So! Today, my mom came and watched the twins and gave me money to take Sam to see Ralph Breaks the Internet, which was awesome enough that I wrote a review of it! And talked about how it plays into my parenting a little, but mostly, this is all review.
(at the movies; ignore the grotesque stress breakout on my chin)
For those of us who came of age with the internet, a physical manifestation of the internet would aesthetically resemble nothing so much as Panem from The Hunger Games–a dangerous wasteland of scum and villainy punctuated by a handful of shining clean and innocent beacons that grow fewer in number by the day (not that the cleaner and shinier parts of Panem were actually innocent; I mean this more from an aesthetic point of view). In that, the idea of Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney’s sequel to the 2012 film Wreck It Ralph, scared me more than a little. The idea of Disney turning the internet into a living, breathing, physical world ran the risk of being far too sanitized to speak any real truth while simultaneously being oversaturated with product placements so numerous as to make even the staunchest capitalist reach for a barf bag.
Thankfully, Ralph Breaks the Internet manages to steer clear of both risks, instead turning out a film that surprised me with its intelligence, insight, and humor.
(spoilers ahead; spoiler free review: this film was so much fun and so thoughtful that it genuinely surprised me, and I really liked the first movie!)
The film picks up six years after the first, and life is pretty good for Ralph: he spends his days “working” (i.e., being the villain in the Fix-It Felix, Jr. arcade game) and his nights hanging out with Vanellope in various other games–Tapper, Tron, some variant on a Madden title. Vanellope isn’t so happy with this arrangement, however, as her joy over being a legitimate racer has dimmed now that Sugar Rush has run out of surprises for her, with all of the secret tracks unlocked and every race she’s in coming out with her on top.
Ralph doesn’t understand her apathy, which introduces the film’s primary conflict: in deriving all of his happiness and self-worth from Vanellope, Ralph takes any unhappiness on her part as a swipe against him. It isn’t, of course; Vanellope has other avenues of happiness besides her best friend, and she’s understandably distraught when her home–the game Sugar Rush–is unplugged because of a broken part. Ralph once again takes this as a personal attack because, to him, as long as he has Vanellope, he’s happy. She is his one source of happiness, and it’s exactly as toxic as it sounds.
It’s not something that a lot of kids’ films and especially a lot of Disney films delve into with a great deal of frequency, since it’s not only a nuanced plot but one that goes against the general trends of storytelling when there’s a main male and main female character. It’s obviously not the case in every movie, but a relationship in which both partners’ life problems are magically fixed because of one special person in their lives is rarely one that’s given close examination in film media. In real life, that sort of relationship would be toxic as hell and drowning in red flags; but in films, it’s accepted as yes, of course, this is the way things are supposed to be.
And when you think about it critically, you find yourself asking, what message is that sending to people in general?
Another interesting thing about this is that Ralph is trying so hard to be the only one that Vanellope needs to be happy. When she expresses boredom with her game, he goes to the trouble of creating a new track for her to race on, which inadvertently causes the game’s steering wheel to break. When she’s too miserable about losing her game to hang out with him, he decides that they’re going to the internet themselves to find the replacement part for her game so that she won’t be homeless any longer. Even his more villainous actions–manipulating Vanellope away from the game that made her truly happy (a sanitized version of Grand Theft Auto called Slaughter Race) and eventually releasing a virus into that game to make it too boring for her to want to stay there–have a mask of concern on them: he fears for her safety outside of her game, as characters that die outside of their games don’t regenerate.
But ultimately, it’s Ralph’s insecurities that serve as the greatest villain in the film, a decision for which I applaud the writers of the film. A handful of recent Disney films (okay, okay, it’s mostly Frozen I’m talking about here) have villains shoehorned in when they aren’t really necessary, largely because that provides a safer route for the studio: a man vs. man conflict is much easier to translate to the screen for younger viewers than a man vs. self conflict. Here, though, Disney takes the risk and makes the story about a man figuring himself out: Ralph has to literally deal with his crushing insecurities in order to save both his and Vanellope’s lives.
(I do mean literally)
And GOSH, but I appreciate that in a film that’s marketed as being more for boys (because, let’s be real here, Disney very much sticks to a boy-girl dichotomy in their marketing, but that’s another discussion for another time). As a stereotypical “boy” film, it was incredibly thoughtful and nuanced–nobody solves any problems by fighting or punching, but with mindfulness, compassion, introspection, and communication. The most objectively badass characters in the film are all women (for those who keep track of such things, this film more than passes the Bechdel Test, with heavy-hitters like Gal Gadot and Taraji P. Henson providing the talent behind the newest characters), but their badassery doesn’t necessarily come from them being given traditionally masculine traits. Instead, Gal Gadot’s street racer Shank, while also falling into stereotypical “badass racer” tropes, acts as an almost mother figure for her gang of racers and, eventually, for Vanellope herself. Taraji P. Henson’s Yesss, an algorithm, is tough and outspoken, but at the same time excited, sociable, and wise.
This may seem like reading a lot into a cartoon film, but I’ve found that since I have kids, I read a lot more into what films are saying than I used to. As much as I’m able to influence my kids’ feelings and mindsets, I know that they’ve got TONS of other influencers that I can’t control, and a lot of those influencers are in media. And while I’m perfectly happy for my kids to see heroic and stereotypically masculine heroes and plots (Star Wars, I’m looking at you–or at least at the original trilogy), having a film to balance that out, where the male lead solves his problems not by punching or fighting them but by working through his feelings–that’s pretty sweet.
