“The internet is nothing to laugh at. It’s new and different and we should fear it.”
It’s an odd line to hear in 2018, when everyone from your 4-year-old nephew to your 95-year-old grandmother knows their way around a Facebook page.
In Ralph Breaks the Internet, though, it’s being said to what might be the last demographic to never have heard of the internet: fictional characters whose video games have never been connected to wifi. And if the version of the internet they encounter doesn’t quite mesh with the reality the rest of us have been living in for 20+ years, Ralph gets enough of it right to be worth signing on for.
Ralph Breaks the Internet revisits Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) a few years after the events of Wreck-It Ralph, and their lives couldn’t look sweeter. The BFFs work hard at their respective games all day, and then hang out with each other all night. Come sunup, they separate to start the cycle again.
But this blissful routine is shattered when Vanellope’s game breaks down, leaving her not just without a home but without a sense of identity and purpose. Ralph, however, knows exactly who he is and what his job is: He’s Vanellope’s hero, which means he’s going to save her game. Even if they have to venture into the internet in order to do it.
As envisioned by Disney Animation, the internet manifests as an infinite mega-city filled with enormous buildings (i.e., websites) and teeming with blocky visitors (i.e., user avatars). It looks sleek and colorful in the same way your home screen looks sleek and colorful, and it feels as full of infinite possibility as a blank browser window.
Through this vastness, Ralph and Vanellope set out on a convoluted voyage that takes them from the glittering towers of BuzzTube (a fictional YouTube-Buzzfeed hybrid, in case you couldn’t guess from the name) to the sketchy alleyways of the “dark web,” and everywhere in between.
Ralph takes a while to get where it’s going, and not just because Ralph and Vanellope are exactly as bad at navigating the internet as you’d expect two total newbies to be. It’s not until halfway through the film that the real central conflict comes into focus, and once it does, it becomes apparent how hard the narrative was straining to get us there.
Even then, the plot logistics require quite a bit of squinting and hand-waving to make work in any real-world sense. Like Ralph’s moneymaking scheme, which is definitely not how any of this works – take it from someone who works in an industry that’s famously struggled to monetize content. Or the mechanics of the third-act crisis, which I won’t spoil here.
But a bit of fuzziness is easy to forgive when Ralph is so sharp on so many other details. Everything about Slaughter Race – a game set in a dystopia so hilariously gritty, Mad Max would be at a loss – feels instantly recognizable, even though Slaughter Race doesn’t actually exist. And while that Oh My Disney setpiece feels almost creepily synergistic, it’s also hard to deny that C-3PO stage-managing Disney princesses is a childhood dream come true.
Wreck-It Ralph has a knack for distilling complicated grown-up concepts into kid-simple terms.
Ralph nails some bigger stuff, too. Like Zootopia (also co-directed by Rich Moore, who teamed with Phil Johnston for Ralph Breaks the Internet), Ralph has a knack for distilling complicated grown-up concepts into kid-simple terms. There’s shrewd messaging about toxic relationships, gender dynamics, and self-esteem, and a subversion of princess tropes that runs surprisingly deep.
Also like Zootopia, it works because Ralph delivers all that without ever losing sight of the heart and humor driving the entire narrative forward. Ralph and Vanellope’s adventure is entertaining even when it’s not quite clear where it’s headed, thanks to its dynamic central duo, their willingness to embrace the absurd, and a heavy dose of spot-the-reference, and the emotions of the finale feel earned.
Which, come to think of it, kind of sums up the online experience in a nutshell. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a two-hour journey down a series of rabbit holes filled with laughs, tears, a ton of self-referential meta gags, and a Tumblr-worthy reinvention of familiar characters that eventually delivers something you didn’t know you always needed.
What could be more internet than that?
(PS: There are two post-credits scenes, so stick around to the bitter end.)