Cast: (voiced by) John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina, Ed O’Neill
Directors: Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
Writers: Phil Johnston, Pamela Ribon
Nowadays Disney tends to make two kinds of animated movies. One half of these films follows the fairy tale tradition that made the Disney brand, drawing from historical myths and fables and adding in music and colour to bring us the likes of Tangled, Frozen and Moana. The other half (moreso if we also include Pixar) looks more at the present in its search for inspiration in making films that depict complex systems and ideas that many children can often find difficult and scary to comprehend. Zootropolis provided an allegory for racism on a societal level and considered how decent, well-meaning people could be prejudiced in ways that they had never considered. Inside Out explored the emotional psyche of a young girl and concluded that sadness is integral to our abilities to cope with growth and change. Coco ventured into the land of the dead in its ode to the Latin American spirituality of ancestry and death. In this sequel to what is perhaps the only great video game movie in all of cinema, Disney sets its sight on their most complicated, perilous and inscrutable setting yet: the Internet.
The Internet is something that other blockbusters have struggled to depict in insightful yet kid-friendly ways, especially in terms of exploring its darker, more toxic side. Ready Player One dared go no further than to say, rather generically, that people should probably spend more time in the real world. The Emoji Movie didn’t even go that far, instead advertising the Internet as this cool, fun-filled landscape where you can enjoy all these trendy apps. This is rather concerning since so many people who use the Internet, including children, can find it to be a dangerous place where bullying, invasiveness, misinformation, illicit dealings and addiction can be allowed to run rampant. A quick Google search revealed to me that the vast majority of films about the Internet made for an adult audience, including The Social Network, Unfriended and Citizenfour, are overwhelmingly negative in their portrayals. This is why I think Ralph Breaks the Internet could be a real groundbreaker (no, I will not apologise for the pun). While the movie doesn’t hesitate in depicting the Internet as this vast, colourful, dynamic world of endless possibilities, directors Johnston and Moore are not blind to the lesser qualities of the online experience and portray them about as well as one could expect of a product of a multi-billion dollar corporate machine with a brand to advertise and a profit to make.
The set-up is a little flimsy but it does the job. Retro video game bad guy Ralph and glitchy speed car racer Vanellope have settled into a pretty comfy routine since becoming the best of friends. Day after day they continue to fulfil their prescribed roles in their respective games and, once the arcade closes, they’ll spend the whole night together drinking root beer, goofing around and chatting about anything and everything. For Ralph life couldn’t possibly be any better. Vanellope however is less satisfied. Having learnt every race track in Sugar Rush by heart and regularly beating her competitors, she’s grown bored with the monotony. In typical Disney heroine fashion, Vanellope desires something more; a larger world with greater possibilities and challenges. Ralph, eager as ever to be the hero, tries to help out by digging a new track, but things get worse when the detour inadvertently leads to the breaking of the game’s steering wheel. New parts for the arcade game are hard to come by since the company that made the game is no longer in business and it looks like Sugar Rush will be permanently shut down. A solution presents itself however when a strange device called Wi-Fi (pronounced wee-fee) is introduced to the arcade. When Ralph and Vanellope learn that a replacement part is available on the Internet, they use the Wi-Fi to transport themselves there so that they might buy it.
As soon as they get there Ralph and Vanellope are awestruck by the Internet in all its enormity and activity. The web is shown to be an endless metropolis made up of titanic skyscrapers housing such techno-industrial giants as Google and Amazon. Lively avatars representing users from around the globe whiz about in every direction from one website to the next, stopping only to be harassed and redirected by obnoxious pop-up ads and unsolicited video recommendations. One click, whether intentional or accidental, will summon a car that will instantly zoom you over to another part of the virtual world. It is a hysterically accurate representation of what using the Internet is like, one that captures exactly how somebody can log on with a specific task to accomplish only to wind up down a rabbit hole of cat videos and Twitter feeds. Amongst the characters our duo meet are KnowsMore, an enthusiastic search engine that compulsively tries to predict the users’ queries, and JP Spamley, a Gil Gunderson type of salesman desperate to make sales on outrageous clickbait ads. Yet Ralph and Vanellope soon learn that it’s all too easy to take a wrong step and find yourself overwhelmed and lost in the chaotic mess that is the world wide web. All it takes is a visit to eBay and a fundamental misunderstanding of how bidding works for Ralph and Vanellope to find themselves in a sticky situation.
