I’ve always had a soft spot for the original Wreck-It Ralph. Not only did John C. Reilly’s layered performance hit me squarely in the heart with that big act of would-be noble sacrifice in the climax, but it later inspired me to write a jokey Top Ten-style follow-up that remains one of the site’s most enduring “evergreen” entries to this day. 2012 was a fun year for me in a lot of ways, and it tickles me to remember that Ralph was no small part of that.
Alas, with great success comes the threat of sequels. Disney Animation hasn’t released a theatrical sequel since Fantasia 2000 graced IMAX screens 18 years ago. Someone up high decided it was time to break the streak with Ralph Breaks the Internet, which, to be fair, tops very nearly every direct-to-video Disney sequel ever. I would have to see Aladdin and the King of Thieves again to decide between the two. That’s faint praise, though. Even as I dwell on the phrase “direct-to-video Disney”, memories of Dan Castellaneta’s Genie, Princess Ariel’s daughter, and The Fox and the Hound 2 return and make me wince.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Ralph and his best friend, scrappy racer/princess Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman’s best role ever), still enjoy everyday life at ye olde video arcade — by day, playing their parts for the customers; by night, hopping from game to game and hanging out and doing best-friends stuff. Their idyllic routine is disrupted when a major part breaks on Vanellope’s obsolete “Sugar Rush” driving game, one that may be too expensive to fix. If it can’t be repaired, the entire game — along with Vanellope and her fifteen opponents — are doomed to be unplugged forever.
Thanks to the recent installation of a mysterious thingie called “Wi-Fi”, the digital duo soon finds themselves with access to a whole new world: the Internet. What begins as a search for obscure replacement parts broadens into an exploration of online life as we know it through eyes as innocent as babes and as overwhelmed as great-grandparents.
Their quest splits them in different directions. To raise the cash for machine parts, Ralph stumbles into a hyperaccelerated, superficial rendition of the world of viral videos in the form of a video site called BuzzzTube (the extra Z is for…zing? zest? Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah?). He (too) quickly learns the more stupid things he records himself doing on camera, the more Likes and Shares he gets, and therefore the more he monetizes his way toward buying power and loving adoration. I think it would’ve been cool to see Ralph turning instead to blogging and struggling for decades, but maybe that’s just too real.
Meanwhile, Vanellope is drawn to another, more modern racing game called “Slaughter Race”, whose HD graphics bedazzle her, and whose open-sandbox design means thousands of new paths for her to navigate, way more than the three (3) different old-and-boring tracks that are the most “Sugar Rush” will ever offer. Also, today’s CG-rendered racing cars are wildly more powerful than her quaint girlie-game jalopy. To her the boost in virtual horsepower is intoxicating, like jumping from a Super Nintendo to a PS4, and with no worries about cross-platform compatibility.
Ralph keeps grinding out the increasingly cheesier videos so that his friend may live. But what if Vanellope decides whiling away her days in the old-fashioned arcade is no longer how she wants to live?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Vanellope’s new idol is the queen of “Slaughter Race”, a driver and pack-leader named Shank played by Gal Gadot as a perfect melding of Wonder Woman and Fast/Furious‘ Gisele. With her hair lovingly rendered and her crew ready to waste any players in her way, Shank is a femme fatale on wheels, but willing to listen and capable of mercy from those worthy enough to receive it. While Vanellope hangs on her new role model’s every word, guiding Ralph through his second life as a faux-YouTube sensation is Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson as Yesss, the algorithmic avatar in charge of deciding which videos get overexposed or get buried. Lucky for Ralph he comes recommended, because as in real life, it’s often more about who you know than what you do.
Before all the car-crash porn and stale cat-video laffs, getting Our Heroes into trouble from the get-go is Bill Hader (SNL, Inside Out) as a spammer fronting a rinky-dink loot-acquisition operation promising big money for impossible finds. Farther down in the spookiest layers of the ‘Net is Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) as a seedy provider of sinister services, depicted as a literal monster in an extremely sanitized rendition of today’s evils lurking below.
Wreck-It Ralph costars Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch are back, albeit in very limited screen time. Other returning voices include Ed O’Neill as old man Litwak, owner of the arcade; Maurice LaMarche as the root-beer bartender from the arcade classic “Tapper”; Roger Craig Smith as the official voice of Sonic the Hedgehog (yep, cameos still abound, though not as many from games this time); and co-director Rich Moore as downer candy Sour Bill. Disney utility infielder Alan Tudyk, previously the villainous King Kandy, is reincarnated here as KnowsMore, a search-engine host whose “Search Bar” seems like a misguided choice for any characters to use when they’ve got an entire Google skyscraper standing right there in the middle of their symbolic Internet panorama.
Animation fans who loved the trailer with Disney Princesses in it will be delighted to know fourteen different Princesses are in attendance here, eleven of them with their original voices. Cinderella‘s Ilene Woods, who passed away in 2010, is replaced by pro voice actor Jennifer Hale. Sleeping Beauty‘s Mary Costa, now 88, is succeeded by anime superstar Kate Higgins. Pamela Ribon, one of the film’s five credited writers, steps in as Snow White for the late, frequently overlooked Adriana Caselotti. What look like throwaway gag cameos in the trailer expand quite a bit beyond that, providing some of the funniest moments and at one point a necessary feat of deus ex machina.
A handful of other beloved actors from assorted Disney corporate-umbrella universes have surprise one-line drop-ins as well. Apropos of his 2018, one split-second shot shows the late Stan Lee’s face cheerfully used but not given a voice.
