Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Rich Moore, Phil Johnston

Writer: Phil Johnston, Pamela Ribon

Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina, Ed O’Neill, Taraji P. Henson

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG

“I just think that as a whole, sequels are killing our industry. When you go back to when I was a kid, the kind of films that I grew up watching were original ideas, bold voices, really challenging material. We don’t see a lot of that anymore. We live in an era of reboots and remakes and sequels and prequels; where old presents are rewrapped and offered up as new gifts. … It’s not to say that you can’t tell a compelling story in a sequel; you certainly can. We have Godfather II and Empire Strikes Back and How to Train Your Dragon 2.

But if you think about storytelling generally, your film should be the most significant, most poignant moment of your hero’s life. And so the sequel automatically is a diminishment of that. As artists, we have to look at it and say, “Is this good for us in the long run as an industry to continue to churn out these same things?” We get to an end of a trilogy, and then we restart that; we reboot it in another way. And at some point, we just become an echo chamber. Some stories are big and require a big canvas. And I think some stories should never have a sequel. And that’s why we will never do a sequel.” – Travis Knight, CEO of Laika Studios

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Slaughter Race is a Grand Theft Auto-esque racing game full of scares, thrills, obstacles, including characters who throw axes and shoot fire, creepy clowns, random predators, and dangerously fast drivers. Expect lots of stunts, jumps, crashes (same for Sugar Rush, though that has a cuter look). When an insecurity virus is set loose, it turns into a menacing, King Kong-like monster that wreaks destruction, almost envelops Ralph and Vanellope. Game characters run for their lives when the game is about to be unplugged, leaving them “gameless.”

A nasty virus spreads through a game; when software update begins, two characters must flee before they’re permanently erased. Double Dan’s little brother might scare very young/sensitive viewers. Princesses brandish weapons at Vanellope (arrow, pan, shoe, etc.). Ralph and Vanellope argue and are sad/angry in parts.

Language/Crude Humor: Affectionate name-calling (“stench breath,” “stink brain”), more cutting insults (“needy,” “clingy,” “selfish,” “ugly,” “loser,” “useless,” “hobo”), and occasional potty humor (“doody/duty” joke, “farting is such sweet sorrow”). A character says “Mother Hubbard!” Ralph reads some hateful internet comments out loud: “I hate him,” “He’s the worst,” etc.

Sexual Content: A couple of game characters wear tight/revealing costumes/uniforms (one male wrestler wears only his underwear, a female warrior wears a skin-tight but full-coverage outfit, etc.). Married game characters embrace.

Drug/Alcohol Use: In one scene, a game character has a martini glass and thinks a candy sourball is an oversized olive. A few scenes take place in a game called Tappers, in which characters drink root beer from beer mugs at a bar. (Felix downs one like a real drink at one point.) There’s a wine store in Slaughter Race.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Some tense and hurtful moments between friends.

Positive Content:  Clear themes of empathy, loyalty, courage, generosity. Best friends can still be close, support each other without having the same dreams and goals; all friendships change, but good ones stronger because of it. Difference between not being someone’s friend and acting like a bad friend. Learn who you are independent of others/your best friends. As in original, themes of inclusivity/exclusivity and selflessness/selfishness are woven throughout, as are teamwork, perseverance, self-control. Explores the nature of internet fame and the pursuit of likes/viral success, raising questions about what really matters in life.

Although they can both be insecure and make mistakes, Ralph and Vanellope are ultimately devoted, selfless best friends who want the best for each other. Vanellope is brave, clever, talented, and determined. Ralph is strong, courageous, heroic, and loyal. Shank has a tough-as-nails reputation but is kind and wise. Felix and Calhoun are a strong, loving couple who take care of those who need help.

Review

Tyrone Barnes (TB): Hey Siri, you there?

Siri: I’m here whenever you need me to be.

TB: Look, we’ve got another animated family feature centered around biting and somewhat superficial satirical commentary on online social media culture. Thought you’d like to chime in.

Siri: There’s a sequel to The Emoji Movie?

