Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
Back in 2012, Wreck-It Ralph charmed its way into the hearts of Disney, videogame and pop culture fans alike. With an embarrassment of riches in its character cameos, winks, nods, Easter eggs and references to many beloved properties, and a surprisingly touching story of friendship at its core, its success paved way to similar fare, including the Atari-centric Pixels (2015) and Steven Spielberg’s first-rate pop culture fest Ready Player One (2018).
In light of the giddy highs afforded by Spielberg’s wild outing, a Wreck-It Ralph follow-up was always going to be tough for the folks at Disney, who faced a challenge of coming up with something new for this sequel instead of simply repeating the original and banking on familiar faces and names alone. While Disney’s story team of returning scribe Phil Johnston, Zootopia (2016), paired with Pamela Ribon, Moana (2016), and up-and-comer Kelly Younger, have steered the ship into satisfying new waters, what’s really bold about Ralph Wrecks the Internet is how restrained it actually is.
Picking up six years after Wreck-It Ralph, this follow-on opens with best buds Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) regularly hanging out amongst the different video game consoles at Litwak’s Family Fun Center and Arcade. Although the enormous goofball Ralph is content with his everyday habits, the glitchy racer Vanellope is becoming a bit existential and eager for a change, wondering if there’s more to life than her standard day to day routine.
To make Vanellope happier, Ralph designs a customized racing path within her game of Sugar Rush. But, within the ensuing fast-paced chaos, the modified track inadvertently ends up hijacking the player’s controls, breaking the arcade game’s physical steering wheel. A solution is found by one of the arcade patrons in a replacement available through sales website eBay, but Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) can’t afford it and simply winds up unplugging the console, leaving all of Sugar Rush’s cutesy inhabitants homeless and their game’s future uncertain.
After chatting with Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) for a solution, Ralph and Vanellope decide to enter the Internet via Litwak’s recently installed Wi-Fi router to obtain the wheel on eBay themselves, the pair becoming aware of a bigger cyber world, overwhelmed by opportunities and a whole assortment of new ‘players’ — think personifications of clickbait pop-up ads, Alan Tudyk as a search-engine called KnowsMore, and a funky website entrepreneur named Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), who determines what’s trending on the popular video app BuzzzTube. But, as the duo attempt to attain the replacement wheel to save Sugar Rush, Ralph and Vanellope find their little pixelated lives pulling in opposite directions.
Take a moment to think — if tasked with setting up a two-hour movie within the unlimited sandbox that is the Internet, what would you reference? There may be some big, obvious names such as Google, Twitter, YouTube, BuzzFeed (BuzzzTube working as an amalgamation of both), and Facebook, but how about taking the next step and visualizing these into characters within a working city? It wouldn’t surprise me if a good portion of the six-year gap between the Ralph films was spent developing creative solutions to these questions — a challenge both exciting and intimidating.
It’s here that production designer Cory Loftis and art directors Ami Thompson, Inner Workings (2016), and Matthias Lechner, Quest for Camelot (1998), really ought to be celebrated. Twitter is a tree of chirpy birds, eBay a massive convention center and the infamous dark web, quite appropriately, is a frightening, shady place inhabited by grotesque mutants. These are all smart visual interpretations of apps and websites that feel instantly recognizable and extremely relatable.
Although the world of the net is vibrant and vast, as mentioned earlier, the restraint on show is bold. Credit in this regard goes to returning director Rich Moore and his protégé Phil Johnston for keeping the focus squarely on the central journey of Vanellope and Ralph — while the dazzling visuals and seeing the familiar personified will excite us, it’s their friendship that really moves us. Once again, John C. Reilly, Sing (2016), and Sarah Silverman, School of Rock (2003), remind us why we loved these guys in the first place, providing the warmth and depth that surprised in their first encounter.
Speaking of encounters, let’s talk about the already celebrated trip into Oh My Disney and the encounter with the Disney Princesses — as in all of them. Yep, from Snow White through to Moana, the ladies are all represented in a couple of scenes, the most prominent where Vanellope asserts herself as a Disney Princess. Sweetening the deal is that all but a few of the original voice actors have returned — Anna (Kristen Bell), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), Ariel (Jodi Benson), Belle (Paige O’Hara), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), and Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), just to name a few — with the others either having passed on the offer or not quite sounding the same. Have no fear, though, for their stand-ins still sound remarkably similar.
For most, this crowd-pleasing trip would easily be the key highlight, but the one that won me over moreso was a hilarious musical sequence — ‘A Place Called Slaughter Race’ composed by the great Alan Menken, with lyrics by Phil Johnston and Tom MacDougall — that takes place in a spoof of the controversial MMORPG Grand Theft Auto videogame series called Slaughter Race, this number complete with explosions, tattooed criminals and a few random details such as a happy shark popping out from a dirty drain. Bonding with Slaughter Race’s foxy NPC racer Shank (Gal Gadot), it’s in the gritty, chaos-fuelled streets of the unpredictable metropolis that Vanellope begins to feel more at home.
Ultimately, when the quarters run out, Ralph Breaks the Internet offers up another fun spin into familiar technology, but from a radically different sort of angle. Far from being a crass cash-in — I’m looking at you The Emoji Movie (2017) — the plot and character development feel organic, fresh and relatable, with John C. Reilly himself having had some input on the takeaway message for the younger audience members. The result is a rewarding experience that can happily stand alongside its beloved predecessor. And oh, make sure you stick around till the very end for a couple of clever mid/ post credit scenes.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie