Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, February 15, 2019

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2018)

56. Ralph Breaks the Internet

There aren't many sequels in the official Disney canon. Though the company once cranked out countless direct-to-video spin-offs – and would occasionally slot one of these cheaper productions, like “The Jungle Book 2” or “Return to Neverland,” into theaters – sequels that actually count are fairly rare. In the eighty years Disney has been making these films, there's only been three sequels: 1990's “The Rescuers Down Under,” 1999's “Fantasia 2000,” and 2011's “Winnie the Pooh.” (And that last one is barely a continuation.) That looks to change soon though, as the pressures of our franchise-based cinematic world makes recognizable brand names too valuable. So before “Frozen 2” blows the doors off, a sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” rolled into theaters. “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” a title so bad even the trailers commented on it, was 2018's contribution to the Disney Animated Features legacy.

Six years have passed since Wreck-It Ralph, the antagonist of classic arcade game “Fix-It Felix Jr.,” became comfortable with his status as a villain. He's spent most of the time since hanging out with Vanellope, the rascally star of “Sugar Rush.” At that time, Litwak's Arcade gets hooked up to the internet, granting the arcade's characters access to the internet. Next, the steering wheel on Vanellope's game is broken, threatening her existence. Desperate to save her world, Ralph and Vanellope sneak into the vast internet. They discovered a replacement wheel on eBay but first must acquire the money to purchase it. Along the way, Vanellope discovers her calling in a hyper-violent online game, Ralph becomes a viral star, and a virus is unleashed across the entire internet.

Of all their films Disney could've made a big budget sequel too, “Wreck-It Ralph” struck me as a slightly odd choice. The first one told a fairly complete story. Then again, revisiting these characters proves to be a worthy objective. Ralph and Vanellope's friendship is absolutely adorable and roots this sequel in so much heart. John C. Riley and Sarah Silverman are so warm in the parts, their chemistry reading as very real. The kind-hearted and slightly buffoonish Ralph and the sarcastic but vulnerable Vanellope continue to compliment each other so well. Most of the supporting cast of the first “Wreck-It Ralph” is pushed into smaller roles here but building this sequel around the central friendship was an extremely smart decision.

The Disney Animated Features have a proud legacy of villains. Interestingly, “Wreck-It Ralph 2” doesn't have a real bad guy. Yeah, there's a creepy hacker that appears briefly, along with a serpentine computer virus that prompts most of the action in the second half. Ultimately though, the story's conflict rises naturally out Ralph and Vanellope's character arcs. Ralph is insecure about loosing his closest friend, a feeling Vanellope increases because she's afraid of hurting him. Both characters make mistake and neither is portrayed as being “bad” for feeling the way they do. This friendship is so central to the movie, that it even informs the antagonistic actions usually reserved for a proper bad guy.

Because, above all else, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is a movie about growth. Ralph and Vanellope's friendship is challenged in new ways. The schism that forms between them happens in a very natural way. How the two overcome this shows both of them growing in new and exciting ways. The film feels like one made by a father sending his daughter off to school for the first time, grabbing that same sense of fear based in love. That theme of growth and personal change even extends to the jokey subplots, with how Felix and Sgt. Calhoun adopting all the other racers from “Sugar Rush” plays out.

A big joy of the first “Wreck-It Ralph” was the Roger Rabbit-esque way it mixes together a bunch of iconic video game characters. With its internet exploring premise, the sequel is less focused on this. There's still some delightful cameos from Pac-Man, Tapper, Q-Bert, Burger Time, Tron, several “Street Fighter” characters, and Sonic. (Naturally, seeing my favorite blue hedgehog crack jokes about Dostoevsky is absolutely mind-blowing to me.) Instead, however, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” builds on the original's video game in-jokes in a fun way. While inside “Slaughter Race,” the player characters move in the same particularly stiff fashion many protagonist tend to in online games. The film has quite a lot of fun contrasting the gritty “Slaughter Race” setting with the characters' wholesome behavior. 

Still, as you might have expected, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is derives most of its humor from dunking on the online world. Ralph's rise as a viral star sees Disney putting its riff on several well-known memes and Youtube genres. The film has fun visualizing the act of surfing the internet, including annoyances like pop-up ads and click-bait. My favorite of these elements is an eBay reminder being rendered as a cheery, 1950s advertisement-style peppy child. Yet this can also bend in poignant directions, like when a joke about “not reading the comments” is elevated into a surprisingly touching moment. In general, it's pretty crazy that Disney made a movie referencing Rickrolling, the Deep Web, and the “Bee Movie” meme. (Thank God Ralph and Vanellope didn't Google their own names and stumble upon some Rule 34.)

