Wreck-It Ralph with the Boys

I assigned my Approaches to Media Studies grad class to do a 750-1000 word audience analysis based on participant observation and/or interview research. Earlier course assignments of similar scope were industry, textual, and discourse analyses. Not having studied audiences this way, I decided to complete the assignment myself.


On Saturday I went to see an afternoon show of Wreck-It Ralph with three eight year-old boys. One of them was my son Leo, and the others were classmates of his in the third grade of a suburban public school. This account of our outing considers a handful of themes. One is the status of moviegoing as something special. Another is the way in which adults and children experience stories differently. And a final idea is the social value of media in the context of everyday life.

I first became aware of Wreck-It Ralph from a commercial on one of the kid channels my sons watch in the morning and early evening. I told Leo I wanted to see it with him, and he and his friends evidently started talking about about it at school. Leo’s pleasure in seeing the movie, from what I could tell, was to a large extent social. It was an occasion for an outing with me and his friends, and would give him knowledge and experience that might be valuable among his peers.

We saw the movie at a theater where you sit behind a long table and servers take your order. Much of the pre-movie discussion concerned food and drink. Moviegoing authorizes going out for popcorn and french fries and sugary soft drinks with friends on a Saturday afternoon. We were seeing Wreck-It Ralph in 3D, so there was also some goofing around with the glasses. One kid pretended that an image from the screen was coming after him.

The feature began and we watched in silence. Aside from some food-related whispers, and slurping sounds from empty cups, I didn’t hear my companions during the movie. This was a contrast to before and after, when they talked loudly in the theater and the car.

When the lights came on and we stood while watching the credits, I asked if anyone liked the movie and everyone did. Some parts were a little scary, but no one seemed frightened at the end. All three found it really funny, and they quoted a few of the lines they liked, over and over and over.

“Why are you so freakishly tall?!”
“Why are you so freakishly annoying?!”

Later when I asked Leo what he enjoyed about going to movies with friends, he mentioned their repetition of this freakishly annoying bit. Of course, during the movie I was preoccupied with many thoughts that never would have crossed their minds. Like wracking my brain trying to figure out which actor voiced the kick-ass female avatar (it’s Jane Lynch). I’m not even sure these kids are aware of how animated films use actors’ voices.

So in some ways, the boys seemed to have been watching a different movie. They were especially amused by a line from the commercial I heard them repeat on the ride to the theater in which the humor comes from punning on “duty”/”doodie” and the confusion of meaning between honor and excrement.  They remembered many lines that I didn't. But I remembered many of Wreck-It Ralph’s allusions and parodies.

As we were leaving, Leo saw other kids from school and neighbors from our street waiting to see Wreck-It Ralph. He got to tell them how good and funny it is. As we walked to the car and drove away I tried to initiate some post-screening discussion, asking what they liked about it. This produced more quotations but not much summary or description or evaluation. I left it at that - they were more interested in talking and shouting in the inside-joke language of kids that parents don’t understand.

The next morning, though, Leo began a conversation over breakfast. He has often found movies seen in the theater to be a rather intense experience, and for a few years was scared of dark and threatening scenarios. We avoided moviegoing. There were scary parts, he admitted, but not the parts I worried about while watching, set in a first-person shooter with dark imagery, militarized avatars, heavy weaponry, and creepy villains. He was frightened by a different scenario, in which a character’s real bad identity was revealed in a climactic sequence.

Actually much of the movie is about ambiguity between good and bad characters, with the protagonist being a likable “bad guy” who wants to have a chance to enjoy the status of the hero: social acceptance, material rewards, and recognition. He seemed to tap into its deepest thematic material. Because we are led to sympathise with Ralph, a destructive antagonist in an 8-bit arcade game, Leo was happy that in the end of the narrative Ralph was finally included and represented within the world of the narrative on an “anniversary cake” from which he had previously been excluded.

By contrast, I didn’t find myself becoming very involved in the story, which I found to be conventional to the point of cliché. I did find the visuals and the characterizations and the representations of gaming and game worlds and the arcade as a play space to be rewarding enough to make the movie well worth seeing. I wondered about how much he got of references to old games. He reminded me that we had been to a video arcade at the Santa Monica Pier in California, which gave him a context for understanding the arcade in Wreck-It Ralph. Of course the movie has lots of nostalgic or reference-dependent jokes aimed at grown-ups, like a comical AA-style support group for game villains and a key narrative role for Q*Bert, who cannot be a character known to that many spectators much younger than me. This seems like an excellent example of a movie pitched effectively at both kids and their parents.

Finally, I asked a few questions about the appeals of going to the movies. Leo appreciates the added value of a bigger screen and 3D. Moviegoing is special because you can only see a new movie in the theater for a limited time. He also said he liked being seated between his two friends. That way, he could be the one to pass the popcorn back and forth.