“There’s no law saying best friends have to have the same dreams.” Amid all the madcap slapstick and perfectly-calibrated digs at everything from the best (and worst) parts of the Internet to Disney’s own nature as an all-encompassing media conglomerate with its own #problematic ways, Ralph Breaks the Internet manages to remain refreshingly focused on this simple, important message. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a delightful send-up of old-school video games and an interesting take on the ways we identify as hero or villain, healthy or broken. Miraculously, the sequel manages to maintain that balance between clever, kid-friendly goofiness and surprisingly mature sentiments about self-concept and how it extends to our relationships.
Some time after the events of Wreck-It Ralph
, the titular game villain (John C. Reilly
) and his best friend, the glitching Princess Vanellope (Sarah Silverman
), have settled into a pleasant, if codependent, routine of hanging out at all the same games, doing all the same things from sunrise to sunset. For Ralph, it’s a comfortable monotony he gets to share with the “best friend he’s ever had”. However, a double-whammy of change comes in the form of the arcade’s owner (Ed O’Neill
) hooking up Wi-fi and Vanellope’s game Sugar Rush being broken, threatening to permanently displace her and her fellow racers into the broader world of the arcade. To restore Vanellope’s home, she and Ralph sneak through the Wi-fi onto the big, broadband world of the Internet, hoping to find a replacement part for Sugar Rush.
Expanding the self-contained world of 80s arcade games to the world wide web is a risky proposition for a property like this. Think about the perils of The Emoji Movie
, which had a similar thirst for product placement disguised as the anthropomorphic version of something as abstract as the Internet, but failed to translate it into anything resembling complexity or humor. Ralph
skirts past that in several ways: first off, the viewpoint characters are more intriguing – they’ve had a whole film to develop into a tight, charming friendship, and Reilly and Silverman both turn in fantastic voice performances. More importantly, through, the vision of the Internet presented here manages to turn its branding into a feature, Ralph and Vanellope’s journey to find her game’s replacement steering wheel a winking treatise on the way the Internet commodifies engagement. Famous websites are rendered into digital versions of the brick-and-mortar places they made obsolete: eBay’s an auction house, Instagram an art gallery, and so on. Ralph and Vanellope have to turn to things like loot-farming and making viral videos to earn the money they need to purchase the film’s McGuffin, leaping into each scenario with their signature charm. Meanwhile, the befuddled Net residents around them, including Bill Hader
as a sleazy pop-up ad and Taraji P. Henson
as a fast-talking ‘agent’ for viral video stars, pop with unexpected levels of personality. They don’t quite replace the adorable supporting cast from the first (Jack McBrayer
‘s Fix-It Felix and Jane Lynch
‘s Calhoun have a very small subplot bookending the film), but they fill out the more diverse world of the Internet, making it feel like a living, breathing place.
Despite co-director Phil Johnston
and Pamela Ribon
‘s occasionally slapdash screenplay (from a plot mechanics perspective, at least), they still deliver on well-timed humor that feels topical without going too far overboard. Sure, the Internet feels a bit too shiny in places – a solid 50% of that squeaky-clean cityscape should be porn and neo-Nazi forums, all things considered – but Ralph takes quite a few opportunities to poke fun at its own corporate masters. One act in the Disney-themed portion of the Internet is a not-so-subtle jab at Disney’s all-encompassing IP vacuum, with stormtroopers trawling similar ground as Iron Man
. The real meat and potatoes, though, comes from Vanellope’s encounter with the Disney princesses
(yes, the scene from the trailer), where they reveal the limitations of the gender roles they’ve projected throughout Disney’s history. Sure, it’s easy fodder, and feels more than a little toothless in a vacuum, but from an inside baseball perspective it’s neat; the princesses are mostly all voiced by their original voice actresses, and their complaining about needing to be saved by “big, strong men” gets a wonderful payoff. Even Vanellope catches the princess bug, getting her own lovingly idiosyncratic Alan Menken
-penned “I want” song that’s one of the most adorable moments of the whole film.
Of course, Ralph Breaks the Internet
‘s true appeal, apart from all the on-point jokes about Disney princesses and the hyperactivity of search engine autofills, is its heartbreaking emphasis on its main characters. By the time the film’s second hour rolls around, it smartly starts to explore greater questions about our protagonists’ own programming. The first Ralph
endearingly explored what it might be like for a video game character to have an existential crisis, but Ralph 2
expands that onto our well-meaning dope’s co-dependent relationship with Vanellope. He’s content to live his life exactly as is, whereas Vanellope wants more. And when she gets that chance for a new life after falling in with a cool street racer character (Gal Gadot
, practically reliving her Fast & Furious
days) in a violent racing game called Slaughter Race
, where does that leave Ralph? It’s a question that digs into Ralph’s deep insecurities and neediness, explored with remarkable maturity for a kid’s film about made-up video game characters trolling for likes on Youtube.
The best kid’s movies explore intriguing emotional spaces like that within the auspices of a goofy, brightly-colored lark, and Ralph Breaks the Internet juggles those tones nicely. It follows in the footsteps of Pixar (or, as the non-Merida princesses call it in hushed whispers, “the other studio”) by centering the film’s climax around the characters’ own emotional journeys. Even as adults, the prospect of growing apart from your best friend is scary, Ralph Breaks the Internet becoming a powerful object lesson for finding ways to cope with that level of change. On top of that, it doesn’t forget to be an entertaining, visually stunning kid’s film, one that will please little ones and remind their parents of the bittersweet nature of drifting interpersonal relationships. It’s a rare thing when a film can throw shade at unboxing videos while reminding Mom and Dad they really should check in with their old college roommate.