Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

by Andrew Parker

A sequel that greatly improves on the original, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes better use of its characters, sprawling video game universe, and core concepts than Wreck-It Ralph, which was a promising idea that ultimately underwhelmed. Trading in a great deal of Wreck-It Ralph’s “hey, look, it’s that guy from that popular thing” sense of lazy nostalgia and conventional plotting, Ralph Breaks the Internet (set six years after the previous outing) tells a less cliched and more poignant story about friendship through characters so much more developed than they were in the first movie that the two films almost feel like different products altogether. Ralph Breaks the Internet remembers what excited many viewers about the first film on a visual level, but gives them a lot more substance and emotion to go along with their eye candy and pop culture references.

Ralph (voiced once again by John C. Reilly), a bad guy from an 80s arcade game who’s actually a kindhearted doofus when he’s not on the clock, and his best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a hyperactive, virtually candy coated race car driver from a kiddie game, find their bond stronger than ever, but at different points in their lives on a personal level. Ralph loves the routine of his life, and he wouldn’t trade that comfort for anything in the world, greatly valuing the time he can spend hanging out with Vanellope after their arcade closes for the night. Vanellope, on the other hand, is growing restless and antsy; tired of racing on the same tracks over and over again and then hitting the Tapper bar with Ralph at the end of the night. After an attempt by Ralph to make Vanellope’s professional life fun again backfires and causes an arcade patron to break the steering wheel off the machine, they’re given a week to find a replacement part before the game is sent to the scrap heap. Overhearing a customer talking about this thing called eBay, Ralph and Vanellope decide to use the arcade’s recently hooked up Wi-Fi router to access the strange new world of the internet. It takes Ralph and Vanellope a while to get the hang of how things work on the web, but eventually they concoct a few get-rich-quick schemes to raise enough money to buy a steering wheel. In the process, Ralph becomes an unlikely and mostly unwilling internet celebrity, and Vanellope has her eyes opened to a new and exciting world outside her own game. Their friendship is tested when Vanellope starts to wonder if she even wants to return to her old life, and Ralph fears that he’s losing his friend forever.

Wreck-It Ralph tried to milk all the mileage it could out from trotting out a cavalcade of famous pop culture characters for frequently weak cameos and a mediocre story about the differences between classic and modern games. It was serviceable and competent enough, but never anything altogether memorable or even all that imaginative. In hindsight and after watching Ralph Breaks the Internet – co-directed by returning director Rich Moore and co-writer Phil Johnston – the first film now feels like a lengthy set-up for something a lot more interesting and meaningful. Ralph Breaks the Internet takes the best aspect of its predecessor – its sense of character development – and expands it into something truly nuanced and somewhat gutsy for a kids movie. Whereas Wreck-It Ralph sometimes came across as a cynical attempt to court millennials and families at the same time, Ralph Breaks the Internet feels like an actual movie made for all audiences, and one that talks about a difficult, but common subject that surprisingly few kiddie films ever talk about.

That’s somewhat surprising when one considers that so much of the marketing behind Ralph Breaks the Internet is tied to the concept of branding, something that’s gently poked at with a feather duster here, but never jabbed or skewered for comedic effect. From the trailers and marketing materials (and indeed from the description of the plot I provided above), one might think that Ralph and Vanellope were were cogs being used to hold together a bunch of thinly veiled commercials for Disney and some of the internet’s most formidable brands. Thankfully, Ralph Breaks the Internet finds a way to keep these moments to a minimum, sprinkling plenty of fake and made up companies to exist alongside their real world counterparts, or at least finding logical reasons for characters from different brands and worlds to interact. Some might groan at such a statement for championing corporate hegemony and mediocrity, and Ralph Breaks the Internet and its predecessor are emphatically not movies for such a crowd.

But at least in this film, Moore, Johnston, and their co-writers and visual designers are finding ways to make such references mean something, instead of the previous film where they just hung in the air like dying punchlines. Although Ralph Breaks the Internet has a bigger world and palette to work from, all of it feels like it means something instead of excuses to get a cheap pop from the audience. Even a ridiculous aside where Vanellope stumbles upon a dressing room filled with Disney Princess characters is smartly written and played to good effect with an actual payoff. Wreck-It Ralph fumbled its chance to utilize an ambitious concept, but Ralph Breaks the Internet makes the most of it.

