Breakdown: Wreck-It Ralph

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

Huge ones for Wreck-It Ralph, and some smaller ones for Tangled, Bolt, Toy Story, Up, and Brave.

You’ve been warned…

Symbols

This is were we left off last time…

Stories are often about choices. In order to make these choices more visible, symbols are often created for the ideas that a protagonist is choosing between. In Wreck-It Ralph, we have the Hero Medal and (what I’ll call) the Vanillope Medal.

The Hero Medal symbolizes respect and validation. It functions differently for Vanillope (as a coin that lets her buy a car); symbolically, however, it works the same way, since the car is her way to get validated. We could argue that the car turns out to mean more than that, but her initial urge for the medal is the same as Ralph’s.

The Vanillope Medal symbolizes friendship and compassion. When Ralph smashes Vanillope’s car, he’s wearing the Vanillope Medal, but in the scene immediately after, he’s wearing the Hero Medal. He then, in rejection of his ambition, hurls the Hero Medal away, which reveals the truth about Vanillope. In other words, the medals show us where Ralph is positioned in his arc, and then the story rewards him for giving up on validation.

Ultimately the day must be saved by using the “correct” symbol. Before punching through the Mentos roof, Ralph clutches the green heart of the Vanillope Medal in his fist.

Symbols are often consulted in place of “mentor characters” to re-affirm a decision, or to push a protagonist in the story’s required direction. The most elegant symbol in Pixar’s canon is the name ANDY written on Woody’s boot. It’s a reminder of his character’s spine “do what’s right for my child”.

The depiction of choices in Up is equally strong: when Carl has to choose between saving his house for Ellie or saving Kevin for Russell; and then the reversal when he sits in his house, between Ellie’s book and Russel’s sash of badges.

First he chooses the “wrong” thing, and then he chooses “correctly”. His choices move us from Act 2 into Act 3.

The same as Ralph’s.

Characters

The characters in Wreck-It Ralph are not simplexified in the way I discussed last post. Sure, Ralph is big and Felix is small. We could discuss Vanillope’s glitch. But the most apparent connection to make with the four leads is to their voice actors.

They’re less cartoony than Pixar’s usual work, and make more use of the actor’s known facial expressions and mannerisms. For me, the gee-shucks optimism of Jack McBrayer works the best, especially the scenes with him in jail.

I don’t have a complaint about this. I like all the actors, and I think they helped make the film more human. My problem with the characters is the characterization of the women, which is a problem I have with almost everything from Hollywood.

Why would I have a problem with Vanillope and Calhoun? Vanillope is adorable and determined. She has agency over her own plotline. Calhoun is a tough woman, showing that men aren’t the only ones capable of blasting aliens.

True, sure, but Calhoun’s main plotline is that she’s traumatized over her husband’s death. (The depiction of which I do find very funny.) She’s broken in a way that requires a new man to “fix” her. And she’s never really showing us that women are tough, she’s showing us that Calhoun is an exception, which is why we get comedy from her performance. Get it? It’s funny that a woman could be this tough. And she still wants a guy, just like every woman, right?

I’d like Vanillope if she wasn’t cute and she didn’t turn into a princess at the end.

I am so hard to please. What do I want? If I don’t want female characters who are perfect or broken or squeamish or tough, what do I want?

I want them to be real. I don’t want the problems they have to be quirks that make them cute. I want them to be allowed to have problems that are NOT attractive.

Like who?

Top: Merida from Brave. Middle: Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away. Bottom: Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

How about female animated characters who aren’t the leads?

Top: Tigress from Kung-fu Panda. Middle: Jade from Jackie Chan Adventures. Bottom: Dory from Finding Nemo.

Tigress is actually a surprisingly good character, but I’m scared they’ll mess it up and have her marrying Po before the end of Kung-Fu Panda 3. These females have strengths, but also flaws. They have individual goals, hopes, and beliefs that do not involve romance. 

