Review: ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ Is a Shockingly Timely Movie About Toxic Online Culture
It’s the obvious joke when you hear the title Ralph Breaks the Internet: “How is he going to break something that is already broken?” Funny enough, by the time the credits roll, that’s exactly what Ralph is about — the (in this case extremely literal) male insecurity that is wrecking online communities.
Pointed social commentary is not quite what I expected from the sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, a movie that shamelessly ported the Toy Story concept — childhood playthings come to life in their downtime — to old video games. Ralph 2 does offer the action, racing, and goofy pop cultures jokes expected of this kind of Disney animated feature. It’s just that along the way it also has a very heartfelt theme about the complexities of longterm friendship, and a timely message about what happens when seemingly strong men begin to feel weak and threatened.
And really: Who is stronger than Wreck-It Ralph? The guy has giant hands and feet and he’s spent decades smashing buildings as the villain of an ’80s arcade game. In the first film, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly, who can somehow sound totally carefree and painfully unconfident all at once) finally found respect and contentment through his newfound friendship with Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitchy driver from a modern racing game called Sugar Rush.
Six years later, all is well at Ralph and Vanellope’s arcade until Ralph tries to build his pal a new race track and Sugar Rush goes on the fritz. The only piece of hardware in the entire world that can fix the game — and thus save Vanellope from a fate worse than a hard reboot — is up for auction on eBay, so Ralph and Vanellope hop on wi-fi and head to the web for the very first time to retrieve it.
There they encounter all kinds of new characters, like a sketchy hawker of farming scams (played with fast-talking sleaze by Bill Hader) and a super-cool street-wise racer named Shank (Gal Gadot, entirely too cool), who opens Vanellope’s eyes to a whole new world beyond her boring old arcade. There’s plenty of satire about the internet as well, both of real sites (Google, Amazon, and more) and thinly veiled parodies of others (like the film’s YouTube equivalent “BuzzzTube,” where an algorithm called Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) controls who becomes a viral sensation and who remains a nobody with a weird-looking cat.
Even if the journey to repair Sugar Rush was envisioned as a spoof of video game fetch quests, Ralph and Vanellope’s search for this missing MacGuffin still gets a little tiresome. Since Vanellope can just wander into another game or hang out on the internet, there doesn’t appear to be much at stake. The film tends to work better when it forgets the plot completely and just pokes fun at the online world and pop culture — like when Vanellope crashes an Oh My Disney party where all of the company’s famous princesses are hanging out together — and in unloading a surprisingly blunt assessment about the internet’s angriest and most destructive members.
What young children will make of all of this, I really don’t know. (Frankly, some of Ralph 2’s third act may be too intense for really little kids; parents should definitely use caution before buying a ticket for anyone who can’t play video games or use the internet.) As an adult and dad to two very young kids, I wouldn’t let my 3 year old watch Ralph 2 yet. But I appreciated the film’s more fanciful touches (like an old-fashioned, show-stopping musical number set inside Shank’s violent online video game). And I’m glad that when my daughters are a little older this Ralph will be waiting to remind them that they’re allowed to pursue their dreams no matter what the men in their lives (me included) have to say about it.
Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston have easily outdone their first Ralph, which never really took full advantage of its shared video game universe concept. Ralph 2 doesn’t either, but at least it gets a lot of mileage out of the interwebs, both as a source of jokes and as a target of some well-deserved outrage. Vanellope logs on to the internet for the first time and is immediately pressured, excluded, belittled, and harassed. It might sound heavy-handed, but it’s not in context; Moore and Johnston find the right balance between telling these friends’ story and inserting their insistent, empathetic message.
One issue with Ralph Breaks the Internet is that it basically has no villain. No one is actively working to undermine Ralph and Vanellope as they search for the piece to fix Sugar Rush. The screenplay, by Moore, Johnston, Pamela Ribon, Jim Reardon, and Josie Trinidad, struggles to find organic ways to prolong the hunt without one. Eventually, though, you begin to realize that the film does have an antagonist after all, one that’s carefully disguised at first in order to underscore the idea that the people we meet online are not always who they appear to be. And neither are their intentions.
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