So overall, I really liked the film and its primary message: that you shouldn’t derive all your happiness and self-worth from one person, that it’s okay if best friends have separate lives because if your friendship is strong, it can withstand distance and difference. And I liked a lot of the details, too.
Like the depiction of the internet. Again, when I heard that this film was going to involve Disney characters going to the internet, my first response was “oh no.” The internet is like a Mad Max film with a few suburban oases scattered about. Aside from a few specific hideouts, it’s a PvP enabled zone, and I couldn’t conceive of it being depicted in any way that was sanitized enough for Disney standards.
(shown: what the internet is really like)
It seemed to me that Disney understood this as well, because the film is littered with hints of the darker side of the internet that will fly over most kids’ heads but will have adults chuckling knowingly. At one point, a pop-up ad (here behaving much like street vendors outside popular tourist destinations) tells Ralph that “Sassy housewives want to meet you!” Once Ralph and Vanellope enter eBay (the location of the missing part for Vanellope’s game), Vanellope spots a section of “baby clothes” marked lingerie (which she adorably mispronounces). And, of course, Ralph’s insecure quest to control Vanellope eventually leads him to the Dark Web, of which we thankfully don’t see much.
(for those unversed in internet lingo, the Dark Web is the lawless underbelly of the internet; in the film, it’s mostly portrayed as a place to buy viruses and stolen credit cards, while the real Dark Web is home to infinitely more sinister pursuits)
The film is also littered with internet and pop culture references, somewhat like the film Ready Player One, which came out earlier this year. That said, however, the cultural references here come about mostly organically and serve to further the plot, rather than to show the viewer how many references the filmmakers know. The only sequence where the references get a little heavy-handed is the Oh My Disney! sequence, which isn’t terribly surprising: these are Disney’s IPs, and they’re going to use them, damnit.
But even that sequence actually served a purpose, instead of just existing to be like “whee, we’re Disney, and we own Star Wars and Marvel and, if you’re a parent, most of your money!” The first princess scene (there are two, and they’re both honestly delightful) serves to help Vanellope realize that she’s been denying her own dreams because she’s afraid of upsetting Ralph (and to realize it in a bizarrely clever way that made me think, “gosh, I hope Vanellope gets official Disney Princess status”). And, of course, Sam loved seeing the references to Star Wars and other Disney films he enjoys.
My only disappointment with the film (I can’t call it a criticism because I don’t think there’s really a way to fix it without the film suffering) was that we didn’t get to see more of Calhoun and Felix, the side characters from the first film. They show up, but I think they have about half a dozen lines between them. Their plot (in which they take in the orphaned racers from Sugar Rush and serve as their adoptive parents) sounds like it would’ve made a hilarious side story, but it would absolutely have taken away from Ralph and Vanellope’s story, which is excellent. I’d love it, though, if maybe on the BluRay release, we had a short featuring Calhoun and Felix figuring out how to parent these miscreants, because we learn by the end that they exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations for doing so.
Other bulleted thoughts:
- One of the most delightful things about both this film and Wreck It Ralph is the animation of the video game characters and how that animation flows with the character’s game. Characters from older games move in a choppier fashion, while characters from newer games have much smoother animation. In this film, the trend continues into new avenues: people’s internet avatars move choppier or smoother, depending on their connection to the internet; in Slaughter Race, the played characters position themselves, jump, and move in a way that’s all too familiar to anyone who’s played any sort of MMO.
- Okay, maybe I did cry a little at two points. First, I teared up when Ralph breaks the number one rule of the internet and reads the comments. The comments on his viral videos (which he created to raise money to pay for the steering wheel for Vanellope’s game, after he and Vanellope naively jacked the price up to more than $20,000) jab at all the insecurities he thought he’d lost because of his friendship with Vanellope and leave him more vulnerable to impulsive bad ideas, even after he’s succeeded at his stated goal. And second, I teared up at the end, when Vanellope–whose code has been integrated into Slaughter Race–says good-bye to Ralph before he heads back to the arcade. Both characters know that they’re going to find real happiness where they are, but the separation still hurts, and it reminded me more than a little of the velcro tear feeling of a long-distance relationship. Ouch, Disney. Ouch.
- The Pancake/Milkshake scene didn’t make it into the final cut of the film, but it’s worth sticking around through the credits, because it does show up there, and in an adorably winking way that I really appreciated.
- I honestly couldn’t stand Yesss’s name until it became clear that she was an algorithm… at which point, she made perfect sense, and I loved her.
- Also Shank. There needs to be so much more Shank merchandise because she was an amazing character. And I am not just saying this because Gal Gadot is everything. Just seriously. I love all the cozy princess stuff and would absolutely spend money on it if I hadn’t had to replace like nine pieces of technology in the last two weeks, but Disney, if anyone there in marketing reads this, I promise that if you make more Shank merchandise, like maybe a Shank doll in the same tradition as the princess dolls and the Yesss doll, I will totally buy it.
In conclusion: a solid A, a rollicking good time, a delight, and a surprisingly thoughtful film.