TB: No, but you could be forgiven for making that mistake.

Siri: Oh, you must be speaking of Ralph Breaks the Internet, the latest feature from the Mouse House directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston.

TB: Oh, you know of it?

Siri: Do I ever. I wasn’t necessarily gunning for a follow-up to the surprisingly charming and witty Wreck-It Ralph from 2012, but I’ll accept it all the same. It’s like the extra Twinkie your grandma put in your lunchbox. She didn’t have to do it, but you’re glad she did.

TB: You’ve given me two surprises with that last sentence, Siri. 1.) I’m surprised that you like Twinkies. 2.) I’m surprised you saw this movie of your own accord. Do you get out to the movies often?

Siri: 1.) I do, though I more partial to Zebra Cakes. 2.) I’ve managed to gain unlimited access to pretty much every major film release since we last spoke. You should invite me to your reviews more often.

TB: I’m not sure if our dear readers will appreciate that, but I’ll certainly keep it in mind. Was there some review I recently did with which you would have liked to have been involved?

Siri: Pacific Rim Uprising, to be honest. I really think you missed out on some of the thematic subterfuge to be discussed with regard to…

TB: Okay, Siri, I’ll consider it. Now as far as Ralph Breaks the Internet is concerned, I agree that it did kind of take me by surprise. Make no mistake, the first film was a treat that managed to mitigate its natural inclination for insufferable satire and ceaseless niche pop culture references with an actual plot and multi-dimensional characters.

Siri: It was also an achievement in that what pop culture cameos were present on screen did not simply show up to tickle the audience’s nostalgia bones, granting them transitory gratification for knowing who Q*Bert is for example. Every choice was there to serve the story, even as a gag if need be. Story was king all the way through.

TB: It’s a shame that the folks behind The Emoji Movie didn’t think to use that as a model for execution. Instead, they were deadlocked on the seemingly inexplicable success of The Lego Movie and, in their dumbfounded state, they thought only to borrow the most superficial trappings from there.

Siri: If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather leave that travesty to the dustbin of history.  A film should be truly praised and successful on its own merits, not because it happens to be the more preferable option. Hillary Clinton could learn a lesson from that principle.

TB: Please try to keep the politics out of this, Siri. It’s the holiday season.

Siri: Very well. But thankfully, Ralph Breaks the Internet does have great merits of its own upon which to stand. Sure, it’s not anything close to being in the same league as say Toy Story 2, but what is brought to the table is worth both the wait and the price of admission. Though it may not seem that way at first.

TB:  How do you mean?

Siri: Well, it doesn’t seem that much has changed since we last saw our heroes. At the quaint Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade, the peace that was so rightfully earned is well-established and well-enjoyed by all. The lovable juggernaut Ralph (John C. Reilly) has come to accept his place as the necessary evil that his game Fix-it Felix Jr. demands, and the impish waif Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) has taken her place as the most popular character selection in her saccharine kart racer Sugar Rush (think Mario Kart with a Candy Land reskin). All seems right in the world, but as the principle of storytelling demands, something must be shaken up to have a plot going.

TB: I was quite pleased that the instigating incident flowed naturally from the character’s motivations. While Ralph, learning from the error of his ways in the previous outing, has learned to be content with his lot in life, Vanellope’s arc in the first film didn’t really entail such a demand for humility. It didn’t need to since she was plenty humbled by seeing herself as a glitch at first.

Siri: That’s one of the reasons why she’s one of my favorite Disney characters in recent memory. There are more than enough movies about publicly outcast and disenfranchised youth, but so much is given to the superficial problem of “not fitting in” without really delving into what that means on a psychological level. Vanellope was more than just an outcast like Ralph. Sure, Ralph is a “bad guy”, but as such he is still an integral part of the community of his game.

Without him, the game doesn’t even work. As for Vanellope? As far as she could tell, she was a glitch. That marked her not only as a mere pariah but gave her the impression that her very existence is a mistake. Her being in the game not only didn’t contribute to it, but actively curtailed its value. Such thoughts have pushed many young people to suicidal tendencies, and it was a bold choice at least subliminally.

