Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) Review

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Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

~ Review by Grawlix (December 2018)

I never thought I’d see the day when a Disney movie left me this conflicted, but here we are. I know I’ve crowed in the past about the great potential of rights aggregation and the usage of licensed properties to add verisimilitude to a story that would be awkward to tell without them, but if the original Wreck-It Ralph was one of the best examples of the potential of this idea, its sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet may well be one of the worst. Wreck-It Ralph was, among other things, a celebration of video games. Ralph 2, as the title might suggest, attempts to apply this formula to the entire internet, and the results are, shall we say, mixed. See, apparently video game rights holders are fine with some fun being had at the expense of their characters, particularly their villains, which are more or less designed to be humiliated in humorous ways anyway. But when it comes to internet brands, it would seem that the mere suggestion that any of them are anything less than perfect is a hard no-go. Thus, for example, in Ralph Breaks the Internet, Youtube may exist, but it’s only the fictitious “Buzztube” that has a toxic cesspool of a comment section. And when Vanellope goes to Disney’s quadrant of the internet (no spoilers here, it’s in the trailer), ye gods, be prepared for what may be the cringiest 15 minutes of corporate self-congratulation ever committed to cinema. Like, we get it Disney, you own everything, no need to rub our noses in it. Wreck-it Ralph was a light-hearted festival of nostalgia. Too often, Ralph Breaks the Internet plays like a commercial.

Okay, okay, deep breath. Let’s take things from the top. Following the events of the first film, hulking simpleton Ralph, and precocious spitfire Vanellope have settled into a comfortable, if prosaic routine in their respective arcade cabinets in Litwak’s Arcade. For Ralph, it’s a situation nearly akin to nirvana, but Vanellope chafes against the monotony, having long since mastered every nuance of her racing game. After a predictably blunt attempt by Ralph to add new content goes awry, the result is a damaged machine, with the only replacement part available being in an eBay auction. Conveniently, old Litwak has recently set up Wifi in his arcade, allowing the intrepid pair to take to the web. Duly they find the auction, but a fundamental misunderstanding of how bidding and money works results in them having 24 hours to come up with a pile of cash lest all their efforts be for naught. After a sketchy attempt at Real Money Trading involving a Not-GTA style game called Slaughter Race goes nowhere, they move to plan B: monetizing Youtube, er, sorry, Buzztube videos. And after some perfunctory research, what is determined to be the most profitable Buzztube content? Memes! Did you LOL at the screaming goat? Well get ready for the Screaming Ralph. Can’t get enough of Grumpy Cat or Bob Ross, well, here they come again, only Ralph-ified. Ugh… memes. Seriously? After the brilliance of Zootopia and Big Hero 6, this is what we’ve regressed to? This is “Fellow Kids” pandering at its absolute worst. It was insulting in Jem and the Holograms and it’s downright embarrassing in Ralph Breaks the Internet.

Alright, alright, I’m doing it again. Now, look, this is still Disney, and notwithstanding of some of their… questionable scripting decisions, there’s still plenty that they get right. The voice work is still spot on with John C. Reilly giving a note perfect performance as the sad-sack Lennie Smalls-esque Ralph. Similarly, Sarah Silverman falls just on the right side of the spunky/irritating continuum as Vanellope. Alan Tudyk is back, this time as the aggressively helpful search engine Mr. Knowsmore. Gal Gadot appears unexpectedly as a street racing fatale from Slaughter Race. And I’m pretty sure as many of the Disney Princesses as possible were played by their original voice actresses. The interactions between the arcade game characters are still amusing, particularly a subplot involving Fix-It Felix Jr., Sgt. Calhoun, and the displaced Sugar Rush racers. It’s just a shame there aren’t more of them. Sonic the Hedgehog gets added with a minor speaking role but, unfortunately, it appears that Nintendo was still unwilling to play ball, as the only allusion to any of their properties is a nameless non-speaking turtle in a few group shots. And all of the visuals are, of course, first class. Seeing certain industrial properties rendered in monolithic splendor might set a few eyes rolling, but there is a mesmerizing sequence at the climax of the film that must have required its own nuclear reactor to power the rendering servers.

And when the writers are actually allowed off their leashes, some of the jokes and sight gags are pretty amusing. Their anthropomorphic takes on pop-ups and sketchy banner ads got a chuckle out of me, as did their portrayal of the dark web and its denizens. The scenes where Vanellope puts her cart-racing skills to use on the mean streets of Slaughter Race are undeniably cool. Also, the post credits-material is well worth the wait.  And the movie does have an emotional center. When Vanellope’s fascination with the novelty (and dangers) of Slaughter Race seemingly jeopardizes her friendship with Ralph, Ralph’s predictably short sighted solution does indeed threaten to break the entire internet. It’s a plot thread that’s genuinely touching, but it takes a long time to get off the ground, owing, at least in part, to the long line of rings that apparently had to be cinematically kissed for the privilege of putting the Amazon and Google logos onto the screen.

Ever since my screening of Ralph Breaks the Internet ended, I’ve wondered if it was even possible to make any other way. The internet certainly provides ample material for comedy, but so much of it would just be flat out inappropriate here. Porn, politics, fringe ideas and general vitriol – obviously, none of that would fly in a kid’s movie. Even the wink, wink, nudge, nudge parental bonus type stuff that modern animation studios usually like to throw in would probably be too risky to be worth it. Likewise, if the options for depicting real brands come down to either hagiographic, or not at all, I guess it would just seem cheap to not include them and just work around the limitations. Outside of enthusiastically mean-spirited (but hilarious) parodies like Logorama, the ultra-sanitary safe route was probably the only realistic way to go.

Which explains the end result of Ralph Breaks the Internet, but doesn’t excuse it. While extending the story of Wreck-It Ralph onto the internet is a solid idea in theory, the execution proved to be subpar, with jokes kept aggressively inoffensive, and a runtime that spends far too much time paying homage to corporate benefactors while doing virtually nothing to advance the story. Ralph Breaks the Internet might be fine for the kids – particularly kids who will get the internet references but, somehow, aren’t burned out on them – but adults looking for more resonance and wit are likely to be disappointed and those with any degree of cynicism might find themselves fighting back way too many groans.

Final Grade: B-

There’s nothing really wrong with Ralph Breaks the Internet, it’s narratively solid and technically sound. But it’s also painfully unadventurous, flavorless and safe, with a degree of product placement that’s shameless even considering the context. It’s watchable, and even sometimes enjoyable, but considering the source, and quality of its recent pedigree, it feels like an underachievement.


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