Ralph Breaks the Internet
2018, PG, 114 min. Directed by Phil Johnston, Rich Moore. Voices by John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, Alan Tudyk, Ed O'Neill.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Wed., Nov. 21, 2018
2012's Wreck-It Ralph was a 3-D animated feature filled with buggy coding. It seemed like such a simple idea: Take the "inner lives of toys" mechanic from the Toy Story films and apply it to video game characters. In this case, it's Donkey Kong-esque hick lunk Ralph (Reilly) and racer Vanellope (Silverman), two misfits who find friendship together. Unfortunately, it was riddled with so many memes and side quests that it never felt like a complete film, even when the easy badinage between the two lovable leads was endearing.
Ralph Breaks the Internet remasters the original with a major upgrade: Litwak's Arcade now has internet access. Ralph and Vanellope are still best buddies, playing in their games all day, hanging around all night, and that's great for Ralph, but Vanellope, ever the racer, wants to find new roads. When Ralph's well-intentioned attempts to help mean her Sugar Rush console is headed for the scrap heap, they head to the web to find a replacement controller. Only problem is, what if Vanellope likes this new and infinite information superhighway a little more than her old three-track home?
Much as Ralph Breaks the Internet, let's get the worst out of the way. The opening arc once they reach the web is a slog through an endless cavalcade of intellectual property. Name a major website and its logo will appear (the plot explicitly depends on getting a replacement steering wheel through eBay) and it's grueling. Fortunately, once those contractual obligations are fulfilled, Ralph becomes a sly and pointed analysis of online life, where humans are reduced to blocky little avatars, easily guided to social media sites like BuzzTube (run by Henson as Yesss the approval algorithm). This is also when the real risk to Ralph and Vanellope's relationship appears, when they invade a Saints Row-esque crime game called Slaughter Race and Vanellope finds a new big-sister figure in cool-but-king gang leader Shank (Gadot).
When it's all about Ralph and Vanellope, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a solid addition to Disney's library of sad-sweet animated comedies. It's also during these sections when it takes its funniest jabs at online life and – in a surprising burst of humblebrag product placement – Disney even poking fun at its own grab bag of intellectual properties (Vanellope meeting the Disney princesses is one of the best scenes of the year, bar none, in any film released so far).
However, the script unfortunately replicates one of the worst errors in Toy Story 3: Sidelining just about every major supporting character from the early installments. A subplot of shoot-'em-up heroine Calhoun (Lynch) and Ralph's in-game frenemy Felix (McBrayer) adopting all the other race game refugees goes absolutely nowhere, save for one pretty spiffy joke that almost feels like a cop-out. However, they do give context to Ralph and Vanellope's relationship. The first movie just depended on them being misfit pals, but this time around there's a little more of an adoptive father-daughter connection, with Ralph having to deal with Vanellope growing up and moving away.
This also leads to what initially feels like Ralph's biggest failing: The lack of a real Disney villain. But then the script by co-director Johnston and Moana scribe Pamela Ribon is going for something a little subtler, about the damage we do to ourselves and to those we love by being too needy, too clingy. If only you could cheat code past those early expositional sequences.
For an interview with scriptwriter and former Austinite Pamela Ribon, read "Exploring Friendship in Ralph Breaks the Internet," Nov. 23.