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Ralph Breaks the Internet is The Lego Movie of Disney films

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The sequel soars when it sends up the studio’s own films, but its portrayal of the internet feels a little optimistic for 2018

Image: Disney

Disney’s 2012 film Wreck-It Ralph proved that a movie based on video game nostalgia could actually be more than a gimmick. It’s the story of Ralph (John C. Reilly), a villain in a Donkey Kong-esque 1980s-style retro arcade game, who ventures outside of his own cabinet and into the world of other games to prove he’s not such a bad guy after all. Along the way, he befriends a wisecracking racing-game misfit named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). Together, they learn that what’s important isn’t what others think about you; it’s about what you think of yourself. It’s kinetic, clever, and filled with video game cameos, though it doesn’t fully achieve its Pixar-perfect ambitions.

For the sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore open things up: Ralph isn’t just hopping between games within a single arcade. Now, he’s able to access the entire internet, providing tremendous opportunities for gags about everything from social media and viral videos to the dark web and pop-up ads. But what really makes Ralph Breaks the Internet stand apart isn’t the jokes about online culture; it’s the way the film is able to cleverly send up classic Disney movies. Where the original film poked fun at games, this time, the subject of critique is the company’s own legacy. And it’s a smarter, more entertaining film for it.

As the film opens, Ralph and Vanellope have established a steady rhythm in their lives. They spend their days working in their respective games, and when they’re not on the job, they hang out, friends till the end. But Vanellope is tired of the repetition in her game Sugar Rush, which only has three racing tracks to choose from. When Ralph tries to help her out by building a new Sugar Rush course, things inevitably go wrong, and the steering wheel for her arcade cabinet breaks. In the world of the Ralph films, a broken game immediately gets unplugged, and soon, Vanellope and her fellow Sugar Rush characters become refugees in the worlds of other arcade games.

But Wi-Fi has recently been added to the arcade that the film’s characters call home, and when Ralph realizes a replacement steering wheel can be ordered on eBay, he launches a new plan. He and Vanellope will use the Wi-Fi to travel out to the internet, find the auction site, and win the replacement wheel so Sugar Rush can be repaired and turned back on. When they venture out into the web, however, it’s a different world than they expected, and Ralph and Vanellope are pulled in different directions.

The centerpiece of the movie is the exploration of the internet, and the film has a tremendous amount of fun using it as a playground and occasionally a punching bag. Visually, the film interprets the internet as a vast, ever-moving futuristic cityscape. Imagine an animated version of Minority Report (or the computer-themed equivalent of the overwhelmingly busy animal city in Zootopia, which both directors here worked on), and you’ll have the right idea. Major web presences like Google, Amazon, and eBay are portrayed as massive skyscrapers, with the avatars of individual web users zipping around in flying vehicles that manifest out of thin air whenever they select a particular website as their destination.

Image: Disney

Characters like the professorial KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk, back from Wreck-It Ralph but with an entirely new character) put an anthropomorphic face and body to everyday web functions like the search bar, while pop-up ad huckster J.P. Spamley (Bill Hader) embodies the sleazier side of the internet. Other characters, like the stylish trendsetter Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) — head algorithm of the viral video site BuzzzTube — cover a different aspect of the web ecosystem. There’s no particular logic to what kind of service or function is played by a character in Ralph Breaks the Internet, but the film moves so swiftly and confidently that there’s barely any time to notice. There’s simply too much fun to be had in the way the film characterizes the various elements of the web, and the winking in-jokes pile up at a tremendous speed.

With a playground that big, Ralph Breaks the Internet could take any number of directions. Thankfully, the script keeps things firmly rooted in the wants and needs of its two leads. (Johnston and Pamela Ribon are credited as screenwriters, with story credit going to Johnston, Ribon, and Moore, as well as Josie Trinidad and Wall-E’s Jim Reardon.) Ralph is singularly focused on maintaining his friendship with Vanellope at all costs, willing to do whatever ludicrous or absurd thing it takes to earn the money needed to buy the steering wheel on eBay. In one sequence, he resorts to creating viral videos for BuzzzTube, humiliating himself over and over again. They’re funny on the surface, but there’s also an underlying desperation, which is where Ralph Breaks the Internet actually begins to dig beneath the surface of its jokey premise.

For all of the joy her friendship with Ralph provides, Vanellope has started to realize that Sugar Rush isn’t providing the kind of fulfillment she wants in life. The feeling is crystallized when, early in the film, she and Ralph head to an online game called Slaughter Race. Clearly inspired by Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the game is filled with adventure and danger, and Vanellope is particularly impressed by the driving skills of a high-octane racer named Shank (Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot). Vanellope is from a child-friendly game, but the larger world of Slaughter Race — and the internet, in general — calls to her. The danger and surprises there are things that Ralph, with all his goofy good intentions, can never provide, and he fights against her wanting to broaden her own horizons. Their conflict turns the film from a pat story about self-acceptance into a more complicated tale about growing up, maturing, and leaving the ones we love behind.

Image: Disney

But the film doesn’t lose itself in seriousness. Even the escapes of Slaughter Race are captured with an approachable, family-friendly veneer, with Vanellope recognizing her love for the place with — of all things — a soaring musical number, with music written by longtime Disney Animation songwriter and composer Alan Menken. And that knowing musical number prefaces the film’s most clever meta twist.

Among the websites Ralph Breaks the Internet visits is Disney’s own Oh My Disney. At first glance, the sequence seems like it’s going to be an eyeroll-inducing bit of corporate synergy, as Vanellope meets characters from Disney’s other high-profile intellectual properties. Characters from Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe appear (as does Stan Lee, whose brief appearance will no doubt take on a different tone given his recent death at age 95). But the filmmakers play the fan service as pure silliness, giving the whole sequence a self-aware twist that feels more in line with The Lego Movie than the original Wreck-It Ralph.

And when Vanellope runs into some of Disney’s most famous animated characters, it’s the high point of the entire film, with the filmmakers skewering not just the tropes of past Disney films, but the tired damsel-in-distress tendencies of Disney princesses as a whole. It makes the film feel fresh, and though its portrayal of the internet may not fully capture the paranoia we feel about life online in 2018, the film’s head-on tackling of Disney’s female characters is perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist of the moment.

Image: Disney

Ralph Breaks the Internet feels smarter, more thoughtful, and deeper than the original film it follows, which is never an easy feat — particularly not for Walt Disney Animation Studios, which hasn’t produced a proper sequel since Fantasia 2000. That business has largely belonged to sibling animation studio Pixar. But here, Disney Animation proves it, too, can create franchises, which is an important note with Frozen 2 already on the way.

The film isn’t flawless — by the time things wrap up, it does feel like it’s thrown in one plot turn too many for its own good — but it ultimately succeeds by assuming its audience is smart. Smart enough to understand the meta-commentary, smart enough to follow along with the volley of references, smart enough to accept a theme that’s just a touch more complex than the average kids’ film moral. People have often said that Pixar films are children’s movies that were actually made for adults, giving them two levels of appeal that transcend fluffier animated offerings from other studios. Ralph Breaks the Internet reaches for that level of engagement and accomplishes it.