Love it or hate it, the Walt Disney Corporation is a behemoth. There’s no escaping the capitalist touch in pretty much anything that comes out of the company, be it Star Wars or Marvel Entertainment, with every possible measure taken to maintain a carefully curated image that appeals to as wide an audience as possible. There’s no denying the appeal of the Magic Kingdom (Disney’s ubiquity speaks for itself), but recently, that approach to art has led to films that are more anodyne than not.
Which is why 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, which cribbed from plenty of existing properties and still ended up being one of the most ingenious and touching (and weirdly harrowing, but we’ll get to that later) films of the year, seemed like lightning in a bottle. The story of a video game bad guy, Ralph (John C. Reilly), trying to break out of a perpetual cycle of defeat and exile by venturing into other games had no business being as touching as it was.
As such, it feels like a miracle that Ralph Breaks the Internet — while not quite as pure as its predecessor — is also tremendously charming. Lightning has struck twice. The film is unquestionably a corporate product; there’s a lot of very blatant Disney peacocking going on. But it seems that Wreck-It Ralph’s singular core is strong enough to keep its sequel from taking on the patina of a cynical, algorithm-generated product — in fact, it’s the polar opposite. Confession: I began involuntarily tearing up about halfway through the film, and kept crying on and off until the movie came to an end.
[Ed. note: This review contains mild spoilers for Ralph Breaks the Internet.]
The key seems to be a slightly demented attitude toward each trend and topic that’s covered. Ralph Breaks the Internet goes a little nuts by the time everything is said and done in a way that defies its ostensible categorization as a kids movie, coming off as equal parts exploration of friendship and particularly colorful domestic drama.
After coming to peace with his role as a bad guy with the help of Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character from a neighboring racing game, Ralph has found bliss in routine. He spends his days being the bad guy in his home game, Fix-It Felix Jr., and his nights hanging out with Vanellope in the old beer-slinging arcade game Tapper. To his mind, the only thing that would make his existence more idyllic would be not working at all. Vanellope, however, has bigger ambitions. She’s tired of the same old tracks, and ready for something new. When Ralph’s attempt at appeasing her leads to her game being shut down over a broken part, they head to the internet to try to find the part for themselves.
The adventure that follows takes them everywhere from online shopping to social media to comments sections and even the dark web. The way the internet manifests is almost overwhelming: It’s a bustling, futuristic metropolis, with users (represented as Mii-esque avatars) flooding in and reams of data flying by overhead. Twitter, for instance, is a giant tree, populated by blue birds that tweet out, well, tweets.
Aside from its visual flourishes, the movie is surprisingly nuanced in the way it deals with interpersonal relationships, addressing the ideas of being a selfish friend, learning to let go and the ephemeral-yet-lasting nature of friendships in a world that’s so plugged in. The personal and software definitions of insecurities are meshed with puns as Ralph struggles to hold onto Vanellope, whose glitch (which kept her apart from her fellow racers before being revealed to be her racing superpower in the first film) has begun acting up again as she tries to reconcile her love for Ralph with her desire to move to the online racing game Slaughter Race.
If the general plot of the film, sans video game references, makes it sound like an animated marital drama (Amazon’s Forever comes to mind as a comparable recent work, as it centered on a couple, one of whom was content to live the same day over and over, while the other wanted change), that’s largely what it feels like. The dynamic lends the proceedings a strangeness — this is a decidedly aromantic property, despite Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Calhoun’s (Jane Lynch) marriage — that ultimately helps it stand on its own two legs.
In addition to an apparent obliviousness to the way money works — Ralph and Vanellope have to raise $27,001 to get the missing game part — Ralph Breaks the Internet features: a truly upsetting smooth worm voiced by Alfred Molina, giving a performance that’s half Ray Winstone and half his character in Boogie Nights; an “I Want” song (written by Alan Menken!) featuring a one-legged pigeon; and a final boss that looks like the morass of a bunch of childhood nightmares and goes (briefly) off on a full-scale King Kong parody.
The movie pushes its luck in a segment featuring Disney’s official online portal, Oh My Disney. It’s a sequence that tries to show off a little self-awareness as to the corporate branding going on — the famed Disney princesses change into loungewear and protest that the princes steal the credit for their achievements; stormtroopers pursue Vanellope while Star Wars music blares — but it goes so far around the circle that it ends up pretty much where it began, i.e., a Disney ouroboros, a little blind to its own faults. The sequence doesn’t really serve enough of a purpose to justify its inclusion; it’s just Disney showing off. And that’s not even scratching the surface of how strange it is to see companies like Amazon and eBay so explicitly made entities in a mostly made-up world. (eBay, at least, is cute, but we won’t get into further corporate metaphors here.)
Nevertheless, Ralph Breaks the Internet is so well-crafted that its clunkiest parts deliver on a denouement that’s as striking as that of the first film. It’s the kind of movie that repeatedly clubs you over the head with its message about the importance of friendship, but it’s a drubbing you’ll welcome with open arms by the time the credits roll.
I loved all of it. The film has just enough of an edge so that matters really do seem high-stakes, and Reilly’s and Silverman’s vocal performances are reliably great, delivering the requisite fart jokes with the same ease as the more emotionally heavy moments. To echo a similar sentiment about Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet has no business being as good as it is, but thank goodness that’s the case.