Something interesting happened on the way to this six-years-in-the-making sequel to the hit animated film Wreck-It Ralph. Ralph Breaks the Internet directors Rich Moore and co-writer Phil Johnston made an even more successful movie called Zootopia, which featured some of the most overtly socially conscious messaging about racism and fearing “the other” that have ever been seen in a mainstream animated work, especially from Disney. That film opened the gates for future family-oriented works to get more aware of the world around us. With Ralph Breaks the Internet, the filmmakers have followed up their fairly safe story of video game characters in the same arcade who mix it up across each others’ screens with the story of a friendship that needs to evolve out of its rut and a young girl in need of a strong female role model.
Things haven’t changed much in six years. Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) seem content going through the motions of their respective games and hanging out after hours with other game characters. When the control for Vanellope’s Sugar Rush racing game breaks, the owner finds that replacement parts are either too expensive or not available, and decides instead to let the game go. But when the owner adds a WiFi router, Ralph and Vanellope find out that it’s possible to go to a place on the internet called “eBay,” where the replacement part can be bid on for funds they don’t exactly have access to. But when did the impossible ever stop them?
Part of Ralph Breaks the Internet is an excuse to play around with the iconography of the internet. A few familiar sites pop up—Amazon, Google, and of course the vast IPs of Disney, including Star Wars, Marvel, and the Disney princesses (most of whom are voiced by the original voice actresses), who make a group appearance in a soon-to-be legendary sequence with Vanellope, where many of the princess tropes are commented upon or outright criticized. But there are also nods to the predictive nature of search engines, sketchy spam sites and pop-up ads (Bill Hader plays JP Spamley, who seems to hold the solution to Ralph’s money needs), monetizing YouTube clips, and perhaps most memorably, a moment where the film gets real as Ralph discovers the toxic nature of the Comments sections of certain sites. It’s a remarkable drop back into the real world where everything stops and gets silent, and might be the strongest statement in the movie.
When Ralph and Vanellope are separated for a time, she discovers a new, more dangerous racing game, with a lead character named Shank (voiced appropriately by Gal Gadot, making her debut in an animated film), with whom Vanellope is so impressed that she wants to learn from in this next-level game. The film also features returning characters voiced by Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer and new ones voiced by Taraji P. Henson, Alan Tudyk, and Alfred Molina, so there’s no shortage of genuine talent and star power that truly adds dimension to the already thought-provoking story.
The film’s main theme, however, centers on the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope, and how Ralph’s protective nature nearly poisons the friendship. Without giving the ending away, Ralph actually becomes his own worst enemy and his smothering nature threatens to destroy the best things in his life. It’s a strangely freaky and surreal climax that makes perfect sense in the context of the story, but might still make your skin crawl with its visuals. As a complete work, Ralph Breaks the Internet borders on masterful, both in the way it reworks the original characters, relationships and themes, and also from a purely visual standpoint, from the ways it brings form and eye-popping representation to the internet and the way it illustrates some of the negatives of the online world. The interplay between Reilly and Silverman has only gotten stronger and funnier, and it’s great to see the relationship between these creations not just improve but evolve and mature. This is one of the best animated works of the year, and certainly one of the smartest and most visually inventive in recent memory.
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