Six years after turning over a new leaf in Wreck-it-Ralph, video game villain Ralph is living his best life: spending his days wreaking havoc in his video game world, and the dormant evenings with his best friend – Sugar Rush racecar driver Penelope Von Schweetz. While Ralph is perfectly content with the friendship, Penelope wonders if there’s more to life than driving the same tracks day in and day out.
After an unfortunate accident not only takes Sugar Rush offline, but seemingly puts it on a one-way trip to the junk-heap, Ralph and Penelope set off for the vast and exciting world known as “The Internet” in an attempt to get the sacchrin-sweet driver’s game fixed and get their world back to normal. Navigating pop-up ads, overly eager search engine assistants and shady virus dealers, the dynamic duo have their friendship tested as they discover their respective goals aren’t as aligned as they initially thought.
Review (Spoilers Ahead!)
“I forgot to tell you the first rule of Buzzztube: don’t read the comments.” – Yes
Did you know that every day, 95 million pictures are uploaded to Instagram alone? Or that in the span of a minute, 400 hours of content has been uploaded to YouTube? You can find facts like these and many others all over the internet, but even if you weren’t aware that 250 billion emails are sent out every day, you’d find it hard to deny the pervasive and total integration of the internet in our daily lives. It’s the ultimate double edged sword: on the one hand, the internet is capable of providing mankind with the collective knowledge of hundreds of years of scientific, medical, and technological advancement. It’s a platform that can be used to bring people together – closing distances between family and friends and creating communities where there were none.
Alternatively, the internet can be a dark well of cynicism and anger. Creative minds put themselves out there only to be torn asunder by strangers behind keyboards all over the world. The same platform that can provide a welcoming refuge for the oppressed and underrepresented can also be a haven for the worst among us. Ralph Breaks The Internet navigates these challenging waters, holding up a mirror to a society fully immersed in an obsession for likes, clicks, tweets, and the shockingly short attention span that helps to feed the 24-hour entertainment cycle. It also manages to toss in a look at anxiety, the harm of co-dependent friendships, the challenge of maintaining friendships after one friend moves away, oh, and it also takes a couple swings at the “princess” stereotype that Disney has helped to nurture over the last 80+ years.
Where Ralph shines brightest is in its critique of how we consume entertainment in the internet age. At one point in the film, it cuts to a joyless cubicle worker mindlessly scrolling through the latest Buzzztube videos, mumbling “Seen it, seen it, boring…” before coming across a newly made viral video of Ralph, which forces a minor smirk before he unenthusiastically forwards it to someone else. This scene feels like an out of body experience, and provides an opportunity to consider the value that the internet brings to our lives.
Another example surrounds the concept of micro-transactions in online games. In an effort to make money to buy the missing part for Sugar Rush, Ralph and Penelope partner up with a shady pop-up who promises that they can “make money by playing video games”. He explains that if they’re able to retrieve certain rare items in games, people in the real world will pay money for them. Penelope seems confused by the prospect, and indeed, viewers may find themselves scratching their head and reflecting “Why did I pay $10 for 1,000 coins in Clash of Clans anyways?”
Warnings surrounding the negative impact of the internet are nothing new. It seems like every week there’s a new report indicating that people’s happiness and fulfillment is almost universally improved when they distance themselves from regular internet usage, particularly social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Ralph Breaks The Internet furthers this narrative with the Buzzztube arc, which has Ralph subject himself to various manners of humiliation and pain in an attempt to get “hearts” and become a viral sensation in order to make the money needed to buy the critical component of Penelope’s broken game.
It’s during this endeavor that Ralph ventures into a troublesome area of Buzzztube – a large room titled “Comments”. The feed is ever-refreshing, and while the first couple comments are positive (“I loved Wreck-it-Ralph when I was a kid!”) it doesn’t take long before the inevitable vitriol starts spewing forth. Ralph plays it tough, but as he wipes away a tear, we can recognize the impact that these words have on him. This is probably one of the key messages that Ralph is able to drive home for a younger audience: the understanding that it’s easy enough to type something mean and nasty behind the veil of anonymity, but on the other side is a real person. A poignant message on the impact of cyberbullying, which continues to be a growing problem in today’s tech-addled society.
While Ralph is able to drive this point home, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much of the movie was aimed at older audiences. Typically a well-built “kids” movie will have jokes and themes for the parents to enjoy weaved into the film, but Ralph seemed to worry about the adults first, and the kids after. Its secondary theme surrounding toxic friendships is a perfect example.
