OOF-S02E010-WRECK-IT RALPH WAS NEVER THE BAD GUY SEAN Today on Out of Frame, I am going to blow your mind. Ok, well... Maybe not. But I am going to try to convince you that the one thing you think you absolutely know about Wreck-it Ralph... Is wrong. CLIP: Wreck-it Ralph WRECK-IT RALPH My name's Ralph, and I'm a bad guy. B-ROLL SEAN For those who haven't seen the movie, the premise is ingeniously simple. In the overly binary world of video games, there are good guys and bad guys. In Ralph's game, Fix-it Felix, Jr., his role as a bad guy is to smash up a building full of "nicelanders" over and over while Fix-it Felix uses his magic hammer to repair the damage, save the people, and win a medal. CLIP: Wreck-it Ralph FIX-IT FELIX I can fix it! B-ROLL SEAN But what happens if Ralph bucks his programming and has a change of heart? CLIP: Wreck-it Ralph WRECK-IT RALPH I don't wanna be the bad guy anymore. B-ROLL SEAN Well... The rest of the movie happens. And, honestly, it's super fun. But, it's all built on a lie. Why? Because Ralph was never the bad guy. CLIP: Wreck-it Ralph WRECK-IT RALPH SOMETHING FUNNY CLIP SEAN Before we get into all that, here's what we do know about Ralph. He's big. CLIP: Wreck-it Ralph WRECK-IT RALPH I'm 9 feet tall. I weigh 643 pounds. B-ROLL SEAN He's good at wrecking things. CLIP: Wreck-it Ralph WRECK-IT RALPH I'm a wrecker. I wreck things... Professionally. I mean, I'm very good at what I do. Probably the best I know. B-ROLL SEAN And he lives in tree stump in the middle of a pile of garbage from the buildings he's destroyed. CLIP: Wreck-it Ralph WRECK-IT RALPH It looks uncomfortable. It's actually fine. I'm good. B-ROLL SEAN Curiously, the one thing we don't learn from the movie itself is how he actually ended up living in a dump and why he's doomed to spend his life wrecking things in the first place. But it turns out that understanding Ralph's true backstory changes everything. Fortunately, if you stick around all the way to the very end of the credits, you'll be rewarded with a catchy song that explains why Ralph is the way he is. Check it out. CLIP: WRECK-IT RALPH (01:39:05) SONG Wreck-it Ralph is a giant of a man, 9 feet tall with really big hands. Livin in a stump on his very own land until his world went crazy. He was minding his own business on the day they came, they showed a piece of paper sayin' "Eminent Domain". They built apartment buildings saying progress was to blame. So he got mad, and he turned bad. Brick by brick, he's gonna take his land back!" B-ROLL: SEAN Did ya get all that? Allow me to repeat what you just heard to make this absolutely clear: Ralph was, and I quote, 'living in a stump on his very own land'. He was 'minding his own business'. But then, citing "progress", some people showed up on Ralph's land with a piece of paper saying "Eminent Domain" and told him he had to move. You might not realize it, but this is the key that unlocks Ralph's whole motivation for wrecking things. Now... Eminent Domain is a centuries-old concept of law that allows the government to take private property away from its owner and redistribute it for other uses. The idea dates back to at least 1625 when it was discussed by the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius' in his influential book, "On the Law of War and Peace". The term he used was "dominium eminens", which is Latin and, ominously, means "supreme lordship". To be fair, it's a pretty apt description. Grotius argued that the power of Eminent Domain could be used pretty broadly to take private citizens' land in almost any case where the rulers could imagine some kind of public benefit. He wrote: "The property of subjects is under the eminent domain of the state, so that the state or he who acts for it may use and even alienate and destroy such property, not only in the case of extreme necessity... but for ends of public utility..." SEAN To his credit, Grotius added: "...when this is done the state is bound to make good the loss to those who lose their property." His language is a bit hard to follow, but this was the common law foundation for Eminent Domain, and it's basically how the law exists in many parts of the world today. The point is, private citizens' land can be taken from them at the government's discretion, but the government is required to compensate them in some supposedly just way to make up for the loss. Typically, when we think of Eminent Domain, we think of a government taking someone's land so that they can build a road or a bridge, or so that they can tear down a condemned building. We could debate the merits of allowing the government to take people's land and homes for any reason, and we could probably spend some serious time discussing the nature of who really benefits when the government normally makes these kinds of decisions. But even without worrying about any of that stuff, in reality, Eminent Domain is often used to do things nobody should be ok with... and that brings us back to Wreck-it Ralph. According to the song, Ralph is evicted from his property not because the Niceland government needs to build a highway or a power plant. He's evicted because someone wanted to build an apartment building on his land and they didn't particularly care whether or not Ralph wanted to leave. But... He clearly didn't do anything wrong. He was just forced out of his home so someone else with more political clout could move in. "But wait!", you say. This is just a cartoon, surely this kind of thing doesn't happen in real life, right? Ah, but you'd be wrong. Eminent Domain is frequently used for the same kinds of ends, and the Supreme Court has actually upheld the