The world of the internet is dazzling and purposefully overwhelming. It’s like going to New York City, only every block was Times Square, or to a mall where every store is a big box retailer. Again, that description courts the mental pictures of excess that I assume some will turn up their noses towards, but they also don’t have to watch Ralph Breaks the Internet. It’s a pother of idiocy, convenience, annoyance, bullying, low-brow humour, human suffering, terrible puns, misinformation, charity, and wonderment around every corner, which is a pretty accurate visual description of the internet. At every point in their journey, Ralph and Vanellope could have a positive experience or a negative one, lending the film a welcome sense of unpredictability. There’s plenty to be found within Ralph Breaks the Internet about making new friends, trusting one’s instincts when something seems too good to be true, and never reading the comments section on any article or video, and all of it could be a useful tool for showing kids how to safely and sanely navigate their online lives, but the main message this sequel wants to talk about is of a decidedly offline nature.

The first plan Ralph and Vanellope have to raise money for her beloved steering wheel is to team up with a shifty pop-up ad toting character (Bill Hader) who tells them they can make some quick bank going into other games and procuring special items for gamers too lazy to play long hours and actually earn something. The item that will give our heroes the most money in the quickest amount of time is a souped up hot rod belonging to Shank (Gal Gadot), the untouchable badass at the centre of a Grand Theft Auto/Fallout styled hybrid called Slaughter Race. Ralph finds the hyper-violent and surreal world of Slaughter Race to be immediately terrifying, but Vanellope, who’s a risk-taking racer at heart and craving a challenge, is immediately taken by it. Vanellope also finds herself drawn to Shank’s charismatic and kind nature as the leader of a family of crooks who are nice to each other and have a stronger bond than the kiddies in her game ever did. Ralph tries to get Vanellope as far from this game as possible – instead opting to team up with Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), the operator of a YouTube/Buzzfeed hybrid site to make self-deprecating viral content – but his younger counterpart still finds herself drawn to a place that could challenge and nurture her talents. This new world makes Vanellope happy, but the thought of being estranged from his best friend sends Ralph’s insecurities into overdrive.

Ultimately, Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t a film about the wacky world wide web, but about difficult and complex feelings many experience while growing up. Friends can drift apart. They can develop new interests. Sometimes circumstances force them to separate. In some cases, they work better apart than they do together. Every development throughout Ralph Breaks the Internet is building towards its titular figure being forced to wrestle with such complicated feelings from the perspective of a character that’s already basically a large child. The plot forms in a slower and subtler fashion than one might expect, in an effort to show that the growing distance between Ralph and Vanellope doesn’t mean their friendship is coming to an end, but rather that it’s evolving into something complicated. I can’t think of many films that I would show to a young person trying to understand why friends can change over time, but Ralph Breaks the Internet is an excellent choice, and one that doesn’t talk down to the difficulty and mixed feelings at the heart of such life experiences.

The writing is sharper, snappier, and funnier than before, and it’s reflected in the performances of Reilly and Silverman. Ralph feels like an even better fit for Reilly’s comedic talents here than he did in the first film, imbuing the character with positive and unsavoury traits that are always likable and sympathetic. Silverman fares even better here, and is given exponentially more to do in the sequel than being the hyperactive, glitchy ball of annyong energy that she was in the first film. She even gets a song, which is hilariously handled and one of the film’s crowning achievements. Vanellope is placed on equal footing with Ralph here (with almost all of their arcade buddies shifted to bit parts and cameos here), and the actors’ natural chemistry makes the material even stronger.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is everything I wanted Wreck-It Ralph to be, and nothing that I feared it would be as a sequel to a nostalgia baiting movie that was merely okay. If Wreck-It Ralph was something I could respond to with a polite nod and a shrug when it was over, Ralph Breaks the Internet is something with a vastly better and much more honest emotional impact. Instead of becoming a franchise that might’ve dabbled in endless pop culture riffing to empty effect, Ralph Breaks the Internet positions such a property as a potential heir apparent to Pixar’s Toy Story franchise. It’s that good.

Ralph Breaks the Internet opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, November 21, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Ralph Breaks the Internet:

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