It’s a vast dystopic wasteland and a bright neon cosmopolis, one that puts Tokyo and Philip K. Dick’s Hell Ay and Times Square on New Year’s Eve to shame. It’s a seedy place, where a troll lurks underneath every other bridge and within the majority of your mentions. It’s busy — too busy, in fact, a 24-7 bazaar that’s constantly bustling and overwhelming. Some folks give you helpful advice; others are straight-up stranger-danger personified. (Do not go over to the “dark” side.) Everyone wants to sell you something. Everyone wants to pump your up or drag you down. It’s a hive of scum and villainy. Some people call it hell. We call it the Internet.
Welcome to the landscape that greets the heroes of Ralph Breaks the Internet, a “Wreck-It Ralph 2” rose by any other name and a sequel that doubles as a treatise on our ongoing online nightmare. First, some exposition: Ralph (John C. Reilly), the former videogame bad guy with freakishly large hands, is still smashing buildings so his 8-bit counterpart, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), can clean up the mess. Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) is still lapping folks in the candy-racing game Sugar Rush and still glitching like crazy. They spend their days at their jobs, crushing and zooming, and their evenings riding TRON cycles or having belching contests inside Tappers. Ralph is living the dream. “Why would I wonder about life,” he asks, “when my life is perfect?” Vanellope, however, feels like she’s in a bit of existential rut.
So, long story short, he sneaks into an in-progress Sugar Rush race to make things exciting for his friend; it ends in chaos, a candy stampede and the IRL player breaking the game’s steering-wheel control. Game over, permanently — except they overhear that there’s this thing called “eBay,” which has a vintage part for purchase. And guess what: The arcade owner has just invested in WiFi, which, per Ralph, “sounds like it’s either a whiffle ball or an arranged-marriage thing.” All they have to do is get to this mystical eBay place, nab the replacement gear and boom, everything fixed. So they surf into the Web. And that’s when the screaming starts.
It’s here that directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore, armed with a screenplay cowritten by Johnston and Pamela Ribon, find a common ground between family-friendly entertainment and sharp social satire. Everyone has blockhead avatars, rushing around from skyscraper site to skyscraper site. (It’s hard to tell whether the recognizable signs of Amazon, Snapchat and Fandango, to name just three, are cameos or product placements.) Mr. Knowsmore — a parody of Ask Jeeves’ butler voiced by Alan Tudyk — offers auto-corrected suggestions. A pop-up ad named Spamily (an uncredited Bill Hader) gives them a get-rich scheme involving an online multiplayer called Slaughter Race, a cross between Grand Theft Auto and the 405 rush hour on a hazier-than-usual day. Such an open-world environment appeals to Vanellope’s identity crisis, as does the game’s fast-and-furious big boss, Shank (Gal Gadot). BuzzTube — you do the math — and its head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson, killing it) offers Ralph a chance to become a viral star; quicker than you can say “leave Britney alone,” our man is grafting his head on a bleating goat and rocking some Bob Ross cosplay while nurturing a “likes” addiction. And then there’s the princesses.
Ah yes, the princesses. Vanellope gets sent to — surprise! — a Disney website, i.e. a virtual orgy of corporate synergy where Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar et al. intellectual properties mix and match. Everyone from Groot to Eeyore, stormtroopers to Stan Lee (R.I.P.) drops by. Then the Candy Crush racer crashes the dressing room of Mickey’s Inc.’s stable of fair maidens, which quickly turns into a concise, cutting critique on the entire someday-my-prince-will-come stereotype from stem to stern. It’s pop-cultural jujitsu that makes Ralph Breaks the Internet feel like its genuinely goosing a House of Mouse cash cow even as it helps sell it. How do you construct a meta moment that’s part of the film’s promotional material — it’s in the trailer — and still makes it hard ever after to see Cinderella as someone who wouldn’t cut a lady with a broken glass slipper? This is Exhibit A, and the fact that it happens in the middle of a hot brand-on-brand set piece, or possibly an animated shareholders meeting, either makes it safe or twice as subversive. It culminates in Vanellope being advise to sing while staring at her own reflection in water (“Important water,” the princesses all note) and ripping into an Alan Menken-penned ode to Slaughter Race‘s urban utopia. On any non-Star Is Born/”Shallow” year, this would have the Best Song Oscar locked up.
Because this is a PG-rated Disney movie, the big lug of the title never runs into racists or armchair fascists on Twitter here. (We’re assuming they’re saving that for Ralph 3.) But he does drop by a comments section regarding his videos, which kicks off a last act that absolutely nails the endorphin rush and the downward-spiraling depression that characterizes the sensation of spending any substantial amount of time online. Such fickle audiences and fleeting celebrities doin’ it for the lulz — such easily swayed drones crowing over the up-to-the-Meme-ent distractions. (Not a good look, humanity.) Will he break the Internet or will it break him? It’s painfully recognizable, this neediness, as is the rise and fall. Ralph, c’est moi.
He also begins to feel jealous and possessive over his female friend having her own life, which leads him to the Dark Web (you wish they spent a little more time in this section) and unleashing an Eye-of-Mordor virus to “win” her back. What follows is, in a word, nightmarish, and drawing from World War Z, King Kong and other horror flicks, its toxic-masculinity-run-amuck climax atop a tower of Google may very well haunt you. Ralph Breaks the Internet is still an animated blockbuster, still a corporate product and still a continuation of a franchise, with morals about owning your glitch, finding your tribe, make new friends but keep the old etc. But it’s also a cautionary tale, albeit one with a stay-on-message hook. Maybe don’t spend so much time on the Web, folks, it warns us. Maybe try going to the movies instead.