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Review: ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’

AWN’s “Miscweant” shares his take on brand names, Disney Princesses and a refreshing break from clichéd buddy movies. 

‘Ralph Breaks the Internet.’ Image © 2018 Disney. All Right Reserved.

It’s November 12th as I write this. Stan Lee died earlier today -- but I saw him this evening. It wasn’t really him, of course, but his CGI likeness in a brief glimpse as a web denizen in the Wreck-It Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, a cameo that sent a sigh rippling through the preview audience…

There’s a strange, fascinating and quite funny version of Chuck Jones’ classic Dover Boys Looney Tune on YouTube, re-animated shot-by-shot by several dozen animators. At one point in the cartoon, an angry Larry (“the youngest of the three jerks -- er, brothers”) holds a sign reading, “WRECK-IT RALPH 2 IS JUST THE EMOJI MOVIE.”

I’m not sure if I can get behind that sentiment, but I kind of miss the days when you didn’t see real-world brand names and logos in movies. It’s a practice that began in the 70’s (I first noticed it in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to make movies seem more “real,” as if they were taking place in our reality and not the movie’s fictional one. By now, however, the practice takes me out of the movie’s universe and plunks me back into the everyday world I watch movies to escape from.

Like The Emoji Movie, Ralph is agog with references to real-world websites and companies: eBay, Amazon, Snapchat, Google, Netgear…the list goes on, until I was thirsting for an imaginary company’s name to appear. (I thought a sign for “budgetbox” was a ringer, but it turns out there’s a budgetbox in Dallas, the place to go for inexpensive cardboard cartons.) My wish was finally granted when Ralph became an Internet video celebrity -- not on YouTube, but on the movie’s invented “BuzzzTube.” (I suspect there’s a story behind that decision involving any number of intellectual property lawyers.)

Ralph Breaks the Internet supports a well-constructed story: when BFFs Ralph and Vanellope travel into the Internet to procure a new steering wheel for her Sugar Rush arcade game, complications naturally ensue, complications that threaten not just their friendship but their very existence (not to mention the entire Internet). As in the best Disney films, characters’ personalities drive the story, which in turn profoundly affects who they are. In Vanellope’s case it’s a desire for new racing challenges (she knows her own game inside out); for Ralph, it’s insecurity and fear his relationship with Vanellope won’t withstand time apart.

Visiting the Internet or video games is already a movie trope, going back to the original Tron, not to mention the groundbreaking 1990’s TV series Reboot or the more recent Ready Player One. The Internet’s never looked as shiny or sparkly as it does in Ralph -- except when they visit the ultra-violent driving game Slaughter Race, set in a slummy, broken down cityscape in a permanent grungy yellow haze. In one of the movie’s best inversions, the game’s seemingly ultra-violent racing crew turn out to be a new-agey collective of warm-hearted, mutually supportive friends. (“I honor your journey”) who do everything they can to help the visiting pair.

The movie nearly gets lost in its own hall of mirrors when Ralph and Vanellope visit and meet up with just about every famous Disney, Marvel or Star Wars character (including Stan’s cameo), all voiced by their original actors. It’s time for lots of self-referential humor that used to exist apart from, not within, the stuff being spoofed. (I sometimes call it the Mad Magazine-ification of popular culture.) When Vanellope winds up in a room filled with every Disney princess from Snow White on, it’s reminiscent of a similar scene in Shrek the Third, with the princesses likewise sending up their own idiosyncrasies. It’s fun to see them all in modern dress though, wearing T-shirts that riff on their identities. (And with their identical superpowers, Queen Elsa and Frozone would make a fun couple.)

Without getting too specific, it made me very happy to see the film’s resolution dispose of a particular cliché of buddy movies; it’s something I’d like to see more of in films that otherwise indulge in standard story beats. And talk about self-referential: there’s a closing credits gag with a character complaining the movie lacked a particular scene they’d been looking forward to…it doesn’t get any more hall of mirrors than that.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.