Ralph Breaks the Internet is a great big honking mess. I sat there admiring the craftsmanship while somehow never quite being drawn in. I laughed, not consistently, but I laughed. It wasn’t a dumb idea, but it also wasn’t a well thought out or well-executed idea either.
I’ll say this: Ralph Breaks the Internet understands the internet better than most movies about the internet. At the same time, it’s also the most cynical movie I’ve seen all year. I thought Crimes of Grindelwald was a cash grab but Ralph Breaks the Internet is so naked in its product placement it should be cited for public indecency.
Why go through the trouble of mentioning Youtube, have its logo prominently displayed on the screen, only to have the main video sharing platform that acts as a fulcrum to the plot be called Buzztube? Better yet, why have a character like Mr. Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk)? He searches the internet for information. But a tower with the Google logo looms in the background all the while.
You could argue that this is a necessary evil. It is the internet after all. To some extent, I agree. When Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) goes to Oh My Disney it is a cute and somewhat honest representation of Disney. Stormtroopers walk the premises, loaded guns in hand, making sure everyone who is there is supposed to be there. The scene where Vanellope meets the other Disney Princesses is a highlight of the movie.
So much so we wish it was the movie. Part of the problem with Ralph Breaks the Internet is while it means to be about Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope, it’s really about Ralph. Stories which address and expose toxic masculinity are catnip for me, but by focusing on Ralph instead of Vanellope, Ralph Breaks the Internet essentially unintentionally wallows in its own toxicity.
Yes, the film is called Ralph Breaks the Internet and so it should be about him. Except it’s clear that the story so desperately wants to be about Vanellope. Stories are live wires and sometimes difficult to control. You may want the story to be one thing but the story has other ideas. In some ways, the movie is a front row seat to a titanic wrestling match. A struggle between the story, the storyteller, and the studio that owns them both.
Take the inciting incident, the reason this whole thing is happening. Vanellope is bored with her life. She’s raced all the tracks in her game and beaten all the levels. The challenges are gone. In an effort to cheer her up Ralph creates a new track for her. Seeing the new track, she goes offroad. What follows is a perfect meta visualization of Ralph Breaks the Internet. The gamer struggles at the wheel as Vanellope fights for control. In the end, the steering wheel for the game is broken and Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neil) says it’s time to junk Sugar Rush.
One of the kids finds a replacement for the steering wheel on E-bay but it costs too much and Litwak unplugs the game. All the characters in Sugar Rush are now homeless and Vanellope is without a purpose. So, Ralph decides to go to the internet to find this, “E-Boy,” and get her wheel back.
In some respects, the script by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon is perfect screenwriting. It follows all the rules. Ralph Breaks the Internet is engineered on the basis of “because” instead of “and then.” Because Ralph does this he must do this other thing. Because of wanting to buy the wheel they have to pay for it, but since they’re not human, and have no money, they have to get jobs. The way the actions leads to reactions is seamless but somehow rote. It follows the rules but forgets to sprinkle in the little things such as joy and character.
The original Wreck-It Ralph had more than two characters. Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), King Candy (Alan Tudyk), all had their own motivations and desires. Ralph Breaks the Internet has more than two characters as well, but not really. The only two characters with any motivation, with any real reason to care about, are Vanellope and Ralph. In a very real way, this breaks a seemingly perfect, on the surface, script because all the story and all the drama are meaningless.
Even Shank (Gal Gadot) comes across as bland and shallow. The lead character in Slaughter Race, Shank is a charismatic, independent leader who has Vanellope envious of her confidence and racing skills. But she has no purpose aside from having a conversation in which she gives Vanellope sage advice, which Ralph overhears, and overreacts to. Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn’t have characters, it has plot devices.
Getting back to my complaint about Ralph hogging the movie, remember I said ALL the characters in Sugar Rush are homeless. The rest of the arcade games are forced to take them in. Felix and Tamora adopt the other fifteen racers. Why go through the trouble of showing us the other characters dividing up the characters between them? What is the point of showing us Felix and Tamora discussing taking in fifteen little girls? Especially since it’s never mentioned again except for a brief implication and a tired gag toward the end?
Instead, we get a road trip with Ralph and Vanellope. But just as Vanellope finds a place she feels at home in, the aforementioned game Slaughter Race, the movie becomes less about Vanellope finding happiness and more about how her happiness and future make Ralph feel insecure and obsolete. I swear as a child I never realized how much of my entertainment was apparently made to make old white men feel they still have value and are capable of love and being loved.
Vanellope is forced to carry the emotional weight of Ralph’s neediness. Slaughter Race is a perfect fit for the little glitch but she feels guilty for wanting to stay because she knows how sad it’ll make Ralph. Friendships are a two-way street. Vanellope taking Ralph’s feeling into consideration is a mature and healthy thing. Much more so than Ralph, who goes to the Dark Web to find a virus to shut down Slaughter Race so Vanellope will come home with him.
I get that Ralph is distraught over possibly not being with Vanellope every hour of every day. But I don’t buy that in his anger and sadness he would forget that Vanellope is a glitch and might be susceptible to viruses that replicate insecurities. Especially when Ralph Breaks the Internet goes out of its way to remind us that Vanellope is a glitch by having her phase in and out whenever she begins to stress out.
All of this sounds good, but Vanellope has no real agency. The ending is happy only because Ralph decides to let her go, regardless of what Vanellope wanted or not. That Ralph’s decision is in line with what Vanellope wants is beside the point. He still had to rescue her due to a snowball of events set into motion because of his own self-centered emotional immaturity.
It doesn’t help that visually Ralph Breaks the Internet is a bright shiny penny. It’s pretty to look at but after a few seconds, it loses its varnish and you see it for the cheap metal it is. When Shank is having the pivotal conversation with Vanellope, the camera is off to the side at a low angle. Shank’s hair takes up much of the left side of the frame. Her hair looks remarkable, each strand carefully crafted. You almost want to reach out and touch it. But when the shot switches to have both their faces in the frame, notice how Shank’s face has no emotion.
Rich Moore and Phil Johnston seem to have skimped on character design. Again Ralph and Vanellope have wonderful facial reactions and behave as if they are inhabiting a world with other people. But Shank seems designed to be a gorgeous replica of the talent voicing her character. Gadot’s voice is perfect for a character like Shank, but her character design is lifeless.
I haven’t mentioned Moore or Johnston until now because Ralph Breaks the Internet has no life or personality. I fear I got so bogged down by expressing my problems with the script that I neglected to mention just how visually stilted the movie is as well. A shame considering, the aforementioned Princess scene, and the musical number with Vanellope, “In This Place,” show signs of intelligence and creativity.
The song is in the vein of The Little Mermaid and other Disney films. It’s cute but it never quite reaches rousing because again there’s no real choreography. 3d animation is much smoother while classical hand-drawn is much sharper in terms of edits and cut. Hand-drawn animation forces you to work within certain limits. But with 3d there’s more hesitancy to cut and have quick edits. Then again as popular as The Greatest Showman and Mama Mia are, they show a lack of great choreographers or at the very least a dearth of filmmakers who understand how to film a musical number.
The latter may have more to do with the feeling of a dragging pace of “In This Place” than the animation. Though how Vanelliope gets to the place to have the musical number is one of the few joys in the movie. The set up with the Princesses and the visual reveal is kind of perfect. Sadly, it’s one of a very few memorable moments.
Movies like Ralph Breaks the Internet sadden me more than they anger me. The shameless product plugs aside, its heart is in the right place. But Moore and Johnston can’t see how they’ve somehow minimized Vanellope’s problems by making them fodder for Ralph’s growth. The villain may be toxic masculinity but, intentionally or not, the duo also made it the hero as well.