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Ralph Breaks the Internet

Wreck-It Ralph billed itself as a love letter to old-school video games, starring a video game villain with an identity crisis. Then the female lead came along, and suddenly she became the driving force of the plot while the humor recentered itself to focus on candy jokes. Maybe the filmmakers couldn’t think of enough video game material to fill any more than a short film, or maybe some movie exec thought the geek crowd wasn’t lucrative enough to make the film a hit. (If so, who the hell do they think is buying all those Marvel and Star Wars tickets?!) In any case, the film made a ton of box office bank and narrowly lost the Best Animated Film Oscar to the mediocre (by Pixar standards) Brave.

So here’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, in which Ralph and Vanellope (respectively voiced once again by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman) venture forth to seek new adventures in the World Wide Web. Not a bad premise. Then the first few trailers came out, and I had to ask, “Does this movie have a plot?!” Seriously, the first couple of trailers are about how awesome it is that Ralph and Vanellope are browsing the internet, like that matters more than why they’re out there or what they plan to do. Except of course to shill for Facebook and eBay and Google, when they’re not socializing with Disney Princesses and Marvel Superheroes and Star Wars Stormtroopers, and wasn’t this franchise supposed to be about VIDEO GAMES?!

Mercifully, the movie does indeed have a plot. We pick up about six years after the last movie, and everything’s going great until Ralph takes it upon himself to build a new track in Sugar Rush. Long story short, Vanellope ends up more or less playing tug-of-war with the player, fighting for control over the game until it breaks and the cabinet gets unplugged. Sugar Rush gets evacuated, so Vanellope and her friends are all homeless.

Right off the bat, we’ve got problems. Ralph and Vanellope should’ve known better. Everyone should’ve known better, since this is pretty much the exact worst-case scenario that got drilled into everyone’s head in the previous movie, and it’s the constant existential danger that this entire setting was built around!

Anyway, the Sugar Rush game cabinet needs a new steering wheel. Trouble is, the company that made the game went out of business “years ago”, and there’s only one replacement part up for sale on the entire internet. So now Ralph and Vanellope have to travel through the interwebs, securing the money to buy the steering wheel and get Sugar Rush back online. We’ll get back to that.

I looked it up, by the way: In-canon, Sugar Rush came out in 1997. So we’re supposed to believe that in the space of twenty years, the game has become obscure enough, and the company that made it has been out of business for long enough, that there’s only one replacement part available for this machine in all the whole wide world. Yes, I know there has to be only one steering wheel available for the sake of dramatic tension, but I still find that to be kind of improbable, if not totally implausible.

You know what would make even more sense? Fix-It Felix breaking down. That’s a much older game, parts for that machine would be far more difficult to find, and it would have directly involved all four of the previous movie’s leads. As it is, Felix and Calhoun (respectively voiced by the returning Jack Brayer and Jane Lynch) are both so pathetically ill-used they might as well have not been in the movie at all.

Perhaps most importantly, it would put the freaking namesake character front and center in his own movie! This picture could’ve been about Ralph’s own existential crisis as a retro character in a fast-paced 21st century world. There was so much potential there, all of it wasted because the filmmakers never go down that road. Then again, male obsolescence is such a well-worn topic for Disney and Pixar films, maybe it’s better that they didn’t. Instead, the movie plays on Ralph’s in-universe status as a nostalgic favorite, which was neatly clever.

Plus, Ralph does get a sweet bit of character development that builds off his arc from the previous film. Just as Ralph has come to accept and embrace his position in the arcade, with all its rigid rules and expectations, he’s thrown out into the lawless and borderless world of the internet and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. What’s more, he’s still a walking disaster area built for the sole purpose of destroying things. He’s a fuckup, which takes on terrible new implications when he’s set loose into the internet. Surrounded by so many things he doesn’t understand, at risk of ruining his all-important friendship with Vanellope… well, let’s just say the title of the film is no hyperbole.

Speaking of which, you know the recent Disney trend of reliably good supporting characters doing a third-act heel turn and revealing themselves as the villain? That’s not what happens here. While the climax is sloppy and ham-fisted like you wouldn’t believe, I appreciate the variety if nothing else.

Which brings us to Vanellope. Where Ralph is terrified of the internet, longing to go back to the comfort of the status quo at Litwak’s Arcade, Vanellope seems to thrive in the wide-open spaces of the internet. She seems especially at home in Slaughter Race, an MMORPG where Vanellope can race in souped-up cars as fast as she wants with no tracks to dictate where she can and can’t go. She has to face the question of where she really belongs — her own variation of Ralph’s arc in the previous movie.