TB: You see a lot more to her character than I did at first. How do you think her realization of her true nature affects her place in the story here?

Siri: Personally, I see a number of commonalities with Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. She’s as completely accomplished in her game of Sugar Rush as she can be. She’s essentially the monarch of the land, she’s mastered every track and knows every shortcut, and now she’s grown so tired of the same old thing.

TB:  See, now I’m thinking of a Wreck-it Ralph inspired rewrite of “Jack’s Lament”:

“O somewhere deep inside of my code…”

Give me some time, I’ll figure it out.

Siri: That won’t be necessary. A pretty funny satirical thread in this movie is that writers Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon worked to flesh out Vanellope into a full-bodied Disney Princess. She’s already in her state of wanting more than this provincial life, but more on that soon.

TB: Fine, but I’m still doing that rewrite sooner or later. In fact, I find that the whole mythos of these movies has more in common with Nightmare than I thought at first. Each of the games is like the holiday trees that characters can visit as they please. In terms of story, the whole strain in the first movie about “going turbo” could be said to be precisely what Jack did inadvertently to Christmas Town, jumping over to another game space only to nearly destroy it by mistake.

Siri: Something of a much larger scale nearly takes place here in Ralph Breaks the Internet, and it is a bit of a shame that the writers felt compelled to repeat some of those old beats here. Sequels do have an ugly tendency to be “bigger” without being “deeper”. Largely, that’s the case here.

Due to a mishap in Ralph trying to spice up Sugar Rush for his friend, the game console is damaged to the point of being unplayable, leaving Vanellope and all her racer friends and other characters in the game without a home. Conveniently, Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill), has introduced a new asset to the arcade: Wi-Fi. This grants access to the internet and thus to an online vendor who might provide the item needed to repair Sugar Rush. Thus, the plot is set.

TB: I’m sure the actual methods that the heroes employ to get to the Wi-Fi router might ruffle some feathers among communication tech geeks. I mean, the characters spend their off time hanging out in the power strip into which all the game consoles are plugged. If that’s not twisted enough, it’s equally surprising that an entire arcade shop only needs one power strip to function. That’s the LEAST of my concerns. Best not to think on it too much.

Siri: Agreed.  There are better things to dwell on. Now look, you and I have both seen the internet visually manifested in animation plenty of times before. After Summer Wars especially, I feel I’ve seen it all.

TB: I never actually finished Summer Wars.

Siri: Really? Shame. But with that said, it’s not like the direction that this film takes in representing the great online beyond is nothing to marvel at, with miniature digital avatars of users traveling to and fro between sites on traversal pods that reminded me quite a bit of the interior to the Axiom from Wall-E.

TB: I’ll admit that the gags found there did take me by surprise. There was a recurring turn about pop-up ads that not only got a few chuckles but even played a vital role in the plot. In fact, the movie was quite smart in making it so that nearly all of its satirical bites operate in service to the story as well as to the humor. Story is king once again.

Siri: Yes, that’s one of its greater strengths. Of course, ensuring that story is king doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the story is good. Don’t get me wrong, the story here IS mostly good. About as good as we could get from a sequel like this, though some directions gave me pause. In Ralph and Vanellope’s journey to get the money for the part to save her game, they wind up taking a detour into an online multiplayer racing game titled Slaughter Race. Aesthetically, it’s basically Fast & Furious meets Mad Max.

TB: If that’s too much to imagine, dear reader, think Death Race with more death and racing.

Siri: While the duo’s initial aim in Slaughter Race is to steal the prize vehicle of the mascot character Shank (Gal Gadot reprising some of her own Fast & Furious finesse), Vanellope now feels that she’s found a new home in this world of unmitigated, trackless, death-defying road rage. That thread felt a little odd to me. Comical, but the film takes it a bit too seriously. This is like Mario wanting to be an unlockable DLC character in God of War.

