Within the canon of Disney’s full-length animated films, Wreck-It Ralph was a bit of a point out of the curve. After all, through many decades, the company had constructed a strong legacy on the animation market by adapting works of classic nature to the silver screen, a process that was usually done via the elimination of the darkest edges of those stories and the sprinkling of the material with powerful emotional moments that lured in children and adults alike.
Wreck-It Ralph, meanwhile, released during a time when the studio was starting to show it had succeeded in escaping the slump that it hit in the early years of the 21st century, was a fully original concept that broke the mold in how it was neither a classic fable nor a fairy tale; it was, quite on the contrary, a love letter to a phenomenon that was absolutely modern, the videogame fever, and a movie that showed the company could hold its own in the scenario of contemporary animation by employing the self-referential humor the medium’s most successful works of the era adopted while preserving that good old slice of Disney magic.
In many ways, Ralph Breaks the Internet is not different. It proves, once more, the re-energized version of the Walt Disney Animation Studios can handle original scripts as well as it can undertake the translation of old fairy tales to the cinema; and it showcases a firm alignment with the general tastes of modern audiences, who like to laugh at the characters just as much as they like to laugh at themselves. And even though the proving of those skills is not as remarkable, surprising, or necessary in 2018 as it was back in 2012, for the four releases that separate the two installments (Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana) drove those points home again and again, it is still pleasant to go through the journey that brings confirmation that the world’s largest entertainment company is going through a creative and productive peak in their animation department.
From the get go, Ralph Breaks the Internet seems to announce what its core emotional thread will be: the unlikely and powerful friendship between the titular character and glitched racer Vanellope, a sweet relationship that was formed – via a series of ups and downs – through the course of the first movie. With the drama and conspiracy that threatened the arcade where the two characters and many others live completely solved, the duo is seen stuck in a routine that involves a whole lot of enjoyable work during the day, as they go inside their respective machines to play with the kids that visit the place, and a great deal of bonding and talking throughout the night.
However, while Ralph is perfectly happy with that mundane loop, as he says their friendship is all he needs; Vanellope indicates she is somewhat bored by it, as she wishes for change and wonders if there is more to life than that. It is a natural and suiting conflict that matches well with the distinct personalities of the pair, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
The plot is put in motion when Ralph, desperately trying to cheer Vanellope up and bring some change into her life, decides to alter one of the courses of Sugar Rush, the game in which she stars. Although she is overjoyed by what he does, the added detour causes the machine’s steering wheel to break, and given the software and cabinet are no longer supported, the arcade’s owner chooses to pull the plug and deactivate it for good, leading all of its characters to become effectively homeless. Feeling guilty, Ralph soon learns – by overhearing a conversation between the kids at the store – that a working steering wheel can be found at a mysterious place called eBay, which in turn is located somewhere inside an entity dubbed the Internet. Desperate to clean up the mess he made, he grabs a hold of Vanellope and the two of them use the local router to gain access to the world wide web.
Ralph Breaks the Internet, then, proposes an interesting shift. Where Wreck-It Ralph put together its universe by gathering hundreds of references from the gaming industry, in turn assembling a charming electronic version of Toy Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet – despite still having games as a starting point – uses elements of the web as the blocks that build its world. Surely, similarly to the case of Woody and Buzz Lightyear’s franchise, the concept of self-aware videogames still had plenty of juice in it if the company had opted to center the sequel around the same theme; nevertheless, even if it ends up leaving some gaming stones unturned, it is undeniable the change ends up being fruitful.
The Internet is, after all, more omnipresent and universal than videogames, which makes the movie’s fabric be more relatable; and the fact the film’s central scenario shifts so radically adds a nice degree of freshness to it, because when Ralph and Vanellope first go online it is as if the doors to a whole new world have been blasted open, a feeling that is usually reserved for the debut of new sagas and that is rarely present in sequels such as Ralph Breaks the Internet.
Essentially, the movie is divided into three clear acts. With the first one happening at the arcade and setting up the plot’s main conflict, the second one seeing the friends take it to the Internet, and the third one having the friction between Ralph and Vanellope explode and cause unpredictable impacts. The main issue found in Ralph Breaks the Internet, though, is how there is a slight imbalance between the story development that occurs in each of those chapters, because the middle one feels a bit lackluster in that regard. That happens because the second segment of the film gets perhaps too enchanted with the gags, jokes, and visual cues the newly discovered Internet universe allows. As the pair goes online to look for the steering wheel, and to discover that they need to find a way to make actual money in order to acquire it, audiences will be greeted with dozens of smart nods to well-known assets of the Internet, like pop-up adds, vicious comments, search engines, likes, virtual auctions, memes, alerts, the deep web, and many others.
Borrowing a page out of the Pixar book of world-building, the animators excel in bringing those concepts to a visual format that is charming, creative, and funny. The highlight of that package comes when Ralph and Vanellope stumble on a Disney fan site, which leads to the appearance of several popular characters from the company’s ridiculously big group of franchises and to the occurrence of a historical encounter between Vanellope and all Disney princesses, when the company smartly takes a shot at itself and the outdated tropes that guided many of its old fairy tales.
Still, as entertaining as it may be, the series of events during that portion of the movie feel a bit like a hollow chain of jokes that do not move the story forward in a significant way. Truthfully, it is not that Ralph Breaks the Internet presents pacing issues, as the film never sits still or sinks into boredom; it is just that the plot of its middle section lacks the inspiration that is displayed everywhere else, as it is carried by a tale that is slightly mundane.
When it moves its focus back to the heart of its emotional component, though, Ralph Breaks the Internet delivers. The distinct personalities of Ralph and Vanellope cause them to see the world through highly different lenses, and such disparity grows larger when a completely new universe emerges, especially one that – as the movie highlights – has the twisted ability to amplify both the good and the bad traits that exist in its users.
And upon having their true and loving friendship tested under the strain of the changes brought in by that new environment, the characters prove that growing differently does not necessarily have to be the same as growing apart, and that a balance between the two can be found if the two parts are able to accept the existing differences and simultaneously evolve. One may claim neither of those points is exactly refreshing, and it is fair to say the movie’s message on friendship is slightly obvious, but it is impossible to deny Disney does it quite well. The moral is sufficiently clear for children to get it and it holds enough emotional weight for adults to be reminded of simple points that are easy to lose sight of.
The heavy focus on Ralph and Vanellope may cause new characters to become mere accessories to the central plot, and the movie’s dedication to the creation of gags that gravitate around signature elements of the Internet may lead its story to be blatantly inferior to that of the original film. Still, Ralph Breaks the Internet is an enormously enjoyable work that cements the link between its protagonists as one of the greatest partnerships Disney has ever put on a screen, a fact that makes the movie’s emotional highs be remarkably touching. And with that, once more, the studio proves it is perfectly capable of balancing its adherence to contemporary trends with its classic dosage of laughter, tears, and magic.