You don’t have to be a verbal anti-Disney critic or an all-around cynic to recognize that Ralph Breaks the Internet, the six-years-in-the-making sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, the incredibly inventive videogame-inspired animated film and modest box-office hit (by Disney standards), functions as keen, insightful storytelling, and a cautionary tale about our social media- and Internet-obsessed culture, and maybe most importantly of all to Disney’s shareholders, as a two-hour commercial for Disney’s wealth of pop-culture products. Ralph Breaks the Internet never breaks stride during its nearly two-hour running time – a compliment in and of itself – when the story segues into a branded exercise in modernizing Disney’s princesses or throws tangential asides for Disney’s other, more recently purchased studios – and cinematic universes of their own, Star Wars and, of course, Marvel’s stable of superheroes.
And yet that ultimately doesn’t matter. Ralph Breaks the Internet weaves a genuinely touching, poignant story of a friendship challenged by stagnation, inertia, and expectations into a propulsive, engaging story involving a quest for the equivalent of the Holy Grail in the old-school videogame world inhabited by the title character, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), a big-hearted, soft-headed villain-turned-hero, and Vanellope von Schweets (Sarah Silverman), a race-car driver and onetime/all-time princess. Their unlikely friendship didn’t just center Wreck-It Ralph. It elevated Wreck-It Ralph into best-of-its kind territory. Smartly, Ralph Breaks the Internet treats their friendship as organic, changing over time as the characters themselves grow and change. Except Ralph doesn’t want to grow and change or even experience anything new. He’s perfectly content to put in his hours at the videogame arcade every day, clock out at the same time every night, and retire to a local pub to commiserate with his videogame pals, including (and especially) Vanellope. She, however, wants something: new risks, new experiences, and possibly new everything.
The crisis in Ralph and Vanellope plays out organically as Ralph Breaks the Internet unfolds. After the driver’s wheel in Vanellope’s game breaks in the real world, threatening the end of Vanellope’s virtual world (her game, Sugar Rush, will be sold for parts), Ralph and Vanellope leave the videogame arcade behind for the infinite reaches of the Internet and an auction site that Ralph charmingly calls “EBoy” (EBay, of course). Ralph Breaks the Internet imagines the Internet as a gigantic, futuristic city, with a literal information highway connecting major and minor sites (Google gets a shout-out, YouTube doesn’t, but more about that later). Pop-ups are also literally aggressive salesmen who try to corner unsuspecting users on their way to different sites. They “win” the wheel – apparently the last of its kind – but soon discover they need something else (i.e., currency) to complete their purchase, leading to Ralph and Vanellope to an embrace a money-making scheme courtesy of an untrustworthy pop-up.
Ralph and Vanellope temporarily separate, the better for Ralph Breaks the Internet to send Vanellope into the land of Disney princesses (knowing, self-aware, meta-critical product placement alert) and Ralph into the land of viral videos and BuzzzTube (YouTube by another name). Ralph soon learns what works, what draws eyeballs and more importantly, “hearts” (currency), all of which gets satirized, if not outright skewered by co-directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Pamela Ribon), though knowing nods from moviegoers isn’t likely to change real-world behavior (if, in fact, that’s their actual intention). A spikey-haired algorithm, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), exudes an unmistakable cool-girl vibe that undercuts any attempt at outright criticism. An open-world, apocalyptic racing game led by another cool, punkish character, Shank (Gal Gadot), is just as seductive, both in and out of Ralph Breaks the Internet, though she plays an important role in Vanellope’s desire for new, different experiences that Sugar Rush and the 8-bit videogame arcade life she left behind doesn’t and can’t offer.
That leaves the well-meaning, well-intentioned Ralph, at one point literally defined and exploited by his “insecurity,” as, if not an outright villain, then an obstacle or obstruction in the way of Vanellope’s happiness. That Ralph has to grow and change, leaving the worst aspects of masculinity behind, is a given in a friendship-centered story. That Ralph has to face the awful, physical manifestation of his gargantuan insecurities, isn’t, however, a given. It’s far more nightmarish and disturbing than most audiences would expect from a family-oriented film, but it’s also one more surprise, one among countless others (all of them welcome), that ultimately lifts Ralph Breaks The Internet above a two-hour exercise in Disney branding into a heartbreaking, staggering work of (near) genius.