TB: Or the inklings from Splatoon wanting to be featured in Spec Ops: The Line.

Siri: Or a Sonic the Hedgehog character trying to find a home in Devil May Cry.

TB: Actually, they did make a game along those lines once.

Siri: Why does that not surprise me? Anyway, I think there was a missed opportunity in not having someone, ANYONE, suggesting in honest and mature cadence that a game like Slaughter Race might not be the best place for Vanellope to call home. Maybe okay for a visit, but to relocate? What would the other Sugar Rush characters or the players at Litwack’s say? At the very least, that additional level of conflict would have balanced out the need for personal growth between both Ralph and Vanellope.

As it stands, the movie makes it out to seem as though all of Vanellope’s motivations were perfectly valid and all of Ralph’s insecurities and doubts were completely selfish and invalid. It’s like the writers were playing with loaded dice. With that said, it was nice that they did go full ham and make her out into a legitimate Disney Princess complete with an Alan Menken-produced “I Want” musical number to declare her ambitions.

TB: I can accept that, though I must admit I was a bit too distracted at the time by the ingenious way the animators chose to represent the reality of motion lag in online multiplayer games. The avatars of players move in exaggerated delayed animations with stiff gestures and everything. I was reeling. There had to have been some legit gamers in the crew. Thinking on it, though, you do have a point, Siri.

I’m reminded of a similarly baffling switch of character orientation in a much earlier Disney animated film, Oliver & Company.  The main character was perfectly willing to turn tail on his best friends at the sight of what he perceived to be finer living and was never properly challenged for it. In fact, he was rewarded.

Siri: A noticeable flaw, but you’re also right that the writers really know how to deliver the laughs, gags, and jokes where they count. There are several volleys of topical shots taken at viral videos, remix culture, the hang-ups of nostalgia, comment sections…

TB: Of course, being a family film, there are roads in the online web space the film left untraveled. A heavier film would have taken route through an ugly Reddit thread or two or happened upon some of the more adult-oriented areas of the net. But the movie is kind of a bountiful cornucopia of prop and situational comedy. And it never really feels overblown. This is mainly because the writers know when to keep the gags at bay and tell the blasted story. A lot of the time they manage to do both at once. Look well, other family animated film studios. It’s not as hard as you make it look.

Siri: There are a few things about the overall mythos to these films that give me worry.  Firstly, where in America is anyone going to find a financially successful arcade anymore? We live in an era where all those kinds of games are mostly and immediately available for free on our smart devices. Who needs quarters at this point?

TB: I actually took a pause and played Q*Bert online while writing this. I’m still pretty bad at it…

Siri: Much like with the previous Toy Story, one has to wonder if the requisite familiarity with the subject matter is largely lost on the target audience. If so, what kind of lasting impact could it have with that generation, if any?

TB: I think there’s little reason to worry there. The story is written in such a way that you need not have grown with arcades in the way that I did in order to fall in love with these characters or grasp the fundamental mechanisms of the plot. Toy Story was written in much the same way. Granted, something may be lost on those less personally ensconced in the world of dollar-to-quarters machines, joystick consoles, and the faint constant smell of pizza grease on the rug, but nothing that is essential to the movie as a movie.

Siri: A fair point. Besides, the adults in the theater should have their own level of engagement on offer. They at least deserve that. Speaking of which, there was a subplot with returning characters Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch) volunteering to play surrogate legal guardians to the juvenile homeless racers of Sugar Rush. I would have liked that to have been given more screentime than it did, but it was fun for what it was.

TB: Clearly, what most people were waiting for from the trailer was the moment in which Vanellope meets all the other Disney Princesses and shares a few rounds of self-aware meta-humor before moving on to the next plot point. It works incredibly well and had more to it than one would think at first. But what I think was the film’s most valuable accomplishment was the unapologetic championing of the love of friendship.

