Wednesday, January 09, 2019

"Ralph Breaks the Internet": review

[NB: some spoilers, but the movie's third reel isn't given away.]

2018's "Ralph Breaks the Internet" is directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston. It stars the voice talents of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, and much of the original cast of 2012's "Wreck-It Ralph." The new movie is basically a quest: Wreck-It Ralph (Reilly) and his best friend Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman) must enter the wild, freewheeling reality of the internet in order to find and mail-order a new steering wheel for Vanellope's video-game cabinet, Sugar Rush, an old-school 3-D racing game in which Vanellope is the perennially dominant badass driver. The game's steering wheel snaps off when the girl playing Sugar Rush loses control of Vanellope's car: normally, Vanellope is supposed to act like a regular video-game character, obeying the commands of the real-life human doing the driving, but when Ralph (himself a video-game character) responds to Vanellope's declaration of boredom by digging her a new track inside the virtual reality of her game, Vanellope wrests control away from the human driver and hares off onto Ralph's freshly dug path. The real-life girl yanks the wheel in frustration, separating it from the video-game cabinet. Mr. Litwak (Ed O'Neill) can't afford to replace the broken steering wheel, so he prepares to decommission Sugar Rush and sell its parts for scrap.

The previous movie established that video-game characters all have inner lives and independent will; they can even hop from game to game via electric wires (don't ask how this works), but there's a hitch: a game character can "respawn" in his or her own video game, but dying in a different game means permanent death. Ralph and Vannelope contrive a way to plunge into the internet via Mr. Litwak's new server, but they are both conscious of how precarious their existence is. This doesn't stop Vanellope and Ralph from entering a grim, Grand Theft Auto-style game called Slaughter Race, where the dominant badass is a beautiful racer nicknamed Shank (Gadot), who plies the streets with her motley crew. Shank's first meeting with Vanellope happens when Vanellope manages to steal Shank's prized car; Shank and company tear off in pursuit, and Shank is thoroughly impressed with Vanellope's driving ability. Eventually, the two become friends, and Shank tells Ralph and Vanellope that there are other ways to earn money on the internet than by stealing Shank's car. Money—real-life money—is the goal, here, since Ralph and Vanellope need Mr. Litwak to be able to replace the Sugar Rush steering wheel, thus saving Vanellope's game from the junk heap. Along the way, the heroes meet Yesss (Henson), a slick social-media mogul who thinks Ralph can make money by gathering "likes" from making goofy viral videos of himself.

The main conflict, though, arises when Vanellope, who has been bored with her life since befriending Ralph, realizes that she feels absolutely at home in Slaughter Race, a game with no clear rules and no set track, where danger abounds and the characters—far from being nauseatingly cute like in Sugar Rush—are colorful, quirky, and even strangely deep. Slaughter Race is the perfect environment for Vanellope, a natural-born road warrior destined to drive fast and hard. Ralph, meanwhile, has expressed utter satisfaction with his life: Vanellope is his best friend, and he's made his peace with the other characters in his own video game, Fix-It Felix. For Ralph, the status quo is just fine. So "Ralph Breaks the Internet" becomes a parable about friendship, exploring what happens when two people wish to remain friends despite ever-diverging interests.

As with "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse" and "Ready Player One," "Ralph" is a smorgasbord of references and Easter eggs. The movie gives us a hilariously evil portrayal of what an internet virus looks like while also slamming us repeatedly with product placement in the form of real-life company logos—Facebook, YouTube, etc. I have a feeling that, as with the movie "Searching," all this 2018-specific imagery will ultimately work against the film, rendering it very out of date—a time capsule of a slice of an era. For the moment, though, the humor can be enjoyed on its own terms: Disney-property characters, like C-3PO and Imperial stormtroopers and Groot, make an appearance, along with the whole gamut of Disney princesses, who are used to poke gentle fun at the very concept of Disney princesses.

I'm also impressed that this sequel isn't a retread of the earlier movie. The first movie was about exploring one's own nature; this movie, by contrast, is about the strains on and bonds of friendship. It also carries a strong feminist message, thanks to Vanellope and Shank's super-competence when it comes to driving and their often Bechdel-approved repartee. (And let's be honest: the movie is at its best whenever Gal Gadot's character is on screen.) The virtual landscape that directors Moore and Johnston take us through is sumptuous in its colors and dimensions; the internet comes alive as a real, organic, and even frightening place. The film also acts as a commentary on the social-media-driven nature of modern culture, with its constant distractions and interruptions thanks to obnoxious popups and other forms of marketing. It's a well-realized world, and not always a pleasant one.

But "Ralph Breaks the Internet," for all its warmth and pizzaz, doesn't top the 2012 film. You'll recall that, in my review of "Wreck-It Ralph" (see above link), I interpreted the movie through the lens of the Bhagavad Gita: Ralph must come to accept his bad-guy dharma and act selflessly, without thought for the fruits of his actions, just like the warrior Arjuna. There were layers of religious, philosophical, and existential meaning there; by contrast, "Ralph Breaks the Internet" is a much simpler, much less sophisticated and nuanced creature. The 2012 film had something timeless about it, something mythical; this film is more straightforward, the way some lesser children's books are. The sequel also squanders some of the main characters who had made the first film such a hoot: Jane Lynch's Sergeant Calhoun makes an appearance or two, but she's been gentled by marriage to Felix (Jack McBrayer) and doesn't really have much to contribute to the plot. Zangief makes a bizarre cameo related to body hair and depilation. Felix himself is given very little to do, and if I recall correctly, Q-bert does little more than give someone a sad or reproachful look.

Overall, "Ralph Breaks the Internet" is fun and watchable; I laughed several times throughout the story as it unfolded. You won't find it quite as moving or quite as profound as the first film, but it's a fine sequel all the same. Go watch the movie with my blessing.

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