Though not without its inspired moments, Ralph Breaks the Internet’s wild non-focus results in nothing so much as an upmarket Emoji Movie.
Oh, this is a heartbreaker.
2012’s Wreck-It Ralph was a cementing of Disney’s third renaissance, that the venerable animation studio was officially back in the A-list, as well as a sort of mission statement. Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Winnie-the-Pooh were sort of retrenchments for classic Disney storytelling with sprinkles of updated gender and social politics, the kinds that would also appear in later Disney Princess films Frozen and Moana. Wreck-It, however, was the first film to break from what many may see as a “Disney movie,” situated not on Princesses (its one was a last-minute joke twist the character herself immediately discarded) or melodramatic romances and nor was its “be yourself” messaging based on a simplistic society-altering narrative.
Instead, Wreck-It Ralph was about videogame characters living together in an arcade and used that set-up for weighty and truthful explorations of existential anxiety, accepting that some dreams simply may never come true, and learning that working in a crappy job doesn’t inherently make you a bad person and nor does it need to be the worst thing in the world.
It’s a heavy movie but a truthful one and that kind of format has informed Disney’s other exemplary films during their 2010s hot-streak, Big Hero 6 (which explored grief and depression) and Zootopia (which unflinchingly explored systemic racism far better than most grown-up dramas about the same subject). Wreck-It also introduced Disney’s trick of trojan-horsing such mature handlings of complex subject matter through seemingly-simplistic premises: Big Hero 6 dressed up like Disney Animation’s efforts to hop on the superhero bandwagon, Zootopia feinted being just a cute talking animal movie, and Wreck-It was only gonna be a retro-gaming cameo/reference-fest, right? And whilst Wreck-It did have some fun with gaming tropes and clichés, especially in the character animation departments, it never once pushed them at the expense of the stories of Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) or the narrative’s central metaphor. Going in, cynical viewers may have expected Ready Player One in movie form, but the results thankfully dismissed such a notion.
This is all why Ralph Breaks the Internet, only the fourth feature-length sequel (if you count Fantasia 2000) in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ entire 95-year history, hurts me especially bad. Before Zootopia came along, Wreck-It was my favourite of this particular Disney Renaissance by a grand margin because of its cast, its witty but sparing usage of videogame vernacular, and most of all its thematic thrust and vital messaging. However, even with almost the entire creative team of the original returning, not only does Ralph Breaks the Internet fail to replicate that transcendent spark, it falls headfirst into being exactly the kind of film cynics feared the first movie might’ve been. Ralph and Vanellope’s journey into the Internet becomes bogged down in diversions and tangents, losing the narrative and thematic threads in the murk of instantly-dated examinations of Internet lifestyles, mildly embarrassing references and replications of meme culture, and corporate branding consolidation. In many of its worse aspects, Ralph Breaks the Internet turns out to be Disney’s higher-end vertically-integrated version of The Emoji Movie.
Harsh? Arguably yes, given that returning directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, plus co-writer Pamela Ribon, at least seem to understand how their chosen subject works, which is more than can be said for The Emoji Movie. Plus, Ralph does have a wit and imagination to both its jokes and its worldbuilding that laps circles around the latter film’s uninspired and inconsistent design – although points must be taken away for much of the visual designs of eBay and the Internet hub bordering on self-plagiarism from Moore’s prior work on Futurama (‘I Dated a Robot’). The world of Slaughter Race nails what Carmageddon would look like if it were crossed with GTA Online, right down to the stiff player avatars with mouth movements that barely approximate the human speech coming out of them; The Dark Web as a seedy dimly-lit back-alley full of spidery individuals; BuzzzTube treating hearts like actual currency to be hoovered up; online browsing personified by blocky Mii-like avatars of unnatural smiley-ness.
But also: arguably, no. Not harsh at all. The first movie cleverly staved off accusations of “pandering” or “corporate branding exercise” by keeping almost the entirety of its action to original games and characters. This pulled off the triple coup of keeping things from feeling cynical and fussed over by licensing notes from upon high, allowing the writers and designers to show off their own creativity in designing their own worlds and playing with classic gaming archetypes, and forcing the plot along instead of stopping every few minutes for digressions involving, I dunno, Sonic and Ralph eating chilli-dogs or something because that’ll pop a few audience members and do numbers online. Ralph Breaks the Internet, though, fills pretty much the entire middle hour of the film with nothing but said digressions. There’s a reason why I haven’t discussed the plot outside of “Ralph and Vanellope go to the Internet” and it’s because said plot is largely confined to the opening and closing 20 or so minutes.