While Ralph is doing everything he can to help his best friend Penelope out, his motivations are ultimately selfish. He’s content to keep things the way that they are – but even before Penelope’s game broke, she had expressed some uncertainty around being content to do the same things every day. When Ralph tries to cheer her up by saying “You have me!” Penelope responds instinctively “That’s not enough.” This noticeably cuts into Ralph, who, after six years of friendship with Penelope, directly correlates his value to her appreciation of him. He still proudly bears the “medal” that she made for him in the last film, and is overly eager to keep their friendship perfect. When he and Penelope have a minor disagreement over the arrival of “WiFi” at the arcade, Penelope ties to dismiss it by saying “We’ll just agree to disagree.” Ralph, distressed, asks “Wait, are we fighting? I don’t want to disagree!”
Ralph’s insecurities begin to look familiar to older audience members, either in behaviors they’ve exhibited, or in friends they’ve had (or still have). Despite being Penelope’s “hero”, Ralph puts a lot of pressure on Penelope to maintain the status quo at the risk of upsetting or hurting him. So, when she discovers that the online game Slaughter Race seems to be a perfect fit for her, she’s reluctant to take the leap and chase after her dreams. Adding another layer into this dynamic is the return of Penelope’s “glitch”.
A central story element to Wreck-it-Ralph, Penelope’s “glitch” has now been embraced as an asset in Sugar Rush – the ability to teleport past obstacles and gain the upper hand in a race. In her day-to-day interactions, however, we can see her glitch begin to flare up when she gets overly upset or anxious about something – similar to having a panic attack. In these moments, Ralph is able to step in and play hero, calming her down and keeping her rooted. With their respective opportunities revealed, we get a full view of the harmful co-dependent elements that are simmering beneath the otherwise cheerful friendship.
This is where the drama and tension is founded for the older viewers. Kids might be tagging along for the ride, and sure, they’ll definitely pull some valuable lessons from it, but what really impacted me was the focus on how two good friends can recognize the toxic elements within their relationship, identify and rectify them, all while managing to preserve their friendship in the end.
Before this turns into a dissertation, I’d also like to recognize one more thing about the closing theme of the movie, which is how friends stay connected even when they move away. Kids can relate to this theme, as the “my best friend is moving away” trope has been around for a long time. Yet, the internet makes parting just a bit easier to stomach, right? Even if friends move across the country, you can chat, Facetime, play video games together…the friendship continues on. Kids might recognize this as making things easier, but adults understand that there can still be a profound sense of loss.
The closing scene features Ralph and Penelope having a video chat, one they appear to have on a weekly basis now. He asks when she’ll be available to hang out, and Penelope says that server maintenance is due sometime in January – a couple months away. These friends, inseparable for nearly 6 years, now talk once a week, and maybe see each other every few months or so. This is a very real scenario for many adults who went to college, met good friends, and proceeded to watch their core group scatter to the four winds as they pursued their various dreams. It hit me pretty hard, and no doubt there will be members of the audience brushing away a tear or two as they reflect on the friendships they’ve had, and lost, due to distance and a general sense of “disconnect” from the people who used to know them best.
As you can tell, Ralph and Penelope carry the film almost entirely on their own – which is too bad, since Felix and Calhoun’s unexpected romance was a highlight of the first movie. After Sugar Rush goes down, the couple (celebrating 6 years of marriage at this point), step forward to adopt the 15 other racers, including the bratty Taffyta. This subplot seemed ripe for entertainment and comedy, but once Ralph and Penelope depart for the internet, we don’t see them again until the end of the film. One could hope for an extended edition that puts those cuts back in, but in the meantime, it’s a rather noticeable omission that can cause some narrative whiplash.
While Felix and Calhoun may have been snubbed from the spotlight, the Disney Princess subplot was pretty entertaining stuff. Being Disney, they didn’t have to worry about paying out the nose for the various patents to put all these leading ladies on the screen. Who knows, maybe there’s a Real Housewives scenario in the not too distant future?
Overall, Ralph Breaks The Internet is a fantastic successor to the video-game inspired original. What it may lack in charm, it more than makes up for with an impactful and relevant reflection on the nature of relationships and connection in the internet age.
Ralph Breaks The Internet
- Overall commentary on internet culture was spot-on and painfully relevant
- Not only illustrates the harm of toxic friendships, but outlines steps to take to overcome them
- Superb animation and voice acting
- Everything with the Disney princesses was pretty much gold
- Not so much of Felix and the rest of the gang this time
- Younger kids will have a hard time appreciating a lot of the jokes & themes
- Felix and Calhoun "parenting" arc seems noticeably cut from the film