One of my least favorite movies of all time is House of Cards (1993), an overwrought ’90′s melodrama about a woman trying to understand her special needs daughter. The daughter, Sally, is stricken with the symptoms of a severely autistic child: silence, lack of eye contact, and strong focus on a particular subject (playing cards). She makes what Ebert describes as “loud, ugly noises” when she’s upset. Apparently, this is not something she is born with, but a “disease” that is contracted, proves temporary, and is miraculously cured by the end of the film.
It’s a troubling movie for me. It perpetuates a very Hollywood idea, that a disorder or problem that affects an individual deeply can vanish overnight. I prefer a story about someone triumphing over adversity with, you know, effort. Or even a character learning to live with a major inconvenience. Fiction doesn’t need to be factual — escapism is important — but I do enjoy some honesty in fantasy.
Wreck-It Ralph prides itself on being honest. Just because the titular arcade video game protagonist (John C. Reilly) considers himself a good guy doesn’t mean he actually is one. He starts out as impatient, obsessive, and short-tempered. He has to work to overcome obstacles to become “good” over the course of the film.
Just because Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) says she’s like the other racers in the arcade game Sugar Rush doesn’t mean she is one until she works to keep her glitch under control.
Much like someone with a disability or recurring medical issue, Vanellope’s character undergoes periodic “glitching” in which she, and anything she’s in contact with in her environment, momentarily dissolves into code. It’s the sort of problem for which other characters tease and ostracize Vanellope. Even King Candy (Alan Tudyk), instead of working with her on this issue, uses it as justification to keep her from racing in the Sugar Rush game.
Vanellope’s glitch eerily mirrors the ways in which a disabled person may be treated socially. Living alone in an abandoned, unfinished level, Vanellope shows how she uses scraps and leftover junk to thrive. She describes herself as curling up to sleep under her blankets like a “cute little homeless lady.” Stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman, with her usual uncomfortable humor, is in fact describing why many homeless people live the way they do: recurring health issues, mental and physical, that cause them to be discounted or ignored.
My favorite part about this analogy is how Vanellope’s glitching problem is “fixed.” Her issue doesn’t disappear during the climax. Instead, Vanellope uses what she knows about her problem — that it’s triggered by heightened emotional states — and learns to control it. The idea that it’s a sort of teleportation super power is a bit cutesy, but I like that it’s not an issue that disappears over night nor one that defines her completely.
Vanellope still has the glitch by the end of the film, but its origin turns out to be from King Candy. Her ability is an accident, a leftover when he tried and failed to remove her from the game’s programming. Like House of Cards, the source of Vanellope’s issue isn’t innate but heavily rooted in the plot. But though the means by which she gets it in Wreck-It Ralph may be “magical,” her problem doesn’t resolve itself when Sugar Rush is rebooted.
Sitting in the theater, watching the film, I worried Disney would go this route, turning what Vanellope at one point referred to as “pix-lexia” (which, of course, sounds like dyslexia) into something that can be easily wiped away. Instead, Disney, known for its saccharine happy endings, somehow lets the character’s problem stand. Vanellope’s ”glitching” is a part of who and what she is, regardless of its source.
Similarly, Ralph’s decision to become a hero doesn’t instantly make him one. Like any engaging narrative, he has to become the person he wants to be. It’s a cheap story that has a quick fix for a character, which is how I felt when Sally began to speak at the end of House of Cards without any trace of her issue left. It can be difficult to relate to someone whose problems dissolve so effortlessly.
Wreck-It Ralph’s narrative, I think, is much more honest than the one in House of Cards. Unlike Sally, Vanellope must continue to live with her “glitch” even after her game is saved from destruction. Wreck-It Ralph is a surprisingly mature narrative where characters continue to live with ongoing issues. Much like Ralph still attending his support group at the end of the movie, Vanellope’s issues are a work in progress.