power of governments to take people's property on behalf of other private uses. For example, in 1998, the city of New London, Connecticut empowered a group called the New London Development Corporation to help with city planning and a redevelopment strategy. The NLDC hoped to entice the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer into building a factory and business campus in New London, so they promised them all the waterfront property they could want... By displacing the low-income residents of the city's Fort Trumball neighborhood. To do this, New London used the power of Eminent Domain, which they justified by claiming that the higher tax revenue from the redeveloped area would constitute a public benefit. Suzette Kelo, famous for her "little pink house", fought back and with the help of the public advocacy law firm The Institute for Justice took her case to the Supreme Court. But when they heard the case in 2005, she lost. The 5-4 ruling upheld that New London could take her home and her land, even though it was for an explicitly private use. Suzette Kelo's house was bulldozed to the ground along with the rest of her neighborhood. The cosmic joke of it all is that Pfizer never ended up building anything on her land anyway. In 2009, they pulled out of New London entirely, and the area where Suzette's home once stood is now just an empty lot. B-ROLL: Wreck-it Ralph We see Ralph's rubble pile. SEAN Sound familiar? The only difference for Ralph, is that the developer does actually build an apartment building on his former property, so there's something there for him to wreck. Unfortunately, Suzette Kelo's experience is hardly unique. In West Palm Beach, Florida the city took over 300 private homes to build a golf course... Which in the end was never built. Hurst, Texas took over 100 homes to build a shopping mall. Bremerton, Washington condemned and demolished dozens of properties with the stated intention of fixing the smell from a sewage treatment plant... But they didn't do that. They just gave the land to a car dealership instead. Las Vegas is a constant offender, using eminent domain to build more casinos. But even Brooklyn seized 22 acres from the Prospect Heights neighborhood and evicted everyone who already lived there so they could build the Nets basketball stadium and a bunch of condos. A standard tactic used in a lot of these cases is to label whole neighborhoods as "blighted" and then condemn or devalue everyone's homes. The thing is, "blight" doesn't always mean what you might think. Back in 2003, the town of Lakewood, Ohio redefined "blight" to include any home with less than three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an attached two-car garage just so they could take a ton of lakefront property and put up some shiny new apartments instead. Point is... What happened to Ralph happens to real people, all the time. And look, I know that some of you want to blame the developers for all this stuff, and I get it. But the problem starts and ends with the power of Eminent Domain. Without that power, the government can't take people's homes and redistribute their property to anyone else, which means that there's no incentive or value for a real estate company to try to influence politicians to use it in their favor. But the power does exist, so it shouldn't be surprising when it gets used in really unfair ways. It also changes everything about how you should see Wreck-it Ralph. The movie leads you to believe that Ralph is just some guy with a passion for wrecking other people's stuff for no reason. Like, he's good at smashing things, so he naturally fits into a game where his job is to endlessly wallop on a building that Fix-it Felix has to repair. But what's actually happening if you think about it is that Ralph lives in a game where he's forced to relive the destruction of his home and the ridiculously unfair, yet entirely legal, taking of his own property again and again and again. And to add insult to injury the people who moved in where he used to live had the gall to call themselves "nicelanders". If that happened to me in real life, I'd go insane. So it's pretty hard for me to see Ralph as a villain and I certainly don't blame him for not being comfortable with his role in the game. Even though he takes his retribution too far and in the end should probably have just learned to let his anger go, he's still the victim in all this. Eminent Domain abuse is a really serious problem, and apparently one that extends into Disney movies... Even though they don't want you to know about it until after the movie's over. But now that you do know, I hope you'll agree: Ralph doesn't feel like the bad guy because... He never was one to begin with. SEAN Hey everybody. Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. I hope you'll take a minute to read more about eminent domain and maybe ask yourself a question or two about how much power you want to give the government over your friends and neighbors. FEE has tons of articles and books all about these topics, so definitely click on the links in the description. OUT OF FRAME END CARD SEAN Then check out FEE.org/shows for all the other content we're producing at the Foundation for Economic Education, and don't forget to like and subscribe to all our social networks on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time!

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

November 8, 2018

Wreck-It Ralph wasn't the bad guy. He was a victim of abusive policy. Find out why by watching our latest Out of Frame!


Written, Produced, and Edited by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom