In the last dozen years or so, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been fascinating to watch. Since Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006 and placing the heads of Pixar to run Disney’s animation studios, the dynamic of both Disney and Pixar have vastly changed. Pixar has lost some of its cache as the studio who could seemingly do no wrong, as they released too many sequels and created new properties that didn’t take off. Meanwhile, Disney animation has thrived, almost taking Pixar’s place with commercial and critical successes like Zootopia, Big Hero 6, and revitalizing the Disney princess with Frozen and Tangled.
There may be no better example of the confluence of Disney and Pixar’s ideas and styles than Wreck-It Ralph, the story of video game villain Ralph (John C. Reilly) leaving his arcade cabinet in the hopes of finally becoming a true hero. Wreck-It Ralph very much follows the same arc as Toy Story and could’ve easily been made under the Pixar brand, but the addition of a new Disney princess in glitching race car driver Vanellope von Schweetz is distinctly a sign of the old guard. In the rare sequel for Disney Animation (only their third, after The Rescuers Down Under and Fantastia 2000), Ralph Wrecks the Internet is one of the few followups that at least matches the quality of the original. If Wreck-It Ralph was Toy Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet is fittingly reminiscent of the emotional payoff and stakes of Toy Story 2 and 3.
After the events of Wreck-It Ralph, Vanellope and Ralph finally have each other, friends who accept each other for who they are. While Ralph is content after his adventure to at least be a hero in Vanellope’s eyes, Vanellope is longing for something more. Her game, Sugar Rush, is too predictable for her and despite Ralph’s attempts to cheer her up, Sugar Rush just doesn’t hold the same spark it once did.
When Vanellope’s Sugar Rush machine breaks, all the game’s characters become refugees in the arcade’s hub, but with the game likely beyond repair, it seems as though these characters will remain without a home. Thankfully, the arcade in which the machines reside has just been connected to wi-fi, so Ralph comes up with a plan to go onto the internet, find the piece that the Sugar Rush arcade cabinet needs, and get the occupants of Sugar Rush back home. However, the world of the internet is a vast, new place for both Ralph and Vanellope, full of unknown opportunities. After Ralph and Vanellope visit Slaughter Race – a combination of Rockstar’s Midnight Club games and the Fast & Furious films – and the game’s main character Shank (Gal Gadot), Ralph is afraid he might lose his new best friend to the world wide web.
Ralph Breaks the Internet disposes with most video game references this time around in exchange for playing around with the much larger environment of the entire internet. Here, the internet is a gigantic world of looming businesses that reminds of the opening credits from Silicon Valley. Ralph works well in this new world, from his general misunderstanding of what eBay is, to using the Pinterest tack as a weapon. The creation of the internet as a whole world to explore allows for some fun, new characters, such as the search bar attendant KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk), the shady popup ad salesman JP Spamley (Bill Hader) and Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm for the site BuzzzTube.
Most of the old favorites are still around, but get lost in the rest of the story. Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Calhoun (Jane Lynch) are married now, and even adopt the lost players from Sugar Rush. But after a quick visit to their home, the new family arrangement doesn’t come up until the very end. The writing throughout Ralph Breaks the Internet by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon is usually quite sharp and witty, but it feels like a chunk of the story is missing, and maybe this side story should’ve been left out entirely, considering how unnecessary it is.
Ralph Breaks the Internet also takes on the negative culture of the internet, the cynicism and the insecurities of those who are too wrapped up in their online lives. Ralph’s self-doubt about his friendship with Vanellope only grows the more time he spends on the internet, and his unfavorable behavior only grows the deeper he goes into the internet. Even one of Ralph’s low points comes from reading the comments on a video that features him. Ralph’s biggest enemy in Ralph Breaks the Internet is himself, his doubts, and the way his mistrust causes him to become almost an enemy to Vanellope. It’s an intriguing idea for a Disney film to take on this type of antagonistic, repugnant behavior, but in a film completely about the internet, it also feels essential.
But Ralph Breaks the Internet mostly puts Ralph and Vanellope on the search for MacGuffin after MacGuffin that doesn’t have the urgency the film thinks it does. The search for the one piece leads to a search for money, which leads to the creation of BuzzzTube videos and on and on the plot goes. Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in these hunts keeps the story strong, but the simplicity of the story in the original film felt much tighter than this quest for various items.
In Ralph Breaks the Internet’s most brilliant choice, Ralph and Vanellope visit OhMyDisney.com, and while that certainly could’ve just been a cheap plot choice to sell other Disney properties (and sure, it still is), the self-parody and criticism of Disney’s own properties is hilarious and inspired. While the site is credited as the most insane website on the internet, directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore keep the action manic and packed with references, but never overwhelming.
Ralph Breaks the Internet shifts from the video game world into a much larger landscape and succeeds because of the more wondrous options at hand. Ralph Breaks the Internet is more complex than its predecessor, a richer, more emotionally powerful film that’s consistently smart, charming, and impressively funny. Ralph’s satire of its own studio and the massive heart in the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope makes Ralph Breaks the Internet the perfect combination of Disney’s obsession with their own past and Pixar’s ability to pull at the heartstrings.