9:00am PT by Josh Spiegel
How 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' Trolls Audiences
[This story contains spoilers for Ralph Breaks the Internet]
If you stay until the very end of Ralph Breaks the Internet, you’ll be treated to something very special indeed: a sneak preview of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ next film, the Thanksgiving 2019 release Frozen 2! ...Kidding. As is the movie. When you do stick around through the end credits, you’ll instead be treated to a re-enactment of the “Never Gonna Give You Up” video from singer Rick Astley that’s become synonymous with RickRolling. Yes, that’s right: the end of Ralph Breaks the Internet is a RickRoll. (Or, more accurately, a RalphRoll.) And there’s quite a lot of that exceedingly clever humor in the new Disney film, to the point where it feels too clever by half.
Sequels like Ralph Break the Internet aren’t really the bread and butter of the Walt Disney Animation Studios. (Prior to its release, over eight decades there were only two sequels in the WDAS canon, The Rescuers Down Under and Fantasia 2000. By the end of 2019, there will be four.) But as Pixar Animation Studios has become more popular and powerful and the Emeryville studio has begun to rely more on sequels, so too does Disney. Many of their films feel close-ended, but even those find new life — typically in direct-to-video sequels or in TV series. That’s why Disney Channel fans can experience new adventures for Rapunzel in Tangled: The Series. But with Ralph 2 and Frozen 2, it feels like sequels are the new normal for Disney.
At the very least, you can’t ding Ralph Breaks the Internet for repeating the storytelling beats of its 2012 predecessor. This time around, after a mishap during a race, Vanellope Von Schweetz’s (Sarah Silverman) game Sugar Rush is on the brink of being thrown out of Litwak’s Arcade, and the characters within left homeless. So she and her big best friend Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) go into the internet through Litwak’s (Ed O'Neill) newly purchased wireless router to go to eBay and win a necessary replacement part. Once there, Ralph realizes that his aggressively dependent personality has become something of a burden to Vanellope, who’s excited by the possibilities the internet offers compared to her old game.
What makes this sequel stand out, aside from its depiction of a fairly complicated friendship, is its very meta humor. There’s the ballyhooed scene during which Vanellope encounters the Disney Princess characters, everyone from Snow White to Moana, most of them voiced by the original actresses. Unsurprisingly, this is a brief scene that mostly exists for lots of clever gags about how princess characters in Disney films have traumatic lives before they’re supposedly saved by “big, strong men”, a notion that makes them all scoff. (Which is a bit of a retcon since, for good or ill, most of the Disney princesses — at least those before the 21st century — are saved by men.) But the entire sequence set in the Oh My Disney area of the internet is full of meta humor and cameos, from characters like Grumpy, C-3PO, Buzz Lightyear, Groot, and more. To paraphrase a Marvel line, it feels like the purpose of this sequence is to make you feel like Captain America and acknowledge that you get all of these references.
What does work, without needing to be laden with references to things you recognize from your time online, in this movie is the core relationship between Ralph and Vanellope. Though the film isn’t able to achieve the kind of emotion that you might find in other recent Disney animated stories, the way it depicts and criticizes Ralph’s inability to, as a certain princess might say, let it go and allow Vanellope to explore the internet without him is an unexpectedly welcome twist that makes this story feel fresh, even amidst a time-specific setting. The conflict between Ralph and Vanellope gets extreme in the climax — after a virus he spreads in the online racing game Slaughter Race to drive Vanellope back to the arcade goes rogue, it creates an infinite number of Ralphs who fuse together to make a King Kong-like Ralph that goes about... well, breaking the internet. Unlike the original’s convoluted third-act twist, this movie plays fair and ends up resonating a little bit more.
But if anything marks Ralph Breaks the Internet, it’s all that clever humor and the premise on which that clever humor is based: that you’ll laugh simply because you recognize it. Considering that this is a sequel, it’s again to the film’s credit that very little of the humor here feels recycled from the first one. But there is a sense in which it feels recycled overall. Ralph Breaks the Internet is fine — for this writer, it’s an improvement on the original film, but not a drastic one. It’s fine for a sequel. Compared to other recent sequels from Pixar, like Finding Dory and Cars 3, it’s decent enough. But coming right after the one-two punch in 2016 of the exceptional and distinctively original Zootopia and Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet can’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown. The animation wizards at Walt Disney Animation Studios are absolutely capable of greatness, and they achieved it twice two years ago. The prospect of getting two sequels two Thanksgivings in a row isn’t a crushing disappointment; if this is the baseline of their quality, it’s OK. But OK isn’t great.