Like real people.

Sorry, what? Wreck-It Ralph? Oh yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about. 

The Villains

Wreck-It Ralph makes use of what I refer to as “villain swallowing”. Early in the plot, there are multiple villains, so it feels like danger presses in on all sides. Later, to have a more focused climax, one villain swallows the others, becoming supreme.

In Tangled‘s Act 2, we’re running from Rapunzel’s mom, Flynn’s thief buddies, and Max the horse. By Act 3, it’s resolved to just Mother Gothel, as she’s knocked out the thieves, and the horse has joined the heroes.

Wreck-It Ralph takes villain swallowing more literally.

These guys…

become this…

They seriously just fuse together.

The result is an insane, endlessly evil, soul-sucking, generic super-villain. It’s barely a person at this point. Completely unsympathetic.

I find it interesting that Pixar’s list of things to avoid when making Toy Story stated that they didn’t want a villain. I’d love to hear John Lasseter discuss how he feels about using villains now.

Also, I’m curious how he would define “a villain”.

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that he never wrote a story with a villain in it, and that it was because of something he learned in college after the war. Personally, I would classify Dwayne Hoover, Paul Lazzaro, and the Handicapper General as villains. That’s me.

The fact that they’re round characters with human motivations doesn’t change my mind. I think that just means they’re good villains.

If we only consider characters villains after they become unredeemable then I think villains become a less interesting idea. I think almost all of Pixar’s movies have villains, although in some cases (Toy Story 2, Up, Brave) they aren’t revealed until Act 3.

Some of those might have been better without the villain fight in Act 3, but it’s hard to say. Mark Andrews has said that Mar’du was a late addition to Brave, because the third act wasn’t working.

I don’t know. Monsters University is probably their movie that gets closest to not having a villain, and its third act is amazing. Bolt did pretty well without one too.

I don’t like generic super-villains and that’s what Mar’du is. That’s what King Candy becomes. In comparison, when we see Ralph identify himself as a “bad guy” in the beginning, it seems even more obvious that he’s not.

However, we probably didn’t need this contrast for a satisfying end. Characters should be challenged by their opposites, and Ralph’s opposite isn’t generic evil. It was Felix.

Final Thoughts

In talking about Wreck-It Ralph, I’ve wandered quite a bit. There’s almost as much discussion of other movies as the one under close examination.

As I’ve said, my brain likes categories and connections. This is kind of the way I think. Next time I do a close look I might jump around again, or I might tighten my lens and get into smaller details.

For next week though…

On September 6th, we’ll continue our look at villains with a countdown of five great villains from the most popular children’s series of all time: Harry Potter.

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Learning from Pixar: Simplexity

Simplexity: Something that when glanced appears simple, but when examined reveals great detail, richness, and flexibility.

I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s a good definition. I’ll start with considering how this applies to characters, then continue into how it can influence plot/structure.

(Relevant part begins at 2:35.)

Pete Docter (the co-writer/director of Monsters Inc. and Up) talks about how the characters’ shapes are tied to their personalities. He doesn’t say which came first, but we can assume that the personalities came before the shapes. Every aspect of character design then supports character.

The early designs for Sulley (from Monsters Inc) included tentacles, but they worried that audiences would lose focus on his facial expressions.

Clicking the Sulleys will take you to a video chat on the making of Monsters Inc.

The final image of Sulley is simpler. Sulley is a warm and loveable monster–he should have purple spots and a wide grin. It is more iconic, an easier model to slip into the story with. Which is part of the heart simplexity: multiple things are happening at once, but you don’t notice because they fit together so well. Everything is logically tied together, so that you can’t tell where it started.

Another example: 

EVE is sleek, elegant, and futuristic while WALL-E is boxy, awkward, and rustic. Don’t just notice the shapes, also notice the contrast. Whether conscious or only visceral, the difference between these characters has an effect on us. It identifies each character more cleanly by showing us an opposite. It also creates opportunities for dynamic interactions.

