Join millions of other users and venture into a sparkling virtual world filled with flashy adventures, dark corners, and an endless cameo parade of beloved pop culture characters from past and present, as the daring male protagonist battles to save this potential utopia from an unstoppable evil force. Hang on. Haven’t we done that already this year? And it wasn’t particularly good? Thankfully, there’s much more to Ralph Breaks the Internet than the lazy nostalgia fluff and pop culture reference overload that made Ready Player One so agonisingly disappointing.
Standing as only the third sequel from Walt Disney Animation Studios (shocking, right?), this follow-up to 2012’s breakaway smash hit Wreck-It Ralph is every bit as narratively enjoyable, visually ambitious, and gorgeously animated as its predecessor, proving the studio can (and should) make exceptional non-Pixar sequels. With a whole host of meta-aware humour and, yes, a stack of cameos from the expansive Disney universe, the film never forgets the key ingredient often lacking from nostalgic nonsense – its heart. Prepare yourself. This one is gonna hit you with all the feels.
It’s been six years since “bad guy” Ralph (the effortlessly endearing John C. Reilly) and glitchy speed-car racer Venellope (Sarah Silverman, still endlessly adorable) became unlikely best friends. Still living comfortably in the predictable monotony of Litwak’s Family Fun Center and Arcade, nothing much has changed, which begins to prove a problem for Venellope, who, like every Disney princess, begins to desperately yearn for more…than this provincial life.
Sensing his dear friend’s unhappiness, Ralph lovingly attempts to help, but unsurprisingly creates a huge mess, leading to the potential end for Vanellope’s home within the aging Sugar Rush arcade game, which now finds itself without its all-important steering wheel controller. After Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) realises he can’t afford a replacement wheel for the game (given its now practically an antique), he makes the difficult decision to sell the console for parts, unknowingly realising this will leave Vanellope and all her candy-covered cohorts “gameless.”
When our heroes discover Litwak has recently installed Wi-Fi (which neither character can seem to properly pronounce), Ralph and Venellope make the daring decision to venture along the information superhighway on a mission to locate the replacement part and save Sugar Rush from its impending doom. That means navigating through the strange new world of the Internet, a neverending metropolis/theme park filled with thrilling games, social media platforms, online shopping, pop-up ads, and the magical kingdom of Oh My Disney, the wonderland where all of Disney’s vast catalogue of characters reside.
After securing the steering wheel over at eBay (which, after not quite grasping the concept of an online auction, Ralph inadvertently jacks up the price of), Ralph and Venellope are shocked to discover they need real-world money to procure the item, sending the pair on a new quest to earn some quick cash before their winning bid is cancelled.
On their journey to eliciting money from the world wide web, they meet a shady pop-up ad merchant (an uncredited Bill Hader) who promises some quick bucks via a scavenger hunt, a quick-talking online algorithm known as Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) who controls the viral video world of BuzzzTube, and a detour into the Grand Theft Auto style land of Slaughter Race, controlled by the super-cool Shank (Gal Gadot), a bad-ass street racer who may offer the adventure Venellope has longed for.
With its cyberspace setting, this very easily could have been a redux of the disaster that was The Emoji Movie. The structure and design of the Internet metropolis certainly shares a few similarities with Sony Pictures’ misguided farse. Booming skyscrapers belong to the biggest of companies like Amazon and Google. Twitter is represented by a literal tree of chirping bluebirds. Snapchat, Spotify, WhatsApp, Instagram. They’re all here, making it hard to tell if these are clever and realistic references or just a host of ghastly product placements.
But these icons of the online world are mostly just background fodder, with screenwriters Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon wisely choosing to ignore the temptation to place any hard-sells on any of these companies. Instead, we’re gifted with clever satire of the insatiable consumerism found within the internet. Users are represented by blockheaded avatars, each dutifully wandering around, waiting to be told what to devour next. It’s a sly reference to the fickle nature of online culture, where attention spans are in the gutter and popularity is fleeting.
Given the target audience here is children, Ralph Breaks the Internetnever stretches too deeply into the truly dark and damaging nature of the internet. Outside of a warning to “never read the comments,” and a finale featuring an out-of-control computer virus that threatens to destroy everything around it, the internet is perhaps presented a little too sanitised and positive. Sure, it’s a kid’s movie that decides to keep things relatively light, and that’s entirely fine. But teaching an audience of children about the dangers of the online world could have been a valuable moment you have to assume a studio like Pixar would have been brave enough to explore.
That being said, Ralph does indeed read some hurtful comments placed on his viral videos, causing his crippling insecurities and self-doubt to manifest with disastrous results. This proves to be the juxtaposition found with online infamy. The soaring highs balanced by the depressing lows. It’s a timely reminder of the vile hatred dished upon those who share their identities online and the harsh reality that trolls are often inescapable. This could prove a turning point for young minds to remember there are real people on the other side of the screen, and the seemingly innocent vitriol fired by keyboard warriors can have real consequences.
The film’s biggest highlight (especially for Disney fans) is a visit to the Magic Kingdom of Oh My Disney, where everyone from Dumbo to Eeyore, stormtroopers to C-3PO, Iron Man to Baby Groot (who holds a hilarious Q&A session with overzealous fans) plus another cheeky Marvel cameo you can probably see coming, and every single Disney Princess (all voiced by the original actresses, bar those no longer with us) can be found. Is this a moment of self-aggrandising, where Disney is simply showing off how ridiculously vast their catalogue of pop culture icons has become? Well, maybe. Just a little. Can you really blame them?
But what makes this sequence so glorious is how pointedly and sharply Disney is able to poke some good-natured fun at itself. It’s self-deprecation we haven’t seen since the likes of Shrek. The self-awareness of each Princess to acknowledge the flaws found in their narratives (“Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?”) and cliche characteristics they each share (a commonality of a lack of a mother) creates the film’s brilliant satirical showpiece that proves Disney can indeed let down its hair and not take itself so damn seriously. There’s even a cheeky stab at Merida, aka Pixar’s one and only Princess, who none of the other characters can understand because “she’s from the other studio.”
As entertaining and joyful as all this Easter egg wonderland of pop culture references may be, they’re only part of the magic of the film. What sets Ralph Breaks the Internet apart is its gorgeous beating heart with a narrative that will surely tug at your heartstrings. As Ralph and Venellope’s friendship is tested, there’s a strong message conveyed of the consequences of trying to control your friends and the dangers of suffocating them when you refuse to accept change is sometimes inevitable. This leads to a conclusion that’s emotionally powerful, as the best Disney animation films often are. Bring the tissues. You’ll need them.
With eye-popping animation, a terrific voice cast, a touching and entertaining narrative, some brilliant self-deprecating humour, and a cornucopia of delightful cameos, Ralph Breaks the Internet is everything a sequel should be. It’s heartwarming and hilarious, dazzling and impressive, and a wonderful piece of cinema for the whole family to enjoy. And be sure to remain for the entirety of the credits for a sublime piece of playful internet trolling that delivers plenty of LOLs.