Disney Uses IP to Address the Meaning of Friendship – Ralph Breaks the Internet

In 2012, Wreck-It Ralph was my favorite movie of the year. I knew it only had a chance to be nominated for Animated Feature at the Oscars – which it did, losing out to Brave – but it hit very close to home for me. I was in a pretty dark place at the time (lonely, miserable, self-loathing), to the point that I often wondered whether or not I’d be the bad guy in my own life story. This movie, silly and reference heavy though it was (and also basically Disney’s version of Despicable Me and Megamind, sans Minions), touched me in a way I didn’t expect. This is mostly because unlike the other villain-turned-good-guy cartoons, Ralph himself never had to change. He’s essentially the exact same person he was at the beginning of the film, only now he’s appreciated by his peers, and he found companionship in the form of Vanellope von Schweetz, someone who accepted him warts and all. I confess my eyes were unexpectedly soggy after I saw it for the first time, and on more than one occasion I’ve had to tell myself, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad.”

Six years later, my life and the outlook on said have improved greatly, and basically for the same reason. I’m fundamentally the same person I’ve always been, but now I’m surrounded by people who like me for me, and I work with people who appreciate my skills and personality. I’m still a snarky bastard with basically no filter who will say just about anything if I think it’s funny. The only difference is that now I’m figuratively and literally in a better place with it all.

Suffice to say, that also means that Ralph and Vanellope’s next adventure would be held to an unnecessarily high standard because of the way their first outing made me feel. I’m happy to say that Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel, and while there are some glaring oddities, it is once again a referential, hilarious tale of friendship that offers decent lessons for the young audience.

Six years after the last film, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (the incomparable Sarah Silverman) are the best of friends, using their after-hours time at the arcade to bounce between games and just hang out. Vanellope suffers from a bit of ennui because her life is a bit too predictable, her only variable being the outcome of races when she’s working in her game, “Sugar Rush,” but even then, the tracks are still the same as ever. Of course, Ralph sees such predicable laziness as life’s ideal.

Still, he wants to be a good, helpful friend, so one day, during an active race, he takes it upon himself to carve out a detour in the racetrack Vanellope’s on. Somehow, she takes control of her own steering to try it out, overriding the real-world player’s controls until the steering wheel eventually breaks off the machine. The arcade owner, Mr. Litwack (Ed O’Neill), decides that the replacement part is too expensive, and thus decides to unplug and retire the game. As we learned in the last movie, the characters must evacuate to the surge bar hub if their game is ever unplugged, or they’ll be deleted, so now Vanellope and all her colleagues are essentially homeless like Q*Bert was last time.

Meanwhile, Mr. Litwack installs a WiFi router in the arcade so he can use the internet in his office. Since Ralph noticed the “Sugar Rush” steering wheel on a human’s web-connected phone (and since Ralph is responsible for the game being broken and unplugged in the first place), he and Vanellope us the WiFi connection to sneak onto the internet in hopes of securing the part and fixing the game themselves.

With the adventure properly begun, it is incumbent upon the viewer to just “go with it” and join the ride. If you spend your time nitpicking, as I and many like me are wont to do, you’ll get derailed. Still, there are a few things that jump out immediately as being sort of, “Huh?” For example, while Google has a massive tower in the center of the internet world (which makes sense), there’s also a different search engine called KnowsMore, run by an enthusiastic auto-completer of the same name, voiced by Alan Tudyk (who voiced the previous film’s villain, King Candy, and is a national treasure). I know he’s there to be a quasi-parody of Ask Jeeves, but if you’re going to pay to license Google’s name and logo, why create a separate search engine? Just make Tudyk part of Google. Similarly, real-world humans are represented in this world as “Minecraft”-esque avatars, but if anything happens to them, they disconnect from the net in reality, which is just nowhere near how anything works.

Still, the reveal of this universe’s vision of the internet is somewhat wondrous. At minimum, I had to imagine that this is what The Emoji Movie would have been, you know, if it weren’t a steaming pile of ebola-laden shit. For a moment it reminded me of the Axios spaceship from WALL-E, before our heroes start exploring via tiny carts, conveyor belts, and tubes (I guess Ted Stevens was right after all!). Once we pull out for even more vistas of this massive online metropolis, I could have sworn it was the opening to HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Ralph and Vanellope chase their MacGuffin to eBay, where they over-inflate the auction price to the point where they win, but are on the hook for over $27,000. Initially I wanted to call bullshit on this, as eBay’s system simply has the winning bid be one increment over the second place bid, no matter how high you personally bid in secret – essentially your bid is what you’re willing to pay, not what you’re committing to pay. But then I remembered that Ralph and Vanellope entered the internet world via separate pods, and therefore act as separate avatars. As such, as they play their game of “Name Big Numbers” and outbid the one human trying to get the steering wheel, they actually were trading bids with each other instead of bidding as a single entity, so the higher number stands. Like I said, don’t waste time trying to make sense of it all. Just enjoy the ride.

Anyway, not knowing what money is (beyond arcade tokens and quarters, I guess), they now have a day to come up with the annual salary of millions of Americans to complete their purchase, or Vanellope remains homeless forever. They seek out the help of J.P. Spamley (Bill Hader), a shady pop-up advertiser who can get them money by procuring rare items from online games and selling them to other people. They’re charged to go into an urban death race game called “Slaughter Race,” (an obvious reference to “Grand Theft Auto”) and steal the legendary car of a woman named Shank (Gal Gadot playing an animated Gal Gadot), the big boss of the game. Ralph is understandably terrified at the prospect, because as previously established, if you die outside your game you don’t regenerate, and you’re gone forever. Vanellope, meanwhile, has the time of her life, getting an adrenaline rush she hasn’t had in years.