Simplexity doesn’t just work in animation. Short stories, novels, and picture books can also be tight, layered, and highly-visual, springing from a single concept. My guess is that it goes in a different direction though. When this goes well, it’s impossible to guess the origin, but here’s my gut…

Animators at Pixar start with an idea for a story, determine what their main characters’ personalities should be like, then create models, then create interactions.

Other writers might find inspiration in an image (often from dreams), and then ask themselves questions about “who these people are” and “what they want”. By doing this they develop a rounded character, and then discover events in the character’s life.

I’ve heard more than a few gardener/discovery writers who write fantastical stories describe their process in that way. When I write short stories for adults, I do something similar.

Aimee Bender‘s short story “The Healer” starts like this: “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice. Everyone else’s hands were normal.” Everything in that story flows logically, according to what a girl with a fire hand and a girl with an ice hand might be like. It’s achingly brilliant.

What would a child be like if he grew up in a graveyard? From this concept springs Bod and The Graveyard Book.

Okay. So that’s a bit on character. How might we simplexify plot?

(Minor spoilers for The Paperbag Princess and Howl’s Moving Castle ahead.)

Last year, the twenty-two “story basics” from Emma Coats (a former storyboard artist at Pixar) was reblogged a million times. For good reason. I could write a blog about almost every tip, but today I’ll focus on #4.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This list comes from Brian Macdonald’s Invisible Ink, which opens with a third-page blurb from Andrew Stanton (cowriter/director Finding Nemo and WALL-E). Macdonald admits he didn’t create the steps himself; he learned them from an improv troupe. He’s not sure where they actually originated, but he’s responsible for most of their popularity.

To see a workshop of the Invisible Ink steps in action, led by a Pixar storyboard artist, watch the video below.

I’ve read a lot of books on story structure. Almost all provide their own list of steps. (Which will be worth another post to compare.) The steps in Invisible Ink are the simplest I’ve come across.

There are two things worth noticing.

First, the middle steps (Act 2?) are not “and then”; they are “because of that”. In 6 Days to Air, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss a similar trick for compressing stories. They change ands in their story progression into buts and therefores.

Example Therefore: Often we want a character to go somewhere, and the reason is that the next important thing in the plot happens at Location X. It isn’t really enough that a character has a burning desire to go to Location X. Something should have happened during Plot Event D that sends the character to Location X.  Ji-min gave her sister the last bowl of cereal; therefore, she goes to the store.

Example But: Similarly, a story might have an event that happens at the midpoint. Could be a math test. And the math test totally shakes up the plot. This is easier to accept than a sudden Christmas gift. If an event has to come into the story sidewise, then it should be an obstacle to the characters’ goals. Hamid needs to play in the big football game, but he can’t because he failed a calculus test.

Building stories around consequences makes plots fluid. It can be very difficult to find the right connections. When the rationale is found though, it makes every part of your story necessary and intertwined.

Simpler, but richer.

The second thing about Rule #4 that’s worth mentioning is that Coats omitted the final step: “And ever since then, ___”. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the equivalent of “Return With the Elixir”.

The idea is that it’s not enough for the hero to get what they want or to save themselves. Wisdom and happiness have to be shared to have value. (Although The Paperbag Princess would disagree.)

The audience at least have to see that something has changed, so that we know there was a purpose for the story. This could be as simple as a moon becoming full…

Where the Wild Things Are

or a character’s hair staying grey…

Howl’s Moving Castle

These are simple changes that carry meaning. Symbols of the journey. Using symbols is another great way to simplexify plot, but that will be examined next week.

After Disney bought Pixar in 2006, John Lasseter became the chief creative officer of both. His influence is evident in Disney’s computer animated films since then: Bolt, Tangled, and Wreck-It Ralph. Next Friday, we’ll take a closer look at one of them in my first detailed breakdown.