Having massively overbid on the part needed to fix Vanellope’s game, she and Ralph now need to raise a lot of money in very little time. This mission ends up taking them all over the Internet to such sites as Slaughter Race, an online racing game so over-the-top in its dystopian grittiness that Mad Max looks almost tame in comparison, Oh My Disney, where you can take an online personality quiz to find out who your spirit Disney princess is (mine is Belle incidentally), and BuzzTube, a Buzzfeed/YouTube hybrid where videos can be shared and receive likes (just don’t read the comments). While Ralph works on becoming a viral star on BuzzTube with the help of Yesss, the arbiter of all that is trending, Vanellope finds herself wholly enraptured by the thrills and challenges of Slaughter Race, especially after meeting the impossibly cool racer Shank, and starts to consider the prospect of staying there rather than returning to her old life with Ralph. It’s this dilemma that allows Ralph Breaks the Internet to truly come into its own as it explores the complexities of friendship and how difficult it is to let somebody go even if that is what they need in order to grow and pursue their ambitions and desires. Through rich animation and the wonderful voicework of Silverman and Reilly, the film teaches an achingly poignant lesson about how there are changes and limitations we have to accept in our lives and that the best we can do is learn to evolve and adapt.
On a more 2018 note, the movie also provides a surprisingly astute illustration of toxic masculinity and how it is exacerbated by insecurity and negative feedback. Ralph, usually the toughest, most macho guy in the room and infinitely happier since finding respect and reverence in his friendship with Vanellope, is someone whose self-esteem depends on near-constant positive reinforcement. When he makes the fatal mistake of reading the comments to his hot-pepper-eating, goat-screaming, bee-punning videos, he finds himself feeling weaker, smaller and more vulnerable than he’s emotionally prepared to handle. Thus he lashes out in ways that threaten to wreck the friendship he and his bestest friend hold so dear. He reads Vanellope’s actions as reflections of his anxieties rather than as those of her own desires and from there his needy, self-destructive insecurities manifest themselves in monstrous ways that must be overcome if their relationship is to be saved. This is a concept that has grown only too prevalent in online culture over the last few years and it is one that Disney handles cleverly and with great sensitivity. What made Wreck-It Ralph so great compared to many of the other animated movies of that era was how endearing its characters were and how much their actions and emotions drove the story. The same is true of Ralph Breaks the Internet and the sequel is almost as great as the first.
The movie’s main issue is that sometimes it takes a while to actually get to the outstanding character-driven moments and that the quest for the steering wheel gets a little tiresome as it becomes less relevant to the central conflict. The movie tends to work better when it either focuses squarely on the characters or forgets about the plot for a while and has some fun with its depiction of the Internet and pop culture. The main highlight is Vanellope’s much-advertised stint with the Disney princesses which leads to some great laughs as they poke fun at some of the tropes Disney has so happily perpetuated from the questionable sexual politics to the easily shrugged-off traumas (“Are you guys okay, should I call the cops?” Vanellope asks as they excitedly recall being poisoned, cursed and kidnapped) and the casual absence of mothers. While the sequence does feel a little like Disney synergism at work in the form of shameless self-promotion (including their Marvel and Star Wars brands), it’s still good fun when taken at face value and it also leads to Vanellope being given her own Menken-composed Disney princess song. While Ralph Breaks the Internet can feel overlong and aimless at times, it manages to bring it all home in the end through hysterical jokes, superb animation, two complex and loveable characters and a profound and socially relevant moral.