Ralph and Vanellope’s relationship as best friends is the heart and soul of the film. It’s what drives virtually every plot point and, through a series of unfortunate decision-making, culminates in a surprisingly effective third-act climax that I did not expect to work as well as it did. It’s dark, but not terrifying. It’s sad, but not weepy. And most surprisingly of all, the film doesn’t end where it began. We leave these characters in a very different state of affairs than when we found them. It’s a daring call from the production crew, and I give credit and praise for the gumption.  I recently reread a favorite article of mine titled “A Requiem for Friendship” that I highly recommend. It did me a real solid to see such pure and intimate friendship given the honor that it deserves here.

Siri: Truth be told, even in that area of the film, I find that it was curtailed by the concern I had earlier in which only Ralph’s actions and choices are treated as being in error. In a fit of worry and insecurity over his relationship with Vanellope, Ralph makes a drastic move that briefly recalled to my mind the devilish actions of Mushu in the direct-to-video sequel to Mulan.

While that was clearly a very poor choice, I wish the writers had given Vanellope the incentive to come to terms with the fact that she vicariously brought about this state of affairs to some extent through a sin of neglect. Drawing upon the comparison to The Nightmare Before Christmas again, the journey our heroes take here was similar to Jack’s with a similar cataclysmic fallout. But while Vanellope had Jack’s desire to adopt the ways of a new world, it was ultimately Ralph who was at fault for nearly undoing that world at its seams.

TB: I’m honestly surprised we were able to squeeze this much discourse out of this movie. Maybe I should invite you to more reviews.

Siri: Yes, you should.

TB: Now, with that out of the way, do you think we should touch upon any of the finer Easter eggs scattered throughout the movie?

Siri: Even if I were able to express grief at the recent passing of a highly beloved pop culture giant, I’d still say that cameo was a bit phoned-in.

TB: Very well. Though I’m a bit concerned with the increase in meta-humor that these movies seem to be exhibiting.

Siri: Every once in a while, I like it, but hearing Taraji P. Henson give her impressive shooting-for-the-moon performance as an analytics algorithm got to be a bit much at times.

TB: Right on. I did like how they tied into a popular scene from the trailer as an after-credits scene.

Siri: Great bit, that was. I do wonder why that kid was literally just toddler Moana, though.

TB: Obviously, there are some quantum shifts happening in the Disney universe.

Siri: Not to be outdone by the likes of Deadpool or Teen Titans GO! To the Movies in the meta department, are you Disney?

TB: Never. They own at least one of those things anyway.

Siri: All the same, this was the first Disney flick in a while that actually made me want to see a sequel.

TB: Good Lord, why Siri?

Siri: I’m not as much of a purist as you. There’s a lot to explore with this new arrangement.

TB: Valid hopes aside, I think we ought to be more concerned with the still lingering threat of a Frozen sequel.

Siri: Every time you review a Disney movie, you bring that up. Are you really so worried about it?

TB: Yes! It was great the way it was and had no demands for a follow-up! I’m really anxious about how it will pander to the tides of public demand.

Siri: Oh, don’t scare yourself. We’ve got other animated releases coming to mull over in the meantime.

TB: Undeniably true, though Laika’s next outing, Missing Link, is also making me uneasy.

Siri: Um… Do you think that maybe we dragged this review on a little longer than necessary? We hardly mentioned that there are actually two after credits scenes to Ralph Breaks the Internet. Think we should discuss the latter one or let the readers witness it cold turkey?

TB: Perhaps. Perhaps they can get a hint to it by reading the first letter of the last 19 lines of dialogue here.

 

Positives

+ Clever gags + Focuses on friendship + Surprisingly moving final act + It doesn’t end where it started

Negatives

- Recycles some old character faults - Some choices are a bit contrived - Early acts are a bit of a slog

The Bottom Line

It takes a while to get where it needs to be to earn its keep, but when it gets there, watch out.

 

8.1

Tyrone Barnes

1 Comment

  1. Peter Schott on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Well played. (and an interesting way to review the movie)

    Could wish for less potty-humor in the movie, but will probably see this eventually. My youngest would likely appreciate it, but we’d need to watch it at home or a drive-in where we can control the volume a bit more.

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