goal, WHILE they simultaneously attack the status quo established in the premise. (“If the Sci-bugs get out of Candy-Crush, they will infect and destroy the rest of the arcade, and potentially kill the other game characters in the arcade.”) The plot itself can (and in Wreck-It Ralph’s case, does) then use multiple climaxes that build to the ultimate answer of the film's dramatic question.
I think this is one of the biggest narrative lessons behind Wreck-It Ralph, that the inner and outer threats can be most effective if they are highlighted through powerful character portrayals that directly reflect both the dramatic question and the premise. Not every story will require both an inner, and outer threat as separate bodies. Sometimes they can be joined as one. Cinderella wouldn’t be the story it is without the physical and emotional threat posed by her stepmother. Thanos wouldn’t be as terrifying if he only debated the validity of the Avenger’s existing. Darth Vader wouldn’t be as scary if he hadn't abandoned his role as protector and loving figurehead to Luke. Wreck-It Ralph does divide up the forces of antagonism, and I believe it’s a formula that Disney seems to follow with little change. They do so intentionally. In fact, the only changes Disney seems to make are the basis of premise, the dramatic question, the characters that prove the dramatic question, the inner and outer threats, and their arrangement in the sequence of events. Moana follows this pattern. Zootopia follows this pattern. Snow White follows this pattern. In fact, many of the best films of our day use this pattern to varying degrees of success.
To bring home what I’ve shared, I’ll compare our discussion back to an essay. What matters in the end is the mastery of how you arrange your points (characters and their choices), in support of your thesis statement (the DQ). Your characters and their challenges MUST either prove or disprove your dramatic question. This question must be created under the conditions of the premise, your "introductory paragraph." When your intro (premise), thesis statement (DQ), body paragraphs (characters and character choices) and conclusion (climaxes) all roll in a logical progression, your story works. But the difference between an essay and a novel or film is empathy, and as proved by Wreck-It Ralph, when you adhere to these principles and use them to evoke empathy, your story will emotionally resound with your audience.