Film | Ralph Breaks the Internet - a children's cyber-comedy as interested in trolls as it is memes
The story of two best friends slowly growing apart, Ralph Breaks the Internet sees driven race-car driver Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) seek adventure outside of her game's limited number of tracks while best friend Ralph (John C Reilly) desires simple repetition. When Vanellope's "Sugar Rush" console loses its steering wheel, and the arcade owner decides that the cost of repair exceeds the game's worth, the pair head into the Internet through a recently installed WiFi router to track a replacement down on eBay. As Vanellope finds common interests with Shank (Gal Gadot), a rival driver in an ultra-violent MMORPG, and begins to question what she wants out of life, Ralph's increasingly desperate attempts to repair the rift in their friendship only risk making it deeper.
The Internet is a vast, exciting metropolis full of vibrant, recogniseable corporations and awash with popular iconography in Rich Moore and Phil Johnston's sequel to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, comprising creatively characterised e-mail trains, online auction houses and pop-up ads that chase users down the information superhighway. Having spent the first film proving himself a hero, able to exceed the parameters of his villainous programming, Ralph here struggles to overcome something far more timely and insidious: toxic masculinity. His misogynist, overprotective tendencies result in paranoid thinking and aggressive behaviour, exacerbated by his chosen method of earning enough money to play for "Sugar Rush's" new part: the futile pursuit of Internet fame and recognition. Ralph is given the unenviable task of creating a viral “BuzzTube” video, by doing what the Internet does best: mimicking what’s already out there.
Heavily marketed as a long-awaited Disney princess team-up, with Vanellope joining the ranks of Cinderella, Ariel and Marida ("She's from the other studio"), and featuring appearances from Disney acquisitions like The Guardian of Galaxy’s Groot, Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore and Star Wars' Stormtroopers, among others, Ralph Breaks the Internet could be easily and cynically dismissed as an exercise in synergy; an effort to promote or exploit other Disney assets. The princess scene in particular, littered with Easter eggs and references, was featured prominently in the trailers and was heavily anticipated due to its strong message of female empowerment. The subplot explores the evolution of the Disney princess from 1937's vulnerable Snow White and 1959’s helpless Sleeping Beauty right up to 2016's Moana, often subverting the ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype. This message of empowerment is carried all the way through the film by Vanellope, who desires a more challenging and fulfilling life unbeholden to an overprotective and insecure best friend, providing the perfect counterpoint to Ralph's insecurities and self-destruction.
More ambitious and mature than the first film, Ralph Breaks the Internet works on a number of levels. While Ralph works to earn 'hearts' from his viral videos on "BuzzTube" he inadvertently stumbles into the comments section, prompting the site's trendy algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) to explain the darker and more fickle aspects of the Internet -- a lesson Ralph fails to heed when he descends into the literal Dark Web -- having initially spurred him for not being popular enough. Nevertheless, the humour remains, with John C Reilly’s wit shining through in his typically hapless performance, while the personification of programs is as ingenuous as it is hilarious -- never more so than in a laugh-out-loud funny virus scene. If anything, the sequel is funnier, with the satire having more bite and the pop-culture gags being better thought out. The change in narrative direction also means that the jokes are less predictable and more original that before, with relatively few animated films having the same access to intellectual property or a similarly balanced view of modern online culture.