Seeking a safer alternative, Ralph and Vanellope meet an algorithm named Yesss (no, I didn’t misspell that), who controls the video platform, BuzzzTube (another obvious hybrid of BuzzFeed and YouTube), voiced by Taraji P. Henson. On her site, video likes can somehow be monetized, so she commissions Ralph to basically participate in every viral video trend of the last 15 years, from screaming goats to unboxing videos to bee puns, to get those likes and raise the needed funds.

It’s a shame that this is what the film comes to, honestly. It’s not just that we reduce the adventure to an attempt to achieve viral stardom, it’s also the fact that there’s so much use of Intellectual Property that the “original” characters and knockoff sites just seem so cheap by comparison. Alan Tudyk and Taraji P. Henson are brilliant talents, but they become the most disappointing aspect of the film because their existence is so transparent it’s painful. Worse, it comes at the expense of Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), shuffled off to the the background for a couple of bookend gags about them adopting the other “Sugar Rush” racers as their own children. Even when they’re relegated to such a lame, one-note joke, I’d have rather seen them learn to raise kids as a married couple than hear Yesss talk about “trending.”

Just when I think things are about to get even worse, however, Disney has some rare moments of self-awareness. Vanellope is enlisted as a pop-up to help bait the clickers to Ralph’s videos, and due to Ralph being overprotective and wanting her to stay safe, has her directed to Disney’s online hub. My eyes start to roll painfully back in my head, because this area is filled to the brim with all the IP that Disney’s acquired over the years, including “Star Wars” and Marvel (complete with Stan Lee cameo; RIP and Excelsior from all us True Believers), and the whole neon spectacle is presented with the horrible Demi Lovato pop version of “Let it Go” being blared at us from the speakers. I’m just about to scream out, “Oh COME ON!” because seemingly Disney has yet again failed to learn that the audience HATES these pop versions with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.

But then, something magical happens. Vanellope stumbles upon a dressing room filled with all of the current official Disney Princesses (including Merida from Brave, which none of the others can understand because, “She’s from the other studio,” HAHA!) as well as Elsa, Anna, and Moana. Being a princess herself, Vanellope overcomes initial awkwardness by relating to the others through some oddly meta similarities, particularly not having a mother, longing for something more, and having her identity formed around a large man who “saves” her. See, they can figure out this weirdness, but they can’t turn off Demi Lovato? Anyhoo, Vanellope makes friends with the group and makes them all shirts, something none of them have ever seen (except Tiana, I assume), which may have had the unintended effect of making these animated teenage-to-young-adult girls seem even more sexualized than Disney was previously criticized for. I mean, come on, Elsa lounging on the floor with a sweatshirt that says, “Just Let it Go” on it, or Snow White with a punk rock t-shirt (of a poisoned apple, naturally) which slopes off her shoulders? I’m old, not dead. What’s a perv to do?

And then, in what may be the most strangely endearing moment of 2018 cinema, Sarah Silverman as Vanellope von Schweetz gets a Princess Ballad. For you see, the MacGuffin no longer matters. She doesn’t want to go back to the arcade. She wants to stay on the internet and live in “Slaughter Race.” And so she gets a mournful song about her personal conflict between her loyalty to Ralph and her own dreams… which of course gets ruined during the credits by yet another pop version. Disney’s gotta Disney, yo.

Really, a lot of the film boils down to reference and nostalgia. In my recent review of Overlord, I commented that there has never been a good video game movie adaptation. This series comes awfully close, especially the original, because it had so many references to old video games that we loved. That nostalgia carries over here, even though the references are obviously more online/tech than gaming (though there are still several to be had there as well). But it’s not just the gags and Easter Eggs, it’s in the presentation and plot as well. Ralph’s viral fame isn’t just from him aping every other trend, but as we see from the humans watching his videos, it’s the fact that functioning adults still remember playing “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” as a kid, and they have that nostalgic affection for Ralph as a character. Even Disney went the extra mile with the Princess sequence by using all the original voice actresses for the modern ones, and using the current voices used in other media for the classic ones. That’s commitment right there.

This film has been submitted for Animated Feature, and I won’t be surprised if it gets nominated. It wouldn’t get my vote, but it’s a fine film all the same, because aside from the jokes and references galore, the film still focuses on what made the last one work so well for suckers like me. It’s the friendship, and the fact that they can grow and evolve without anyone having to change who they are as people. It’s that accepting nature that pervades everything and strengthens the bonds even as people grow physically further apart. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s all completely within established character parameters for Ralph and Vanellope.

When I watched the first film, I cried. When I watched this one, there were three teenagers sitting just to my left who were crying by the end. They apologized if they made too much noise, and asked me how Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship could change the way it does in this film without them changing.

“Sometimes that’s what happens with friends,” I shrugged, smiling just a bit.

They all looked at each other and hugged, then one of them sobbed, “I don’t ever want to lose you guys as friends.”

Mission accomplished once again, Disney.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What was your favorite Easter Egg? If Ralph tricks you online, do we call it getting Wreck Rolled or Ralph Rolled? Let me know!

5 thoughts on “Disney Uses IP to Address the Meaning of Friendship – Ralph Breaks the Internet

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