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Instead, and despite running for almost two solid hours (with no short attached to inflate that runtime), Ralph 2 stalls for almost the entire middle of the film in favour of loosely-connected gag-strips about Internet things which, whilst not without their charms, vary wildly in quality. Ralph gets conscripted into becoming an engine for viral memes as a parody of meme culture although nobody involved with this plot thread seems to have realised that meme culture is, by its deliberately ephemeral nature, impossible to parody since the parody will already be outdated the moment it’s conceived. The results, unsurprisingly, are devoid of insight and based on reference points several years old. The much-ballyhooed trip to OhMyDisney! is at times fun but nowhere near as much so as Disney themselves would like you to think – Disney have been bashing the self-parody/critique button, oftentimes based on misconceptions about their own work they’ve somehow internalised, so much for the past decade that they’ve lost the right to expect brownie points when doing so. Much better is the actual payoff to the Disney Princess sequence which comes later and, get this, marries the corporate-approved self-parody with actual character work relevant to this story for the film’s standout sequence. Ditto Slaughter Race itself which is home to the film’s best setpiece, best new character, Shank (Gal Gadot), and the crux of the film’s emotional conflict.
So that’s why it’s such a pain when the film pumps the brakes on said emotional conflict – Vanellope has been hit by Ralph’s discontent from the first movie and is therefore drawn to Slaughter Race’s unpredictability, speed, and danger that she just can’t get back home in Sugar Rush – for said detours to viral videos, goldfarming, Dark Web, and shameless self-promotion from the studio with an Orwellian monopoly on everyone’s childhoods from now until the heat death of the universe. Ralph 2 is that irritating kind of animated kids’ movie that’s simultaneously over-plotted to death and underplotted, where the main thematic conflict doesn’t have enough time to gestate because we’re having to put together a 1,500-piece puzzle in order to get to that fuller picture except that some of the pieces are on the other side of the room and have no relevance to the picture we’re otherwise building.
Moore, Johnson and Ribon do have a brilliant central conceit, too – that whilst you may not be able to, your friends may want to move away in order to chase their dreams and that’s ok because it doesn’t mean you won’t still be friends – one that’s just as mature and vital as those found in the first Wreck-It Ralph. But the payoff doesn’t land anywhere near as hard here for a variety of reasons that everybody shouldn’t have succumbed to. The metaphor wrapping the message is almost insultingly literal and on-the-nose. By the time everyone remembers that they’d left this thread half-started earlier in the movie, we’re about 80 minutes in and therefore need to rush into the action-packed finale so the cast start acting majorly out-of-character in order to speed development along to the necessary point. And whilst I hate being That Guy when it comes to these things, the logic of the world Wreck-It Ralph takes place in, how exactly everything works or doesn’t, gets stretched well past breaking point by the late-game, again because these were the beats they wanted to hit regardless of pre-established rules and boundaries.
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Look, Ralph Breaks the Internet is not unentertaining, and even with all the cross-promotional branding, immediately outdated flossing references, and a post-credits RickRoll (yes really) it’s got more heart and passion than The Emoji Movie. But, then, that’s the problem, isn’t it? I’m continuously invoking The Emoji Movie in conversation about a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph. That’s a major problem, no? Wreck-It Ralph feels timeless, unmoored to any specific era of gaming or pop culture because those things are just the framework for the actual story. The framework doesn’t supplant the story, the world, the characters, the themes. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, that worst case scenario does happen. It happens a lot, constantly dating the production whilst undermining and blockading attempts to tell a proper story, and the result feels more immediately disposable and surface-level than not just the first Wreck-It Ralph but any entry in the Disney Animated Classics canon since Chicken Little in 2005.
And that hurts. That really hurts because I had visceral gut-level reactions to the first Wreck-It Ralph – the reprise of the Bad Guy Oath breaks me every single time – and whilst I don’t think those reactions will be devalued by Ralph Breaks the Internet striking out so majorly, it’s still not great to discover hard evidence of how badly that first one could have gone wrong. What a heartbreaker.