Six years is a long time in many ways. For technology, it’s practically a century in terms of the innovations that can happen. For cinema, it’s almost as long sometimes, especially where a sequel is concerned. Wait too long, and you run the risk of the original losing relevancy. That’s definitely the case for Ralph Breaks The Internet, the sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s first theatrical sequel in decades, and a surprisingly strong case for keeping those sequels quick, cheap, and straight-to-video.
In the first bit of half-hearted metatextualness, it’s also been six years in-universe since we last saw vintage video game villain-turned-hero Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and diminutive candy-racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). Life has become mundane, with every day finding both of them punching the clock at their respective video games, then spending the night drinking root beer and hanging out. This suits Ralph just fine, but Vanellope longs for more, since her domination of Sugar Rush means she has no real challenges ahead of her.
This all changes when the steering wheel on Sugar Rush breaks, threatening the out-of-date game with disassembly if a rare replacement part can’t be found. Ralph and Vanellope use the arcade’s newly-installed wi-fi to head for the internet to find the wheel and save Vanellope’s home. There, Vanellope becomes enamored of a violent, open-world game called Slaughter Race and its champion driver, the glamorously hip Shank (Gal Godot).
My god…it’s full of links…
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
There’s a lot of potential in that story, and to be sure, there are glimmers of a narrative as compelling and connective as the one that ran through the first film. The original used its satire of video game tropes to tell a story about two characters trying to find a place beyond their pre-programmed lives, fighting the forces that would keep them down. Points must definitely be given to directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston and to co-writer Pamela Ribon; Ralph and Vanellope haven’t back-tracked in their development and begin the sequel as the characters they grew into at the end of the previous film.
But the attempts to further character development this time come across as perfunctory, professional, and (quite sadly) tedious. It’s as if they’re slotted into the film in a predetermined formula at the exact moments that the Disney Machine dictates. It’s a sad devolution from the relatively subversive and anarchic energy of the original. Even the depiction of Slaughter Race, an extreme (and extremely loose) Grand Theft Auto/Saint’s Row parody, comes across as slightly detached and safe, even while it looks fantastic and features one or two moments of surprising randomness.
To be sure, there are plenty of good intentions here. The friction between Ralph’s resistance to change and Vanellope’s longing for adventure are well-integrated into the characters’ interactions, and it leads to any number of twists on the relationship between the two. But the focus never really seems to be on that relationship, getting overdubbed by an endless barrage of visual gags, off-the-cuff references, and shallow, simplistic ideas about how we the audience interact with the internet. Very few of any of these rise to the level of the original, and there’s barely a major laugh in the first act at all. That overstuffed and overdone feeling extends throughout the entire movie, which itself stretches about 45 minutes of mostly antagonist-free plot into nearly two full hours.
Product placement? What product placement?
Perhaps appropriately enough, the film often feels like it would have worked better as a series of web episodes or short films than a full-length theatrical release, as it does have several extended scenes that work much better on their own than they do in service to the whole. The Slaughter Race sequence is visually stimulating in a very fluid, kinetic way and provides a great counterpoint to the sugar-coated race sequences in the first film. The layout of the internet itself is hypnotically busy, a sprawling, endless metropolis populated by near-mindless user avatars and branded skyscrapers like an absurd theme park.
The film’s high point, however, is the much-spoiled meeting of Vanellope with a room full of Disney Princesses. A sublime scene of self-aware satire that doubles as loving homage, its what the entire film should have been in the first place, balanced on the edge of sarcasm and sincerity. Vanellope’s “WTF” reactions to the Princesses’ backstories and concepts of the mundane are priceless, especially as it’s revealed that the reason all of them are hanging out together is that they’re waiting to be called as the result of a “What Disney Princess Are You?” quiz. The fact that nearly all of them are voiced by their original voice actresses makes the scene even sweeter.
Disney Princesses: Infinity Selfie.
Vanellope is herself truly the heart of the film, and Sarah Silverman does a phenomenal job at capturing her spirit. Although she did great work in the first film, as well, she’s improved her shading of the character here. Her worldview conflict with Ralph allows Silverman to explore the character’s emotions in exciting new ways, and she plays off of John C. Reilly well, even if Reilly himself seems a bit less colorful than he did the first time around.
Silverman also works well with Gal Godot, who’s portrayal of Shank proves that she’s got some solid voice acting skill. Shank as a character is impossibly cool, moving with a charismatic swagger and possessed of a head of expressively mobile and well-animated hair. It’s hard not to be as drawn to her as Vanellope is. Her theme music, an excellent (if cleaned-up) recreation of grungy retro-exploitation guitar-and-piano funk, is inarguably the soundtrack’s biggest highlight.
Fast, furious, fierce.
The voice acting in general is the film’s strongest element, even more than the dizzying visuals, and it often helps to hide the film’s narrative flaws and plot holes. The supporting cast is a who’s who of reliable voices, including Bill Hader as a spam-bot, Alan Tudyk as the Google-esque program Knowsmore, and an effortlessly-awesome Taraji P. Henson as Yesss, the head algorithm at viral video site BuzzTube. One of the film’s most sincerely moving moments comes between Henson and Reilly, in fact, and it’s also one of the times where the film’s base-level reading of Internet culture actually hits home.
But in the end, it’s that surface-level commentary that ultimately dooms the film and makes it feel inessential, or at the very least not ready for prime time. The film has a lot to say, but it often fails to articulate itself properly, making the film feel half-hearted and half-formed. This especially comes to a head in the film’s climax, where the themes become both too on the nose and too hazily-developed at once. Most depressingly, it often feels too sanitized and too simplistic, and there’s little edge or bite to any of its story.
Although that outfit is on point, mama.
A lot of this could have been forgiven if the film had been released directly to home media, where things are a little more forgiving and it might have actually been better when compared to the slew of truly abysmal Disney sequels released over the years. As it is, Ralph’s second adventure comes off as fun, fine, and not awful, but nowhere near as much of an unqualified success as his first. Of course, sometimes on the Internet, “not awful” is all you need to be a hit.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+