You know, the first Wreck-It Ralph, released some six years ago, was a pretty damn good little movie. It was a sweet movie about chafing against your programming, about how your work doesn’t totally define who you are, and it had some solid jokes, rooted in a true love for video gaming. There was imagination to spare, and its setting’s central premise — that there’s a world inside your arcade’s video game machine — was executed smartly. So, naturally, it made sense to expand outward if they wanted to make a sequel, to find another space for its characters to interact in, and, for whatever reason, Disney decided to make it about the goddamn internet. Ralph Breaks the Internet suffers from the same insidious problems that sink almost every internet-related movie — namely an adherence to the corporate gospel — and it’s a betrayal of the imagination of its predecessor.
In the years since the first film, former villain Ralph (John C. Reilly) and kart-racing princess Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), best friends, have settled into comfortable little lives: They work all day entertaining the patrons of Litwak’s Arcade and, at night, they play around, drinking root beers at Tapper’s and starring at the stars from center-field inside the Madden machine. However, Vanelllope is kind of sick of the routine — after all, she’s only got three tracks — and yearns for something more. So, when Ralph makes her a new track and accidentally winds up breaking her arcade game, the two have to venture into the Internet — recently hooked up via by the arcade’s proprietor — in order to buy a replacement part for her machine. It’s there that the film’s central conflict opens up, as Vanellope becomes entranced by an apocalyptic new game, called Slaughter Race, where she’s able to drive as wild as she wants and where she is challenged by the strong skills of the other racers, including Shank (a lifeless Gal Gadot), the leader of the pack. She winds up wanting to leave the arcade, and this tears Ralph up, so he schemes to find a way to get her to stay. And in the process, he nearly destroys the entire internet (a noble goal).
There’s plenty I’m leaving out, including Ralph’s attempts at becoming internet famous so that he can earn real-world money in order to pay for the broken arcade game part, but honestly, it’s all very forgettable. Some of that feels like it’s by design, given that the things that stick with you aren’t character moments, but rather how the movie uses its corporate licensing. The Disney polish manages to cover up the competing corporate interests with a moderate amount of storytelling competence and humor (though the film egregiously plucks its best joke out of the narrative and sticks it in the middle of the credits to joke about how sometimes scenes aren’t in movie trailer, but you are deluding yourself if you think that this is any different than The Emoji Movie in any meaningful way. We have digital monuments erected to Twitter, Google, Pinterest, Facebook, Ebay and plenty more, some of which will undoubtedly flame out and become like Pan Am in 2001: A Space Odyssey in the coming years, leaving a weird void in the otherwise timeless setting as a sacrifice to the corporate gods of the moment. It’s also constantly undercut by the bad actors present in the bunch — every time a Twitter bird flies past Ralph and Vanellope, one wonders what kind of ugly sentiment it’s carrying into the void.
The Mouse is no stranger to this corporate cognitive dissonance, like the time that Disney thought it was alright to have Northrop Grumman share the stage with Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers at New York Comic-Con a few years ago. These odes to these miserable companies are ill-timed and out-of-place but everywhere in Ralph Breaks the Internet, and it gets even scarier once you’re reminded just how much Disney owns in a segment that takes place at the company’s own website — Star Wars, Marvel, Air Bud, Pixar, all soon to be joined by the Alien and The Predator — that is supposed to be Vanellope’s coronation into the ranks of the Disney Princesses, as she’s surrounded and greeted by all of them. That scene is probably going to beloved by plenty, given that it’s basically crack-cocaine for the most devoted fans of the company, but I found it pretty stale. To be frank, I’m sick to death of Disney lampshading the princess tropes, especially since they continue to profit off of them, and because they haven’t crafted a joke better than the ones in Enchanted 12 years ago.
It’s not all without merit, however. Reilly and Silverman are still an appealing team, and there’s fun supporting voice work done by Bill Hader as a pop-up ad man and Alfred Molina as a dark-web troll ripped straight out of Total Recall. The arcade remains a fun environment, though we don’t spend enough time there, and what glimpses we get of the old ensemble — including Fix-It Felix and Sgt. Calhoun — are nice, and remind one why there was enough material there for a sequel in the first place. There’s some meaningful commentary made about how insecurity is the thing destroying both friendships and online communities, as Ralph manages to screw everything up with his neediness and, somewhat less importantly, threatens the bottom lines of major corporations with his desire to not see his friend leave him behind.
Still, it’s a woefully odd viewpoint — one too simple to be prescriptive for the adults seeing the film, one too complicated for the children in the audience who have never been anywhere near a comment section — that the movie might have been better off just avoiding in the first place, even if these moments are occasionally done well. There’s a nice message in there about not being held back by your friends and becoming okay with long distance friendships as well, but one could have had that messaging without doing all of this.
It was always an arduous task to create a movie about the internet, a place decidedly unfriendly to children, geared towards them, and perhaps there would have been something interesting at least to be found in making a fully-fictionalized idealized version of the worldwide web, free of the irritations and flaws found in our online lives. But, given that we’re so beholden to the Corporatocracy that is the internet, of course the imagination is befuddled and limited when it tries to imagine a better world, and Ralph Breaks the Internet can’t overcome that hurdle.