- Ralph Breaks the Internet
- Directed by Phil Johnston and Rich Moore
- Written by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon
- Featuring the voices of John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman
- Classification PG
- 112 minutes
Hollywood has been betting a lot lately on “cinematic universes.” You know, those shared narrative landscapes that allow one Captain America movie to bleed into the next Ant-Man or Thor adventure, compelling audiences interested in one story to follow the plank to another, until you’re wholly invested and cannot possibly live without consuming everything to do with that particular storytelling factory. In a different, more gentle time, these might simply be called crossovers – but “cinematic universe” promises something grander, both in terms of profundity and profitability.
It was only a matter of time before the concept evolved, too. I just didn’t expect that the film do it would be Ralph Breaks the Internet.
In this sequel to 2012′s fine-enough animated film Wreck-It Ralph, there’s not just one cinematic universe, but every cinematic universe. It’s a stew so thick with brand loyalty that you just might choke on all the intellectual property and consequential commerce.
If this reads like an extreme assessment for a kid’s film, consider the fact that this is marketed to, well, kids. It’s those entirely impressionable soon-to-be-devoted consumers who would be naturally drawn to the story of Ralph, a friendly but insecure galoot who, as viewers know from the first film, lives inside a video game that features him as the primary villain. Now that he’s successfully shed his bad-guy reputation, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) spends his time hanging around with familiar digital colleagues like Pac-Man and Q*bert, as well as his best friend, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a hyperactive kid-racer from the fictional-to-this-universe game Sugar Rush. After an overzealous youngster breaks Vanellope’s game, though, Ralph and his pal escape the confines of their arcade to venture into the internet, intent on securing a replacement part from some mysterious destination called “eBay.”
That’s just the first of many, many companies and brands that get glowing shout-outs from co-directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore. Once inside the web – rendered like a candy-coloured wonderland of zippy, never-ending fun – Ralph and Vanellope wander from one product placement to another, each presented as something quite fabulous. Twitter is all cute little blue birds chirping cat photos to one another (no Russian trolls here); Amazon offers any product you can imagine, and Google is there to provide, according to Ralph, “nothing but goggles!” It’s cute in a dispiriting sort of way, and maybe just this side of morally passable – kids are going to learn about the addictive wonders of Snapchat eventually, I guess.
But when Vanellope ventures into the digital domain of Disney – the studio responsible for Ralph Breaks the Internet – it’s impossible to ignore just how much of this film is predicated on turning young audiences into brand loyalists. There, the film’s young hero is awed by all of the Mouse House’s myriad intellectual property: One corner is dedicated to the Muppets, another to Star Wars, another to Pixar, another to Disney Animation, another to Marvel. A one-stop universe for universes!
As Vanellope wanders through the landscape wide-eyed with awe, she encounters storm troopers, Eeyore, Wall-E and, in one of the film’s most heavily marketed sequences, a room filled with Disney princesses.
This scene, in which Vanellope teaches Belle and Snow White and Elsa the joys of sweatpants, is crafted with its fair share of wit and a smidge of self-deprecation. But the moment is also indicative of just how much Disney, and the industry in general, expects moviegoers to be not only familiar with intellectual property, but enamoured by and loyal to it. This isn’t a harmless update of something like, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, where dozens of well-known characters were smushed together to create an entirely new world and serve a distinct and subversive narrative purpose. Ralph Breaks the Internet’s sole goal is to awe and overwhelm kids, leading them Pied Piper-like from one franchise to the next. If there’s a kid who doesn’t walk out of this film dreaming of consuming the next Star Wars, the next Toy Story, the next Spider-Man, then they’re stronger than most.
Ralph Breaks the Internet’s subservience to brand loyalty is one thing, but the film finds room for plenty of other queasiness, too, from its uncritical take on social-media exploitation (in order to fund his eBay purchase, Ralph eagerly debases himself in online videos) to its Big Wholesome Life Lesson (intended, I think, to tell kids that they shouldn’t be co-dependent on one another, but more confusing and contradictory in its execution).
Reilly and Silverman are enthusiastic presences here – and only a performer so soulfully gruff as Reilly could pull his hero off – but Ralph Breaks the Internet is less a film, more a commercial. Game over, everyone.
Ralph Breaks the Internet opens Nov. 21.