There are probably also a few YouTube all-stars in here somewhere. I wouldn’t know because I’m 46.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Beyond the pop culture overload and the innumerable net-life references, at the film’s core is a tough examination of what happens when two longtime best friends realize their lives are moving in different directions, often without realizing it until they reach a breaking point. Some friendships can be saved; others turn out sadly more transitory than we would’ve liked. Thus do Ralph and Vanellope find themselves at an awkward crossroads. Ralph makes a few wrongheaded decisions out of ignorance, but fully out of his devotion to Vanellope and their mutual status quo. She, on the other hand, finds her mind blown as she’s confronted with a completely new set of opportunities. They’re like high school buddies suddenly facing the threat of “breakup” when one is accepted to a faraway college but the other can’t leave their hometown. That’s a refreshingly tough conflict to show to kids. Some may have already had to deal with it; the rest will someday, guaranteed.
Other morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- The Internet has absolutely positively everything imaginable if you look hard enough. As someone who’s been trying for over a decade to locate a visually clear, legally watchable Region 1 copy of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies without grossly overpaying for it, I would dispute this widely held, incorrect assumption.
- GIRL POWER! WOOOO!
- Corporations are your friends!
- Even computer-drawn characters can draw self-affirmation from TED Talks.
- The comments section really is the worst, but there’s good in the Internet to outweigh those abysses if you look for it.
- The “Darknet” is even worse. DO NOT GO. Granted, the PG version looks like somewhere Captain Jack Sparrow might feel right at home, but still.
Nitpicking? If you’re not enamored of how Disney has slowly expanded its vast empire and subsumed all your favorite childhood universes into its gaping maw, or if you’re just skeptical of corporate products that preach the awesomeness of corporate products, the film’s extended stay in the wonderful world of Disney will be an enormous test of patience. The Disney library, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and to far lesser extents Pixar and the Muppets share a prominent kingdom within the busy landscape — self-aware and self-deprecating at some points, but ultimately there to plug themselves despite an amusing but thin veneer of irony. Any pretense of “art” tends to dissolve whenever companies thank you for your purchases by enticing you to keep giving them more money and brand fealty.
Ralph’s entire rise to internet stardom requires either generous forgiveness to the older creators behind the curtain or utter ignorance of just how long this “viral video” concept has been dragging on. The targets of Ralph’s spoofs average about 8-10 years old and will be passé to any discerning underage viewers who already spend time in that world, and who would probably recognize any and all YouTubers that I didn’t. Unless we’re meant to believe either (a) Ralph’s instantaneous success should be attributed to wildly intense nostalgia for “Fix-It-Felix Jr.”, or (b) Yesss’ sway over millions of BuzzzTube users is some form of supernatural brainwashing…I don’t get why any of his videos would go viral. At all. I mean, okay, it’s not like I’m deeply in touch with the kids these days, but his stuff’s harmless, forgettable cuteness at best, tired shtick at the worst, none believably justifying the frenzy he inspires.
Honestly, I didn’t catch any content from him that felt of this year. If you’re not capturing the spirit of up-to-the-minute humor, you’re not really simulating the profitable parts of the internet too well. At the bare minimum, naming Henson’s character “Yaaass Queen!” would’ve boosted their relevance up to at least, oh, 2015. You’ve heard of “Dad Jokes”? Ralph’s basically cranking out Dad Memes. (Also, don’t even get me started on the scene where someone clearly didn’t understand the basic meaning of “Dad Joke”.)
And never even mind the part where Ralph somehow gets paid within seconds of all those bountiful clicks, the impossible dream of every content provider ever. The plot can’t move forward if he doesn’t get paid quickly, but that straight-faced absurdity makes the entire artifice all the creakier.
So what’s to like? What made the first Ralph work best remains the best thing about the second: that core relationship between the two BFFs. Reilly and Silverman remain masters of comedy timing and silly voices, but once again they dive more deeply into emotional territory as mistakes continue to pile up and their bond gets increasingly fragile. While they’re surrounded by one big, fast-paced, scintillating romp through a world of speedy imagery and website ads pretending not to be ads, their scenes and some unpredictable outcomes reveal far more dimensions than the superficial, corporate-approved product-dimension around them.
In some ways that’s an accurate portrayal of our 21st-century world, which maybe the kiddos will love. At last there’s a cartoon that gets what it’s like to live every day through the looking-glass of a phone or tablet, shepherded by companies from one sparkly branding immersion to the next. I would’ve vastly preferred cutting satire of that status quo to the gently joshing but wholehearted embrace of it. I’d also be more impressed if its feigned topicality relied less on yesterday’s overnight sensations, and felt less like that Steve Buscemi “fellow kids” GIF from 30 Rock.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is usually happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Ralph Breaks the Internet end credits, along with a second scene at the very end after the final names have dropped. For those who fled the theater prematurely and who really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy extra-strength spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…during the credits: a scene already partly shown in the February 2018 teaser trailer starting at 1:20 (“The bunny gets the pancakes!”). The full-length version draws the setup out a bit longer so the payoff is all the more disturbing and hilarious.
From there, the credits roll onward, fully decorated from start to finish with dozens of fake app icons filling the blank spaces. Most are random animal heads, but a few specific app-spoofs are interspersed. (Mickey Mouse Trollface will haunt my dreams tonight.) For value-added mass-media cred, the Special Thanks section name-checks SF author and internet pundit Cory Doctorow.
After the very end of the credits: kids think they’re about to get a special treat when a blurb promises a sneak preview of Frozen 2. A cursor clicks the “Continue” button at the bottom of the screen, giving way to the most horrifying video in the movie: Ralph singing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, with two “Slaughter Race” drivers as his backup dancers. Sincerest condolences to others like us who stuck around only to get “Ralph-Rolled”, a groaner of an inversion of a prank that dates back to 2007.