Warning: Spoilers for Wreck It Ralph 2 and Signs
There’s a moment toward the end of Wreck It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet, when an insecurity virus picks up Ralph’s insecurities over Vanellope's decision to leave him in order to live in the Internet game Slaughter Race. The virus creates a horde of mindless, needy Ralph doppelgangers, who chase both Vanellope and the real Ralph. As they race away, Ralph looks at the army of monsters and says something to the effect of, “Huh, from this angle I can really see how destructive my insecurities can be.” The delivery suggests it’s a joke, a wink at the audience.
This moment broke me.
And I couldn’t figure out why, for the longest time. All I knew was that I felt an irrational sense of rage, growing stronger and stronger. Then, this morning, while pondering it in the shower (because this is what apparently occupies my mind first thing in the morning), it occurred to me that this line marked the moment when my suspension of disbelief broke.
So what’s the big deal with suspension of disbelief?
When you watch a movie or read a fictional book, you know the story isn’t real—but the writer creates a world that is so compelling, you shove aside this pesky fact and act as though it is real. You want to believe, and so you do. This is called suspension of disbelief, and it’s like a pact between the artist and the audience. The audience pledges to put aside all preconceived notions and view the work with an open mind. The writer pledges to repay that trust by telling them a story that they can believe in.
Which is why, when your suspension of disbelief is broken, it feels like such a betrayal. You, as the audience, feel like all the time and care and emotion you spent on the story is wasted. You can forgive someone for telling a boring story, but you cannot forgive them lying to you.
For example, my dad still talks about the ending of Signs. Signs, a movie about the start of an alien invasion, ends with the aliens being defeated by water. My dad, a highly logical person who reads a ton of science books, was outraged. How could aliens with advanced technology not know Earth was made mostly of water? How could they choose to come to Earth without any kind of space suit or even clothes to protect themselves? That element of the story made no sense, therefore the story made no sense, therefore the whole thing collapsed.
This is a typical case of the breaking of suspension of disbelief. There is a factual or logical error so great that all the cool stuff in the world can’t make you look the other way. You shake out of your trance, realize it’s all fake, and throw the story away in disgust, feeling more duped than delighted.
But what was my problem with Wreck It Ralph?
I’m a writer and moreover a fantasy writer, so I’m much more willing to suspend my disbelief over facts and science. However, I’m also very sensitive to the relationship between the writer and the story. When I read a story or watch a movie, I note how the writer is setting up plot points, relationships, and themes, and make predictions as to how they will pay it off later—and I do it automatically. That’s why it’s so hard for me to enjoy stories—it takes a while for me to shut off my brain and just go with it.
To me, Ralph looking at the virus and pointing out the obvious might as well have been a huge sign planted by the writer with big flashy letters. LOOK! HERE’S THE THEME! HERE’S THE MESSAGE! GET IT! INSECURITY TURNS YOU INTO A MONSTER. LITERALLY. And once that happened, everything that led up to that moment and everything that came after no longer seemed like the organic story of two characters struggling with a new phase of their relationship, but instead like a deliberately constructed metaphor to pound in the message of the movie.
The characters. Didn’t matter. The world. Didn’t matter. The plot. Didn’t matter. All that mattered was MESSAGE. MESSAGE sat like Yertle on his throne of turtles, with character, plot, and setting all cracking under the weight of holding it aloft.
So why is this an issue for me?
I mean, who really cares? It’s a good message (claims the mostly positive movie reviews I’ve read). It’s a kid’s movie. Just go with it and stop over-analyzing.
But see, I can’t do that, because even from a young age, even when I was a kid, this sort of thing bugged me.
I’ve always believed that a story was a thing unto itself. It was meant to be a story and that was its purpose. Same as with people. The purpose of being a person is to be a person. Maybe you have some grand calling in life, maybe you feel that you have a job to spread a message. That’s fine; that’s a part of you and maybe a big part. But the person is greater than the message—always. Whenever a person is made to feel they are less than the message, we start getting cults and terrorism and other very bad things.
A story needs to have integrity. It needs to exist as what it is. Whenever its different parts are bent and warped toward a moral or message, the integrity of the story has been breached. And that is something I cannot stand. It not only destroys the story, it also undermines the message, because clearly the message isn’t strong enough to stand on its own.
Do you think that Wreck It Ralph 2 destroyed its story in order uphold a message? That’s up to you. For me, once my suspension of disbelief broke, I stopped believing in everything.