Spend too much time on the Internet, and everything that makes it so breathtaking on first blush—impossible connections over infinite space, the havens for likeminded folks, the sheer accessibility of information and materials—can be twisted to fit nefarious purposes. It’s a yin-yang between the promising and the perverse; you can’t have the likes without the comments.
Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet engages with this ambivalence about the Internet in ways that are smart but not surprising: Whereas Wreck-It Ralph was about struggling against the limited constraints of an arcade game to be good, its brand-savvy sequel recognizes that there are boundless opportunities to be our worst selves online.
Read on for our non-spoiler review.
Six years after Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) embraced what made him bad in order to become good, he and best friend Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) carry on a pretty idyllic life in Litwak’s Arcade: By day he’s the villain of Fix-It Felix Jr. while she’s the top racer in Sugar Rush, then after work they drink root beers at Tapper’s and watch the sun rise in Game Central Station before starting the day all over again. Ralph is content with this state of affairs, but Vanellope has begun to grow bored with her life—not just as the princess and winner of Sugar Rush, but with the game itself. She’s ridden every track infinitesimal times; she knows every power-up, every obstacle.
Ralph is unsettled by Vanellope’s yearning to explore the world beyond her game, despite how it mirrors his own ennui from the first film. Yet he gamely tries to help her expand her horizons, only for a domino-effect series of events to lead them to search out the newest port in Game Central Station: WIFI, which leads them to the mythical Internet and the solution for saving Sugar Rush.
Of course, once these video game characters make it to the World Wide Web, they could be forgiven for getting a little distracted. The Internet is animated as the kind of bustling, dazzlingly bright, cyberpunky kind of space that anyone who grew up on ReBoot or its ilk always envisioned; though in this case the “Users” aren’t omnipotent deities, but rather cube-headed avatars passively whisked away by pop-up ads or any other cyber whim. The real power belongs not to the Internet’s visitors, but to its inhabitants, folks like Ralph and Vanellope: the Ask Jeeves lookalike Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk), the hustler Spamley (Bill Hader), and the crew of the gritty MMO Slaughter Race.
This parody game is Grand Theft Auto turned up to 11, with great white sharks bursting out of sewers on breakneck car races. It’s smog-filled, pest-infested, fires-at-every-turn, the opposite of Sugar Rush—and Vanellope loves it. It’s got the unpredictability this glitchy princess has been craving, and real stakes beyond crossing the finish line. Then there’s Shank (Gal Gadot), the cool, leather-clad star of the game, who recognizes the potential in Vanellope.
Shank is everything Ralph is not: confident, graceful, encouraging of Vanellope exploring her options. Despite the fact that they come from two different games, Ralph can see him and Vanellope only as a pair, as the welded halves of a best-friends necklace. His fervent desire to keep their friendship intact, and to return Vanellope to Sugar Rush, propels them through the Internet, to the realm of clickbait and viral videos in the form of BuzzzTube (standing in for YouTube, despite the latter getting a brief shout-out later) and algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), who teaches Ralph how to harness his nostalgic cultural capital for the likes.
I worried that I would be more disturbed by all of the nakedly obvious branding crossovers in Ralph Breaks the Internet’s vision of the Net, but most of it felt oddly matter-of-fact. Of course Amazon is a mothership; eBay’s aisles of simultaneous live auctions brings to mind Costco, or IKEA; I laughed out loud at Instagram presented as an art gallery. Even the place where Disney could have been the most indulgent, the Oh My Disney brand fansite made to look like Disneyland, was smartly utilized.
Like how Wreck-It Ralph charmed Gen X-ers and Millennials with its nostalgic arcade villains support group, Ralph Breaks the Internet is best when it riffs on a similar crop of recognizable archetypes—those oft-remixed Disney princesses, of course. Though the teasers give away a lot of the fun of Vanellope falling in with Pocahontas, Ariel, Elsa, et al, the movie builds on this mashup in sly ways. Kids will take away the message that a princess can enjoy athleisure as much as a gown, can excel at gritty racing games just as well as sugary-sweet ones; and there’s a delightfully subversive Alan Menken number the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2007’s Enchanted.
Unfortunately, most princess narratives, as Vanellope’s gaggle of new buddies lampshade, also have a big strong man trying to save the girl… and that’s where Ralph Breaks the Internet gets difficult to watch. Our villain-turned-good-guy becomes the quintessential white knight, so spurred on by his conviction that he knows what’s best for his friend that he forgets about her wants entirely. The fact that Ralph Breaks the Internet at one point becomes a movie about an insecure guy stopping a girl from enjoying herself online is downright scary—mostly in how not surprising it is.
Not that that’s the whole story, but it is a disquieting moment on the way to a thoughtful, uplifting ending more in line with the first film. Like the Web itself, while there are glimpses of the dark underbelly that adults will catch, kids will nonetheless be delighted, and even probably personally invested, in the familiar logos and archetypes of the digital arena in which they are growing up.
Just as Mulan implores the confused Vanellope to seek out a special body of water in which to reflect upon what she really wants, so the Internet becomes a mirror for our greatest desires and our most damning foibles. Ralph Breaks the Internet lacks the heroic self-discovery of the original and instead presents more of the gritty reality of finding your place in the world, whether that’s with the people you’ve always known or with those you never would have found without that wireless connection. While not as magical as Wreck-It Ralph, it expands the universe in a satisfying way.