It’s important as a parent to test screen new releases for your kids. Is this film going to be right for my daughter? I went into Ralph Breaks the Internet with an open heart and an appreciation for the original Wreck it Ralph (2012), perhaps the only children’s film that gets video game fan service right. What I got was the most cynical and corporate animation to come out of Disney.
Ralph Breaks the Internet starts nicely enough. The film concerns the breakdown of the Sugar Rush kart racing cabinet. Those segments comprised some of the nicest set pieces of the original film, the saccharine tracks, full of color and life, would make for the ideal courses in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2017) – free DLC concepts, Nintendo.
Precocious Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) wants more tracks in her game world, designed variation being the only thing that makes her feel alive anymore. She divulges her wishes to Ralph (John C. Riley) over root beers within the Tapper (1983) game world, which serves as a clever and watering hole (root beering hole?) for the various game characters. Ralph adjusts the track, and when an arcade patron tries taking his shortcuts, the machine malfunctions and the wheel breaks off. Thus, the quest is set to explore the newly added WIFI hub and find her a wheel. Sonic the Hedgehog says the internet is a great place, so you know it’s not. Sonic has not seen what the internet has done to him.
This film feels like a corporate mandate. The plot is both a work of advertising and an attempt to keep children within the Disney ecosystem. When Ralph and Vanellope enter the Internet, we’re assaulted with brand logos – Amazon, BuzzFeed, eBay, all manner of sites real and fabricated. It is hard to tell what has been created ends and where the advertisements begin, except that the main plot device is centered around buying a wheel on eBay. Helpfully, the film reminds parents with kids, these are all the ways you can spend money on eBay, and when there is conflict, also provides helpful exposition about the company’s Terms of Service.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is perhaps the strangest subversion of children I’ve seen. We understand from YouTube advertisements it only takes a couple seconds for an ad to reach its full effectiveness. Truly all we need to see is a brand and its purpose, and this has been proven to be about as effective as a full-length ad. But what if it were an entire Disney film selling the biggest Online Media companies? What if right before Christmas, children find out about eBay and Amazon and then are helpfully reminded of every sellable Disney franchise moments later?
They enter a land of Disney things (not Disney Land) and “Let It Go” blasts out as the screen pans over all their brands. Young Vanellope is chased about by stormtroopers while every manner of Disney character flutters around in the background. In a sequel to a film about video game brand synergy it almost makes sense, why not support your own brand – the strongest in the world – when you’ve given such loving adaptation to characters that are consistently underserved at the cinema? Because it feels like a corporate mandate through and through. Every piece of branding is thrown at the wall – literally an ESPN logo is stuck to one of the walls. Never has an animated film made you question a company’s hold over all media quite like Ralph Breaks the Internet.
Among the conglomerate’s most prized properties, there is one great scene where Vanellope is encircled by every Disney Princess of note. They must decide, is she a princess? The Disney standbys attest that the main prerequisites to be a Disney princess are that they stare longingly at important bodies of water and that they are saved by beefy men. Their snark, not mine. They admire her dress – a plain sweater – and before long Cinderella sets her mice to weave each princess their own streetwear. None of them understands Merida, the Scottish princess of Pixar’s Brave (2012), as she’s given the otherness of her native tongue. “She’s from that other studio,” the girls explain. This is one saving grace here, among many missteps, a nice comedic spot to rival Wreck it Ralph’s BadAnon, who’s mantra describes the mission statement of this film: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad.” We can imagine Disney executives being court ordered to these meetings.
The way video games are portrayed are a sour note. One plot device involves seeking out loot boxes, less a celebration of nostalgia than an askew response to microtransactions as a meaningful investment. It tries to find the comedy but does not appreciate or find the soul of the game, so it mainly depresses the audience. They create stand-ins for GTA Online (2013) by way of Carmageddon (1997), again, meditations on badly cultured online gamers, and not anything positive. If Wreck it Ralph curried favor for its lovable treatment of gaming history, Ralph Breaks the Internet wrecks all that good will.
The film’s animated well and the voice cast is nicely assembled. John C. Riley is having a bit of a moment during the Fall release season – appearing in Sisters Brothers, Stan & Ollie, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Holmes & Watson – that covers only a couple months of releases and shows his incredible range. The outcome of this film does not discount do not discount any of the significant talent he brings to it. Sarah Silverman is fine, purposefully bratty and not very funny. Gal Gadot relishes her role as a gamey superhero Shank and has a solid performance, while also seeming to have the most fun.
My daughter is not going to watch Ralph Breaks the Internet. Not by our choosing as parents. I can’t think of anything especially more damning to say about a film that should be such an obvious choice. We will continue to enjoy the original. When your closest frame of reference is The Emoji Movie (2017), something has gone horribly wrong. Ralph Breaks the Internet is the most cynical animated film, more preoccupied with placing advertisements than creating a celebration of the internet. Parents be warned, this is a hard pass for the family.