In some ways, it’s hard not to look at Ralph Breaks the Internet and not think of it as instantly dated. To the film’s credit, it tries to go for macrotrends on the Internet rather than chasing the latest meme. But if you put the Internet in the background as the movie tries to do and look at the story it’s trying to tell, then Disney’s sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is surprisingly rewarding and refreshingly bold. It’s a story about not what just it means to be a good friend, but the consequences of being a bad friend. By putting its focus on the friendship between its two lead characters, Ralph Breaks the Internet breaks free from being just a bunch of Internet gags and becomes something far more rewarding.
It’s been six years since the events of Wreck-It Ralph and Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) are best friends who have settled into a nice routine, but Vanellope is growing restless. She’s mastered her game, Sugar Rush, and is looking for something more exciting. When the steering wheel on the Sugar Rush game breaks, Ralph and Vanellope head to the Internet to find a replacement. When they accidentally overbid on the replacement wheel they find on eBay, they try to find different ways of making money before their item is taken away. But as they start to explore new corners of the Internet, Vanellope discovers that there’s more to life than what she’s had at the arcade, and Ralph becomes overly defensive of their friendship.
The Internet is the hook of Ralph Breaks the Internet, and it’s filled with lots of jokes that most people will appreciate it. Most major Internet sites were clearly good sports about having their brands appear in the movie, and when something like “BuzzzTube” shows up, you know it’s YouTube, so it’s not really all that distracting. To the film’s credit, directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore aren’t trying to make a satire about the Internet, which would likely be irrelevant in a few years given the speed of the medium (remember ten years ago when Twitter wasn’t a nightmare hole?). Instead, it’s just the flavoring for the story and a way to change up the setting so that they’re not just doing video games again.
Where the film shines is the friendship story and it shows how Disney Animation is pushing itself harder to tell new stories. They could have simply done “Friendship is good” and Ralph is a good friend to Vanellope by sacrificing himself in some way (similar to the last movie). But instead, Ralph Breaks the Internet goes deeper, showing the dangers of being a bad friend by having Ralph engage in duplicitous behavior to try and save his friendship with Vanellope. For younger viewers, it’s good to illustrate not just positive friendship, but also negative friendship, especially in the Internet age where you can hurt people without having to look them in the eye.
The biggest problem with the film is the pacing and perhaps relying a little too heavily on the Internet gags. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a balancing act where it wants to give people a good time by poking fun at the Internet and Internet culture, but also tell a story about what it means to be a good friend. Both sides of the film are strong, but it’s telling that the best part of the movie is the third act when they go all in on the friendship story and leave the Internet jokes behind. Unlike Wreck-It Ralph where I could have done with more video game gags, the sequel had me eager for more of the friendship storyline.
To the great credit of the writers on Ralph Breaks the Internet, a story about friendship and a story about the Internet are not exclusive entities awkwardly meshed together. The Internet, as it exists today, is about relationships, and what those relationships mean. They can be supportive, exploitative, or plenty of other things, but the Internet has changed the way we interact with each other. It can cause us to be more extreme than we’d otherwise be. With that in mind, it’s delightfully subversive and sharp to use it as a setting about the importance of healthy relationships. And if you can throw in some jokes about online gaming and Disney princesses, then that’s all the better.