Since “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is a movie that acknowledges its characters' status as fictional, and Disney's place in the online world is so huge, the sequel rather inevitably ends up referencing the studios' place in pop culture. In fact, the filmmakers perhaps were a little too eager to goof on Disney's own image. Once arriving at Oh My Disney, Disney's Buzzfeed rip-off, the film piles on references to just about every piece of pop culture the massive conglomerate owns. This leads to an extremely goofy and honestly pretty funny moment where Vanellope meets up with the Disney Princesses. As a long time Disney nerd, seeing all these characters together, most of them voiced by their original actresses, is definitely neat. In-between shattered slippers, pajama parties, and in-jokes about the studio's cliches, it is a lot of fun.

Probably my favorite gag involving the princesses is how it reflects on Vanellope. If you recall from the first movie, she's a princess too. (Though, even after this movie came out, she still floats in that Only Technically a Disney Princess limbo with Eilonwy and Kida, unacknowledged by the official Disney Princess brand.) This realization climaxes with Vanellope getting her own “I Want” song, “A Place Called Slaughter Race.” The film pokes fun at all the cliches of these sequences, the dimming lights, the longing lyrics, the fantasy sequences playing out around here. Except the setting is a post-apocalyptic cityscape, with surprise appearances from a creepy clown and a sewer-dwelling shark. It's a hilarious sequence and, even with Sarah Silverman's nasally singing voice, a pretty good song. Showing their commitment to the gag, there's even a pop star ballad rendition of playing over the end credits.

Of course, in our hyper-woke times, there is also something uncomfortable about Disney making a movie that celebrates the Disney brand so much. The Disney Princesses assist in saving the day at the end, for one example of this corporate masturbatory endeavor. In our age of corporate personhood and brand engagement, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” doesn't stop there. A dozen well known websites appear in the film, as fun and interesting places people can interact with. Instagram is depicted as an art gallery folks visit. eBay is a major plot point. Pinterest, of all things, allowed its thumbtack icon to become a weapon Ralph utilizes in the last act. (Thankfully, Google and Youtube are largely replaced by ersatz stand-ins.) Yes, billion dollar corporations positioning themselves as heroes and helpers in a kids movie doesn't sit well with me. It doesn't distract much from my enjoyment of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” but it's definitely weird.

As with the first film, “Ralph Wrecks the Internet” is a film mostly focused on providing laughs and feels. However, the sequel also includes some surprisingly good action sequences. There's a pretty bitchin' car chase, as Ralph and Vanellope try to make their escape through “Slaughter Race.” The best action beat here involves a car drifting backwards through a heap of flaming metal. This is all build-up to the even wilder and more action packed finale. Once the exact nature of the antagonistic force makes itself known, the movie explodes into some surprisingly large-scale action scenes. Ralph ends up getting tossed through a city-like area by a giant monster, falling and wrecking his way through and on buildings. It's a really entertaining climax, the movie mixing pathos, comedy and action fantastically in these moments.

Since the sequel largely takes its main characters away from their usual settings, it brings with it a lot of new characters. The most prominent of which is Shank, the leader of the “Slaughter Race” gang. Gal Gadot plays a role very similar to Wonder Woman, as a tough heroine who nevertheless has a soft, caring heart. Gadot does fine in the part. Also among the new additions is Bill Hader as J.P. Spamley, the sleazy guy who grants Ralph access to the Deep Web. Hader goes uncredited in the part, though I don't know why as he's very funny. Taraji P. Henson appears as Yesss, the algorithm at the quasi-Youtube site a large part of the film is set in. Henson is certainly having a good time, putting a lot of gusto into the part. 

I don't think “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is quite as good as the original. Just by the nature of being a sequel, it's not as fresh as the original. I do think the movie runs off with the internet-based nature of the story a little too much, making me miss some of the characters and settings from the first film. Still, the sequel is an awful lot of fun. It's heartfelt, with lots of good jokes, some exciting story turns, and as beautifully animated as you'd expect. The movie does what a sequel is supposed to do, taking its cast members to places – literal and emotional – that weren't explored in previous adventures. If this is the level of quality all these forthcoming Disney sequels will sit at, that would certainly be quite good. [Grade: B]

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