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Film Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018; Directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)

When we last saw that big lovable lug Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) six years ago, he seemed to have found his place in the world at last. Once a stereotyped and excluded building-smashing arcade game villain, Ralph earned the respect of his coded-as-good peers in his home game of Fix-It Felix Jr. and across the rest of Litwak’s Arcade by heroic and selflessly helping another pariah, the cutesy but spunky Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), overcome a recurring nervous glitch and usurping monarch to regain her rightful place as the top performer in the candy-themed racing game Sugar Rush. Now Ralph and Vanellope are best friends, spending their off-hours together in Game Central Station, the main commuting hub of the arcade for video-game characters, sipping root beer in the bar from Tapper and watching the sun come up through the plug holes of their familiar power-bar terminal.

Ralph is loyal and big-hearted but a bit simple, so the repetition of life in the arcade suits him more than it does the bright, restless, and competitive Vanellope. When she expresses boredom at the prospect of racing along the same three track in Sugar Rush indefinitely, Ralph comes to her aid by punching a new course through the game’s saccharine landscape. Vanellope is thrilled at the new challenge, but her freewheeling navigation of Ralph’s course frustrates her human player outside in the arcade and leads to a broken part on the Sugar Rush machine that cannot be cheaply replaced. Sugar Rush is shut down, leaving Vanellope, her fellow racers, and the supporting characters in the game homeless, and Ralph feeling that he is to blame.

Moving through this surprisingly deft pixelated analogy for contemporary refugee crises (the other racer girls are adopted by Fix-It Felix Jr. and his tough-talking alien-shooting-game partner Calhoun, voiced by Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch respectively, in a parenthetical subplot consisting of a few parenting jokes), Ralph and Vanellope decide to try to save Sugar Rush by venturing through the arcade’s new Wifi router into the vast gleaming city-of-the-future of the Internet, where they hope to purchase the last available replacement steering wheel for Sugar Rush from eBay before the machine is sold off for parts and Vanellope and her fellow racers are left permanently homeless. But their quest will lead to an irrevocable change in their friendship when Vanellope comes across a tantalizing, challenging online open-world driving game called Slaughter Race and Ralph proves reluctant to let his friend follow her dreams there when they appear likely to separate her from him.

If Wreck-It Ralph peppered its narrative of outcasts overcoming exclusionary labels with vintage video game references and character cameos, then its sequel colours its story about accepting change and space in human relationships with a cascade of nods and winks to online culture, internet memes, major websites, and tech companies. The gags are imaginative and rapid-fire: web surfers are personified as squarish avatars which zip along in flying-car-like pods on information superhighways; Twitter is a twisting, towering tree forest, with thousands of tiny blue birds literally re-tweeting each other’s utterances; Instagram is envisioned as a huge art museum, with avatars gazing thoughtfully at snaps of plated food; motormouthed hustlers bustle about with their garish pop-up ads, only to be knocked away by g-man-like adblockers; down at street level is the dimly-lit, seedy Dark Web, with disreputable shops selling viruses and other not-exactly-legal goods and services are for sale; not far from there is a graveyard of past computer networking mainstays like public chatrooms and phone-line dial-up.

Some Internet locations are more detailed than others, as they play a key role in the plot. Google-esque search engine Knowmore features a professorial librarian (Alan Tudyk, who voiced a character in the first film too) who breathless attempts to autocomplete surfers’ hesitant searches. eBay is a vast series of physical auctions booths. Slaughter Race is a tough-as-nails, skull-tattoo-emblazoned, semi-post-apocalyptic urban wasteland gamescape, a Grand Theft Auto-like MMORPG presided over by master wheelwoman and gang queen Shank (Gal Gadot). Vanellope and Ralph try to earn the eBay auction payment money for the Sugar Rush part by stealing Shank’s car; they do not succeed, but the kid’s driving skills impress Shank and the unpredictable setting appeals to Vanellope, precipitating her ambition to move to the game and the pending friendship schism with a clingy Ralph.

Ralph then becomes a viral star at YouTube-like video upload site BuzzzTube with the help of Shank’s hip and savvy bud Yes (Taraji P. Henson) in an effort to raise the necessary funds to pay for their eBay bid, hoovering up heart-shaped likes with ghost-pepper challenges and photoshopped screaming goats and bee puns. But Vanellope, trawling for hits and likes for Ralph’s videos, ventures into the gigantic castle-shaped website of the film’s producing and distributing studio, Disney. In between cartoon cameos from the studio’s many properties from classic animated characters to Marvel superheroes (I Am Groot jokes, ahoy!) and a pursuit by Star Wars stormtroopers, Vanellope happens upon a dressing room full of Disney princesses (many of whom are voiced by the actresses who played them in their original films).

