Life in the Fast Lane
If 2012’s Wreck it Ralph ponders the question, “can bad guys do good things?,” 2018’s sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet, asks the opposite.
Set six years after the original, video game characters Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his best friend, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), have an ideal life — at least by Ralph’s standards. Each morning they wake up, go to their separate jobs, and spend the evenings together, bouncing between different arcade games and causing mayhem. But their simple lives are thrown off course when Ralph’s attempt to make Vanellope’s life more interesting backfires, breaking her game cabinet and rendering her homeless. To buy the part to save Vanellope’s game, the duo venture into a physical manifestation of the internet, forever changing their friendship.
The internet, like the arcade cabinets in the first film, is rendered as locations. The internet is an infinite city where the Google tower with its orbiting satellites of multicolored cubes, soars over the Ebay auction house and the Pinterest skyscraper. There’s a clutter to the world that, though appropriate, makes the “outdoor” sequences in the film have the Teflon quality of Transformers action scenes.
Fortunately, most of the film’s setpieces are more contained so the viewer can appreciate the detail porn that’s present throughout. Disney has the brand power to create an almost overwhelming canvas of references and Ralph Breaks the Internet is stuffed with nods to real-world companies, film franchises, and video game series. Like most movies that pride themselves on stuffing a secret in every scene, most of these allusions get lost in the inevitable pacing of the kid-friendly plot. Fortunately, the film has far more to offer than cheap references to Disney’s expansive catalog.
For the first hour, the plot stays simple — Ralph and Vanellope get into kooky antics to earn enough money to fix her game. While the opening of the movie is fairly easy-going and accessible, a deep, passionate story about relationships, acceptance, and insecurity eventually unfurls in the second half.
The switch happens with the introduction of Shank (Gal Gadot), a tough racer from the Mad Max meets Grand Theft Auto game, Slaughter Race. She’s slick, cool, and open: a guiding force for Vanellope when she realizes Ralph’s simple dream isn’t her own. Slaughter Race, with its death traps, murder and uber violence, better suits Vanellope’s need for a challenge, which her own game, Sugar Rush, could never provide. The two become friends with a bond that is tender and rooted in respect; they’re caring but aren’t afraid to challenge one another. Unlike Ralph, Shank understands Vanellope’s dream, coaxing her towards it while also helping her preserve her relationship with Ralph.
Vanellope also befriends her fellow princesses (yes Vanellope von Schweetz, of the Sugar Rush von Shweetz-es is a Disney princess). She’s distinct from her peers but still understands their plight, helping them much in the same way Shank helps her. The scenes where the princesses are together, lounging in squishy chairs, wearing leggings and hoodies are wonderful moments of comedy and commentary. Disney openly and relentlessly mocks its dicey characterization of women, satirizing everything from the princess’s absurd outfits to their constant damseling. They return for the climax, subverting the “strong man rescues damsel” trope with a colorful Rube-Goldberg-esque action sequence.
The remainder of the film deals with Ralph’s insecurity, fear, and pain. An insecurity which, when mixed with a parasitic computer virus, spawns thousands of monster Ralphs which ultimately coalesce into a gargantuan monster. The climactic chase is threatening and a little creepy (who thought a massive Raph made up tiny, writhing Ralphs wouldn’t freak out a generation of children?) In between the tense, city-destroying action the writers make one of many bold moves — they give Ralph and Vanellope a chance to talk. A chance for her to tell him how she feels, how disappointed she is and for him to tell her how sorry he is. They don’t finish their chat — that happens later as the Monster Ralph attempts to squeeze the life out of Little Ralph — but they communicate nonetheless. They talk to solve their problems. Like you should. In life.
So many movies treat relationship problems as insurmountable tasks that can only be solved through sheer willpower when in actuality friendships and romances are built on constant communication and discussion, especially about the things that are uncomfortable or stressful.
But what’s most admirable is the directors’ refusal to completely redeem or condemn Ralph’s behavior. He acts shitty and is fundamentally a good person. Both statements are true, paradoxical as they are. The film’s message transcends age and genre; it’s important for everyone to see. Empathy and understanding are essential in relationships, but that empathy has to go both ways. A good friend or boyfriend or girlfriend or family member will promote your happiness at the expense of their own — if they want.
For all the other crucial messages featured Ralph Breaks the Internet, the idea of love being a choice — not something owed or deserved — is the film’s most potent. In the end, Vanellope forgives Ralph (it’s still a Disney movie) because she loves him, but she doesn’t have to. The viewer knows it; characters remark upon it. Like a real relationship, Ralph and Vanellope’s is complicated and imperfect.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is important, relevant and just a little bit devastating. The film depicts a positive relationship in all its messy glory, and most importantly it educates without condescension. Against all odds, Ralph Breaks the Internet is one of 2018’s most powerful stories.