Review: 'Ralph Breaks the Internet'

'Ralph Breaks the Internet' brings some laughs, but a shortage of big ideas
Though less inspired than the original, 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' is a colorful adventure that reflects on pop culture in the digital age.

Despite the promisingly wide scope of the worldwide web, the animated Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn't get to be about what it's about—until the second half. Up to the middle, it wasn't clear why it hadn't gone straight to streaming. The highly witty original was about learning and appreciating the groove you're in; the sequel seems stuck in it.

In this follow up 2012's Wreck-it Ralph, the 8-bit ape-like video game crusher Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is now BFFs with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), but she's restless, bored with driving around the same sugar-coated racetrack in a candy car. Ralph's attempt to bring novelty into her game accidentally breaks the machine. As a result, the machine will be carted off from the arcade to the scrapyard on Friday, to give what's to come a ticking clock.

As denizens of an out-of-order machine, Vanellope and her other girl drivers are homeless, or rather "gameless." But the management has just added a Wifi portal to the internet. Naturally, the pair sneaks inside.

This cartoon version of the world of William Gibson is a lot cleaner than the real thing. It's a spotless blue-and-white giant mall, stuffed to the gills with product placement for websites. Discovering a rare part for Vanellope's Sugar Rush game on eBay, Ralph oafishly outbids himself and ends up owing $20,000. He hunts this small fortune with the help of pop-up hustlers trying to grab internet visitors (some just living clickbait: "These Child Stars Went to Prison") before learning that the secret to success is making viral videos.

The cartoon wakes up when Vanellope wanders into a Grand Theft Auto landscape called Slaughter Race. She gets a bit of a crush on the dangerous leather-clad Shank (Gal Gadot), and loves the slummy, smoggy neo-L.A. they race their cars through. There are some amusing details in the cityscape, where one glimpsed sign reads: "Literally a 99 Cent Store." Unable to contain her happiness, she bursts into La La Land-style song (with lyrics by Alan Mencken) on an earthquake-snapped-off ramp above the shopping cart people below.

Simultaneously, Ralph is coached for a YouTube-like BuzzzTube run by an executive (Taraji P. Henson) and starts performing performing in unfunny but popular videos that Ralph can monetize through "likes." Even for a cartoon, this is a pretty fictional premise.

Directors Phil Johnson and Rich Moore work in the meta-effect of the Lego films in a sequence where Vanellope visits Disney's own site to confab with a circle of famous Disney princesses. (Cinderella, wary of this little stranger, breaks her glass slipper and brandishes it like a broken bottle). They worry about whether to accept her, if she fits the template of "cursed, kidnapped or enslaved." And they explain the conventions of showtunes, always sung wistfully while staring into a body of water. Hopefully, this self-criticism will give Disney some new flexibility in their style, but it's doubtful. Even back when Hercules came out in 1997, McDonald's was offering samplers of Disney music: "Hero Songs," "Buddy Songs" and "Rascal Songs," giving the notion that there were three huge dumpsters of each down in Burbank, with a snow shovel next to them.

By the time things catalyze in this villain-free movie, Ralph reckons with something very like the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet (1956), there for exactly the same reason Dr. Morbius unconsciously summoned his own demon. Now it's clear how the two leads fit together, despite chronic nervousness in the scripting. A great big man and a squeaky-voiced little girl look strange buddy-buddying it in the immemorial Disney way. Suddenly, Ralph is revealed as anxious parent worrying about an offspring going to the dangerous city and hanging out with sketchy people. This is a real hook, and easier to identify with the first "one thing happens then another thing happens" adventures in a too-clean, too-safe internet, where promises are to be believed and personalities are easily monetized.

Ralph Breaks the Internet
PG, 112 min.
Opens Nov 21 valleywide

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