There follows a pretty funny and sharp critical analysis (over the first minute of the linked clip only) of the studio’s common princess tropes: “Do animals talk to you?” the princesses ask Vanellope. “Were you poisoned? Cursed? Kidnapped and enslaved? Did people assume all of your problems got solved because a big, strong man showed up?” The princesses share with Vanellope their favoured method of self-reflection and dream-fulfillment: gaze thoughtfully into a body of water (“IMPORTANT water!”) and sing about their heart’s desire. After a false start or two, Vanellope pours out her yearning to explore an exciting new game realm in a hilarious showpiece musical number, “A Place Called Slaughter Race” (lyrics by Disney musical maven Alan Menken, no less!). This sequence’s humour largely stems from the incongruity of the visual and aural language of Disney Animation musical aspiration being applied to a hardcore car-battle game set in an atmosphere of gritty, lawless urban decay (dumpster fires, clouds of mace, a pigeon with one foot, a dollar store, etc.). Wreck-It Ralph showed a keener eye than its sequel for American class subtext, but this sequence at least gestures with a softened satirical glance towards the consequences of socioeconomic inequality and to its exploitative caricaturing in media like Rockstar’s GTA games.

Vanellope’s big strong man is not sufficiently supportive of her dreams, however, and Ralph’s insecure and possessive behaviour towards his friend drives Ralph Breaks the Internet to its narrative, emotional and thematic climax (the following discussion of which will spoil the rest of the film, FYI). In between its arcade-classic shout-outs and candy-coated whimsy, Wreck-It Ralph included resonant themes about the powerful and the marginalized, about the dangers of stereotypes, about sacrificing individuality for order, liberty for security, along the terms of what we call the social contract (and by “we”, I of course mean “Thomas Hobbes”). Ralph Breaks the Internet pivots with surprising emotional clarity and power to issues of psychological insecurity. Vanellope’s scrambled-code “glitch” now manifests when she feels anxious, a deft visual marker of the emotional condition.

But it’s Ralph’s masculine insecurities, his anxiety at losing his new best friend and being left alone again (understandable to an extent, given his outcast history in his game home), that predominate. It leads him to hijack Vanellope’s move to Slaughter Race with a virus named Arthur (provided to him by a Dark Web underworld blob creature given a Cockney gangster voice by Alfred Molina) that preys on and endlessly copies insecurities in programs, which first crashes Slaughter Race by replicating Vanellope’s glitch and then threatens the entirety of the Internet by producing hordes of needy, clingy Ralph clones. They swarm to topple monolithic buildings/sites like Amazon and then combine to form a King Kong-ish Big Ralph made up of Little Ralphs whose rampaging sparks a final emotional reckoning in Vanellope and Ralph’s friendship.

This surprisingly powerful climax blends emotional and thematic arcs with notable visual invention in the animation in an impressively cohesive manner. In this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes a strong point about unhealthy behaviour in relationships, about how poisonous possessiveness is driven by insecurity and fear of change and uncertainty. Although these themes and ideas are not connected directly and openly to displays of online toxic masculinity (Ralph does have a sad moment when he stumbles upon the mean comments about his BuzzzTube videos, but these are not gendered particularly) and their more broad effects, this is after all a movie with “Internet” in its title that suggests rather pointedly that poorly-coped-with male insecurity can be catastrophic at the micro and macro levels. Crucially, the resolution in the conflict at the heart of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in this movie is achieved not through accommodation and sacrifice on the female side of the equation, but through behaviour adjustments and psychological checks on the part of the male side, through the acceptance, albeit one tinged with melancholy, of uncertainty, lack of security, and separation from the ones you love.

Animated features are often manifested didactically, and cynical observers might even label them forms of ideological brainwashing of impressionable youth. However one approaches them, the best and most thought-out among them are not merely entertainment but texts of education, embedding emotional and ideological messages of worth to their young audience. Taken in this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet contains vital and potently expressed ideas about problematic behaviour in friendships and, by extension though not in this text itself about the connection between an adult man and a female child, in more adult relationships and social interactions as well.

The movie also contains many hallmarks of kid-focused entertainment: the script includes numerous re-orientating restatements of plot goals, launches with abandon into its many adventurous picaresque episodes at the expense of narrative pacing, and leaves aside or simply forgets some introduced elements. Its brand-name saturation and corporate synergy feels right for our contemporary post-capitalist reality but might honestly be a bit too much, especially with the relative lack of critique in that regard. There are also some burping jokes which I suppose children will love. Ralph Breaks the Internet is hardly perfect, but it features the considered sophistication and deeply-workshopped strength of narrative, thematic, and visual elements that one has come to expect from big-budget, high-level animated features, especially those under the Disney aegis. And if it teaches even one male child to avoid the emotional and social pitfalls of Disney’s numerous toxic, chauvinistic MRA-adjacent online critics, then it has provided an important service beyond a couple hours’ worth of solid diversion and entertainment.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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