Wreck-it-Ralph: Dharma for the Digital Age

I didn’t think my children (5 and 3 years old) would make it through Cloud Atlas, so we went to Wreck-it-Ralph instead. The film is yet another Hollywood incarnation of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, perhaps the most common plot structure employed by screenwriters, especially after Christopher Vogler introduced his famous memo, “A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

Ralph, our unfulfilled hero, is called to leave his home and journey into strange new worlds (including one video game called “Hero’s Duty,” appropriately), only to return home in the end after a moment of self-realization. It’s a  framework that is recycled so often (The Lion King, The Matrix, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Wizard of Oz) because audiences respond to it. The Hero’s Journey resonates with universal human experience. We all leave home, grow, and change.  It’s not cliche, it’s an archetype. Cliche is the moss that grows on the archetypal tree.

But Wreck-it-Ralph adds something new to the Hero’s Journey. The world of video games provides metaphors that point toward an understanding of DNA (referred to as “programming” in the movie) and to a recognition of the game-like quality of existence, the sport and play of the universe. Ralph is programmed to wreck buildings, not to be a good guy. He’s nine-feet tall with fists the size of rottweilers. He’s built to rage, smash, and throw tantrums. And his video game needs him to do this. It ceases to function when he bails. The good guys of his video game world depend on him for their livelihoods and identities. His destructive behavior completes the universe he inhabits. Here good and bad are not  in Manichean opposition, but are mutually dependent phenomena, closer to something from Taoism or Jung’s model of the Self.

The lesson Ralph learns on his journey is to embrace his role in the phantasm of life. He accomplishes this, in part, by recalling his Bad Guys Anonymous affirmation (from an A.A.-style support group he attends) during a critical juncture in a battle with the enemy. The words of this affirmation no longer sound hollow to Ralph. Instead, he embraces and discovers that his deeper sense of purpose was with him all along:

“I am bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I would rather be than me.”

Wreck-it-Ralph is a kind of combination of Gilgamesh and The Ramayana. The hero, driven by a sense of loss, seeks to obtain the impossible, only to reawaken to his sense of duty, his dharma. (“Duty” is a word Ralph uses directly upon acknowledging he has shirked his responsibilities and reached beyond the limits of his life’s calling.) Also, like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, Ralph hesitates in the face of his call to duty, unable to submit to the scripted destruction.

But Wreck-it-Ralph preaches a dharma for the digital age. The characters have wiring and programming code instead of souls. “Evil” is merely the result of glitches and viruses, chaotic elements  built into the system. Life is fast-paced, action-packed, bright, hyper and surreal. Everyone travels between games through cables and cords, hidden dimensions existing behind the screens that reflect the faces of eager children, who are in turn feeding their dreams with quarters and projecting their fantasies onto digital bits.

In part, Wreck-it-Ralph will be a success because it bridges the generation gap between those who grew up with Pac-Man (who appears in the movie) and those who play Call of Duty and Angry Birds. This will result in a merchandising jackpot. However, this movie takes an important step in animated features, eschewing fairy tales and princess flicks in favor of cyber metaphors and science fiction.

(Oh….I should add: if your children aren’t into narrative analysis and Eastern religions, this movie has plenty of explosions, car chases, and potty humor to amuse them. My daughter was particularly fond of Sarah Silverman’s smart-mouthed character.)

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