On the chaos of the Internet marketplace, the fickleness of online currency, and the overlap between heroism and friendship in Wreck-It Ralph's triumphant return
Ralph Breaks the Internet Walt Disney Studios
Director: Phil Johnston and Rich Moore
Screenplay: Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon
Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alan Tudyk, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer and Alfred Molina
Rated PG / 1 hour, 52 minutes / 2.35:1
November 21, 2018
(out of four)
No one was prepared for the cacophonous monstrosity online existence would become, least of all a gentle 8-bit strongman who wants nothing more than a simple, predictable life. One skill, one friend and a nice daily routine is quite enough for Ralph. He's gone through his rebellious phase already - rejecting his bad-guy programming, seizing control of his own destiny and asserting himself as a hero in his own right - in 2012's Wreck-It Ralph. Now that that's out of his system, he's more than happy to keep things the way they are for good.
Which was all going fine until the Internet got in the way. Call it a generation gap, but Ralph (John C. Reilly) doesn't even know how to pronounce "wifi," let alone understand how it works. But in Ralph Breaks the Internet - after all, he's established himself as a hero, and every hero gets a sequel - that phonetic mystery is about to change everything for him, forever, whether he likes it or not. (Read: He does not like it.) The arcade that he calls home is getting an upgrade - not another new game, but a wifi network, presumably a long time coming for the beloved establishment's regular customers.
It doesn't seem, at first, like much of a threat to the digital denizens of this conglomerated community of video-game characters, who meet in a virtual transit station each morning and get shuffled off into their individual games once the lights turn on in the physical world of the arcade. This "wifi" will be a curiosity, perhaps. At most an annoying but innocuous distraction, at least the way Ralph sees it. And he probably wouldn't have bothered to find out one way or another if it weren't for his good-hearted meddling, which inadvertently takes him down the road he was trying to go out of his way to avoid. His best friend Vanellope - the more naturally adventurous spirit of the two - has grown bored with her racing game, Sugar Rush. It's not just the lack of free will that comes with being any player's chosen avatar; even when she's got control of the wheel herself, the tracks are all too predictable. She's done them all thousands of times, she's mastered them, there's nothing left to challenge or surprise her.
Ralph and Vanellope meet at the same place for drinks at the end of every gameday, but she's grown despondent and dissatisfied. He takes it upon himself to snap her out of it by breaking into Sugar Rush and creating an entirely new track for her - a gambit that works brilliantly, with Vanellope even getting a bit overzealous, overriding player control, and causing the wheel in the arcade to snap off as a result.
Problem is, Sugar Rush is an antique. It's not just that the game isn't being played (or built) anymore - the company long ago went out of business. There are no replacement parts.
Except, of course, on the Internet. And so the two head off into the great unknown with a single goal in mind - purchase a replacement Sugar Rush steering wheel on eBay - and in the process get swept up in an infinite universe of games, scams, shopping, entertainment and mindless minutiae, one limitless rabbit hole after another. The film's pretext for keeping us online is this: Ralph and Vanellope have to find a way to make money to pay for the steering wheel (which is the only one available, of course) and they have exactly 24 hours to do so, lest Sugar Rush be put out to pasture for good.
That plot point exists, first and foremost, to facilitate an exploration of a new, looser visual playground. Directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore guide us through a corporatized digital metropolis and use that setting to lampoon pop culture while casting a latently suspicious eye on the ways users interact with that culture. Disney princesses and beloved video-game icons become, in this dizzying but dazzlingly rendered environment of information and visual stimuli, indistinguishable from any other brand or logo with which they share bandwidth.
Yes, it's similar to the virtual world of Ready Player One, though Johnston and Moore's conception of the Internet is somewhat more literal and less celebratory, emphasizing it as a bustling marketplace above all else, an extreme alternative to the simplicity of the arcade-gaming world Ralph and Vanellope are used to. Then again, the gaming world is where they belong, so naturally that's where they find themselves anyway - with Vanellope's mind in particular being blown by what modern online gaming has to offer. One game in particular, actually - and this is where the crux of the film's conflict comes in, rendering the quest for a new steering wheel ostensibly moot. While trying to figure out a way to make a quick score, our duo stumbles upon a game called Slaughter Race, and for Vanellope it's love at first sight. Speed, violence, destruction, carnage, and really really fast, really really dangerous cars. This is where she belongs, and she knows it. And the game's heroine, Shank (Gal Gadot), is the coolest person she's ever set eyes on and a paragon of who Vanellope wants to be.
And here Ralph thought his glitchy little friend was perfectly happy with their current lives. Isn't this, after all, what this whole online excursion is all about? Getting a new wheel so Sugar Rush can work again and everything can go back to normal?
The divide between the two friends' desires and expectations leads to a rather poignant connection between this film and its predecessor. While his first adventure was all about a villain becoming a hero, in his second go-around we see Ralph still figuring out what being "the good guy" actually means. Or perhaps more to the point, figuring out what being the good guy does not include. As in: It does not include suffocating the people you love, nor sabotaging their chance at a better life just because you're worried about losing them. There's an emotional thorniness that emerges in Ralph Breaks the Internet that sets it apart from the first movie. It's touching the way it equates heroism with friendship; it's wise in the way it understands what friendship really is.
What makes the movie fun is its succession of pop-culture parodies and absurdities, reminiscent of the original Shrek. What makes the movie shrewd is the way it plays with the triviality and volatility of Internet currency - the ephemera of popularity and relevance that Ralph learns firsthand. But what makes Ralph Breaks the Internet true is the way it tests its main character, and what it asks of him. Ralph is our hero, but he has to earn it and learn it. A lesser movie would just give that heroism away.