Guest Post: Real-Estate Developers and Wreck-It Ralph

By Aaron Swartz

In Wreck-It Ralph, the new CG film from Disney Animation, the eponymous Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of an old 8-bit arcade game named “Fix-It Felix” (loosely inspired by Donkey Kong). In the game, Ralph destroys an elegant new apartment building while Felix runs around with a golden hammer to magically repair the damage. But as in Toy Story, when the kids aren’t around the characters have their own private lives. Tired of always having to be the bad guy, Ralph goes off to find a hero’s medal and prove to all his fellow characters that he’s just as good as Felix.

There are some interesting political subtexts that fill in the film. For one thing, Felix is always referred to as Fix-It Felix, Jr., even though is father doesn’t appear and this detail is totally irrelevant to the plot (and somewhat of a mouthful to say). I can only imagine that it’s there to really, uh, hammer home the film’s class analysis: even within the narrative of the game, Felix isn’t heroic because of any particular character traits or skills, but simply because he managed to inherit a magic hammer from his father.

But the most striking for me was the film’s (extremely subtle) eminent domain subplot. Why, after all, is Ralph so hellbent on destroying this new apartment building? Well, the game’s theme song provides the answer:

Wreck-It Ralph is a giant of a man
Nine feet tall with really big hands
Living 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
Saying “eminent domain”

They built an apartment building
Saying progress was to blame
But he got mad
And he turned bad
Brick by brick he’s gonna take his land back!

The story is eerily like 2005’s celebrated Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London. In that case, the city of New London decided to seize Susette Kelo’s house and give the land to developers who wanted to build a fancy new apartment building to house Pfizer employees. Susette soon became a cause celebre for liberals and libertarians who were outraged by the notion of the government using its sovereign power of eminent domain (typically reserved for cases of extreme public importance) to line the pockets of private developers and big pharmaceutical companies. In the end, Pfizer closed its New London factory and skipped town before the Kelo development ever ended up getting built.

And closer to my home, as Malcolm Gladwell has argued, developer Bruce Ratner persuaded New York City to give him some extremely valuable land in Brooklyn for a new apartment complex by promising to build a stadium there to house the New Jersey Nets. The stadium, now called Barclays Center, opened the other month and the Brooklyn Nets just got to play their first game there. In the film, the working-class Ralph doesn’t succeed in tearing down the apartment building and getting his land back, but his strike action does lead to significantly improved working conditions for himself and his fellow video game characters. My sense is that the people displaced by Ratner have been nowhere near as lucky.