I would probably do well to confess up front that I am not really the right person to review Ralph Breaks the Internet. I harbor no fondness for its predecessor, Wreck-It Ralph, which I saw once upon its release in 2012 – and, while I’m being frank, I have not really enjoyed a new animated film by Disney or Pixar for almost a decade now. If it already sounds like we have no prejudices in common in this arena, I will not begrudge your quick departure to greener pastures of the internet.
For those who remain, the internet is as good a place as any to start. Ralph Breaks the Internet follows its two formerly arcade-bound leads into the brave new World Wide Web, envisioned here as a digital metropolis as boring and cluttered as you’d expect the internet writ large to look. Said leads are Wreck-It Ralph (endearing, earnest John C. Reilly) and Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman, equally earnest but not so endearing), and the premise is still something like “Toy Story, but with video games.” The rules of these characters’ existence, though, are not so clear as those which govern Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Vanellope philosophizes briefly about being mere “ones and zeroes,” but the animators simply treat the video game characters as corporeal beings and have done with it. As for autonomy, an early scene sees Vanellope, an avatar in a racing game, wresting control of her racecar from the human player trying to direct her. Her game is promptly shut down and the characters make a mass exodus to other games in the arcade, though Ralph seems blithely oblivious to the existential uncertainty Vanellope suffers in response to the near-cosmic destruction that has just been wrought. There is probably a whole essay on free will and predestination here, but I will leave that task to someone with more willpower than I.
Ralph and Vanellope take to the internet to try and restore her old world, and the events here are similarly baffling. Two video game characters without an actual cent to their names are, evidently, able to bid thousands of dollars for items on eBay, and then make enough money from farming “hearts” on silly videos to pay for it. Ralph and Vanellope’s rambling attempts to pay off their eBay debts make up the film’s story, and here one begins to notice that, for a film so obviously copied out of a screenwriting textbook (notice that, around the 2/3s mark in every Disney animated film, the two leads have a falling out which is resolved ten minutes later), Ralph Breaks the Internet is shockingly undisciplined, with less of a plot and more of a series of loosely connected incidents. Ralph and Vanellope traipse from one internet realm to another, pursuing one goal and then promptly switching to another. None of this would be especially bothersome (I’m no stickler for Screenplay Structure™) were there anything else to latch onto as this display of sound and fury parades past the senses. Ralph Breaks the Internet is, roughly speaking, a buddy road movie, and films of this kind can often get away without much in the way of an overarching plot if the buddies are sufficiently interesting. But alas – Ralph, Vanellope, and their interactions offer little in the way of intrigue, and the secondary characters and obstacles they come across are similarly bland. An excursion into a game called “Slaughter Race,” taking place in some kind of apocalyptic dystopia where great white sharks pop out of manholes, offers almost none of the drama one might expect from that description. Indeed, the superficially intimidating avatar of this realm (Gal Gadot, who, for all her other charms, cannot sing), turns out within five minutes to be so sedate and good-natured that Vanellope immediately wants to trade up best friend Ralph. I do not demand that all films traffic in the relentless intensity of Dunkirk, but without a certain amount of tension, a movie is just spinning its wheels.
The film’s ideas about the internet are comparably toothless, though it offers up vague gestures towards the shallowness and fickleness of online popularity during its decidedly paunchy second act, in which Ralph makes silly videos to pay off his and Vanellope’s debt to eBay. A manic Taraji P. Henson brings at least a mild spark of life to the proceedings as the head algorithm of the video website on which Ralph degrades himself, but there is little suspense to be wrung from wondering if enough people will “heart” Ralph’s antics, and any pathos from a scene where Ralph wanders into a comments section (rookie mistake, Ralph) and sees himself derided by anonymous strangers is cheerfully swept aside as the film hastens along to the next scene. Similarly, the potential rupture of the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is the backbone on which the film hangs its drama (and some well-intentioned Messages about Friendship and Insecurity), but the characters are not human enough for this conflict and its inevitable resolution to ring affectingly true. Neither is the Moral of the Story likely to prompt any serious reflection, no matter how insistently and inelegantly the film bludgeons the audience with it. (I could swear that the words “Friendship” and “Insecurity” are said quite literally dozens of times in the last thirty minutes of the film to ensure that we get the point – a technique roughly as effective, by my estimation, as those of the textbooks I read in sixth grade and forgot before seventh.)
Perhaps it is telling that the film’s most widely lauded sequence has almost no bearing on the plot as a whole. A cursory glance over (aptly enough) the internet reveals that a scene involving Disney Princesses is being hailed as the “highlight” of Ralph Breaks the Internet, which should give you some sense of where to set your standards for the rest of the film. About halfway through, Vanellope stumbles into a dressing room occupied by all of Disney’s princesses from past films. The ensuing digression, during which all the most obvious punchlines (song is abruptly broken into and assumptions about always needing to be saved by men are lamented) are thrown about with abandon, feels distinctly like a so-so comedy sketch inserted rather clumsily into the middle of a feature-length film. In the end, of course, the princesses save the hapless “big, strong man,” Ralph himself, which counts as a subversive twist, I suppose. Apparently, apart from the continued acquisition of other companies, autocannibalism is all Disney has left, either by making fun of itself or remaking every one of its cartoon hits into a cartoon hit with better graphics. Neither approach lends itself to genuine artistry or humanity; the latter is a dull (and unsustainable, unless these remakes are going to be remade themselves in ten years) business practice, but the lazy “subversions” of the former are growing similarly tedious, and offer similarly diminishing returns.
It is also possible, of course, that I am simply behind the times. My own forays onto the internet usually evoke nothing more than an overpowering ennui, so I guess that’s one thing about the online experience that Ralphs Breaks the Internet captures pretty well.