It was pointed out that when the trailers for Wreck-It Ralph first emerged, it looked more like a Pixar film than your average Disney jaunt. Since the companies are technically all under the same roof, the point might be moot, but that made me wonder if Ralph shouldn’t be up for the same treatment that any other Disney animated feature might earn. And that got me thinking about Wreck-It Ralph’s unlikely hero, Vanellope von Schweetz, the glitch with enough guts to alter her reality for the better.
(MAJOR SPOILERS for Wreck-It Ralph ahead.)
I have to give the editor of the movie’s trailer credit; from the way it was pieced together, the bulk of Wreck-It Ralph’s story was very well-hidden, and Vanellope’s character seemed likely to be a minor pitstop on Ralph’s journey. Yet it really could be argued that Vanellope is the movie’s central figure, or at the very least that Ralph’s endgame is only possible because of his commitment to Vanellope’s journey.
We sympathize with Ralph from the beginning as audience members; he’s got a rotten deal, brought about by nothing he can control. He’s basically a sweet guy with a big temper, which you can’t blame him for when you take a look at how the nasty denizens of “Niceland” treat him on a day to day basis. It’s not his fault they never bother to consider that what he has to do “in game” might be different from who he is as a person.
Meeting Vanellope is different—she starts out vaguely annoying, playing the part of a clever trip-up on the road through Wonderland (I find the Wonderland metaphor particularly apt since Alan Tudyk’s voice for King Candy is a dead ringer for Disney’s Mad Hatter in their Alice cartoon feature). It’s not long before we find out that she has a reason for postponing Ralph’s chances at Instant Heroism. She wants to race for a chance to be added to the board of avatars in her game, Sugar Rush. There’s only one problem; Vanellope is a “glitch,” tending to go all pixeled, blinking in and out for split seconds at a time. The other racers make fun of her and destroy her first car, earning her Ralph’s help and a tentative alliance.
From there, the film makes some fascinating choices. We can see a similarity between Ralph and Vanellope’s duo and perhaps Sully and Boo from Monsters, Inc.—big tough guy and the cute little girl who melts his heart and becomes his best friend—but Vanellope is capable of action in a way that Boo never was because she’s not an actual toddler. In addition, Vanellope is the only one to prove to Ralph that he has creative impulses alongside his destructive ones when she immediately fawns over the car he designs for her. She enjoys it because it isn’t a slick, fancy number like the other girls have, teaching him that sometimes the act of creation is allowed to be messy and chaotic, that beauty isn’t about perfection.
Vanellope is at a disadvantage in her world, or so she’s led to believe. Glitches can’t leave their games, so she’s barred from a life interacting with others outside her home, where she might have made friends and felt like she belonged more. When the other racers tease her for glitching, Vanellope responds, “I’m pix-lexic,” a clear play on dyslexia. The subtle likening of Vanellope’s difficulties to a learning disability is probably intentional—but at the end of the story, Vanellope is proud that she can glitch, and has no intention of giving it up. Of course, no one would make the claim that having a disability is a treat or incredibly useful, but Vanellope’s acceptance of the glitch does send a good message to any children with disabilities who might be watching the film; that it is a part of who they are, and embracing every part of yourself can lead to greatness.
And Vanellope is all about embracing. In juxtaposition to Ralph, who needs time to learn what he has to offer the world and spends a large portion of the movie trying to decide what the right path is, his pint-sized racing pal never wavers from her own road. She knows she’s born to race, that she belongs on the track. And that self-assuredness is bourn out when we find that Vanellope was originally Sugar Rush’s princess, usurped when King Candy locked up the memories of every character in the game and destroyed her code. After she is restored to her rightful uniform, bedecked in pastel floofery, she immediately changes back to her old duds—a funny green hoodie sowed up with pink yarn and some mismatched candy in her hair. She doesn’t want any part of that pomp. She wants to be president! She wants to leave off hoop skirts! She wants to get back on the track and shift gears!
Vanellope embodies the sort of qualities that Disney princesses consistently extoll—ingenuity, compassion, determination—but also has realistic faults that make her easier for young girls to identify with. In addition, it would be nice to see the princess pantheon embrace a character who wasn’t nearly or practically an adult; boys get characters like Peter Pan and Stitch and little Simba, but every Disney princess is 16 years or older (and usually about to get married to the man of her dreams), which has always been sort of silly, especially when you remember that they are the character set that Disney consistently markets to girls above all others.
So it would be nice to see Vanellope wedged between Sleeping Beauty and Mulan. (Heck, she and Mulan would probably get along famously.) And while I’m not holding my breath for Disney to update their marketing any time soon, I suppose I can just imagine her there in my mind’s eye. Princess (or President) race car drivers will always get center stage in my book.