And what do the Disney Princesses have to do with that arc? Not a solitary goddamn thing. Sure, the filmmakers try to justify it by saying that Vanellope is a princess herself and maybe she’s exploring that side of her identity with the help of the other Disney princesses, but it’s a pathetically cellophane attempt that amounts to absolutely nothing. And while the filmmakers do figure out a reason for Vanellope to be in the same room as these other Disney characters, it’s so insanely contrived and ass-backwards that it kinda circles back around to being brilliantly creative. But ultimately, it’s all in service of Disney promoting itself by poking fun at itself, something so absurdly out-of-place that it would have done more good on the cutting room floor.

Mercifully, the internet-related stuff fares much better. While the movie isn’t exactly 100 percent accurate in its depiction of how the internet works, it’s close enough for dramatic license to allow. The detail is impressive, and it’s frankly ingenious how the filmmakers incorporate elements like hyperlinks and pop-up ads. I was also amused by the movie’s portrayal of loot hunting and old relics like GeoCities. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about internet culture, and a sweet little message about how the web can bring out the best and worst of us.

Of course, the movie doesn’t completely neglect the old-school aspect. Franchise regulars from Street Fighter and Q*bert return, and Pac-Man gets a couple of neat cameos. Sonic returns as well, once again spouting valuable exposition.

(Side note: Hey, Sonic? Good luck with that other movie you’ve got coming up. You’re gonna need it.)

Unfortunately, there’s a very serious problem with this movie. It was a problem in the previous film, to be sure, but this movie takes it so far off the goddamn rails that it eclipses any other problem I might have had with the rest of the movie.

See, the very basic premise of the film means that Ralph and Vanellope have to earn money. Which means that they need some kind of bank account or credit card. These are computer programs earning and spending real-world currency. And they do this by setting up social media accounts and creating viral videos. All on their own. Without any human direction or intervention whatsoever.

…Am I seeing this? Am I the only one giving this more than thirty seconds of thought? We’re seriously talking about goddamn video game arcade characters — upwards of twenty years old! — with more advanced AI than anything we have today. And even if we did have AI capable of this and given such autonomy… come on, think of the implications. We’re talking about computer programs capable of moving $27,001 (that’s the actual number listed in the movie, I’m not just using it as a hypothetical), collecting that money from ad revenue and sending it to eBay so they can order a real-life product sent to an actual company that didn’t even know the product was being ordered.

Think about all the forms and personal information involved in that online order. Think about the paperwork and bureaucracy that would go into moving that much money. Think about all the end-user license agreements and contracts that won’t be valid because they’re getting signed by programs. The legal, bureaucratic, economic, and ethical conundrums are all so inescapably staggering that the multilayered clusterfucks in the real world would be a million times worse than the “lost signal” messages we see in the film.

That isn’t even getting started on the computer programs that make viruses. Yeah — computer viruses made by computer programs. The entire climax to this movie is powered by a malicious computer program that built an even more malicious computer program. If that’s not the goddamn motherfucking technological singularity that brings about the machine uprising, tell me what is!

But the worst of it — the absolute indisputable worst of it — comes much later, as a throwaway line in the film’s closing minutes. Without getting too deep into spoilers, we learn that one character integrated another character into a game’s code. Which means that the character is free of all harm in that game, as they would be in their own home game.

Where in all the ever-loving blue-blazing nine high holy hells do I begin?!

Are you seriously telling me that all the time Ralph spent worrying about Vanellope’s safety in Slaughter Race, he never had to worry at all because coding her into the game was an option all along? All the life-or-death stakes, every time the characters were placed in actual legitimate danger, every significant action scene in this movie and its prequel, all nullified by the simple question of why the hell the characters couldn’t simply code themselves into whatever game they were in. Hell, if the characters can control their own code to the extent we’ve seen in both movies so far, what’s to stop anyone from copy-pasting themselves or giving themselves infinite lives or whatever?! With that one throwaway line, the filmmakers retroactively ruined two movies, along with every sequel or tie-in this franchise may have in the future!

Congratulations, Disney! YOU DONE FUCKED UP!!!

Ralph Breaks the Internet was clearly made with a ton of effort, as evidenced by the gorgeous animation, the clever portrayal of the internet, and the solid voice acting. But it’s all for naught because the longer this franchise goes on, the more obvious it becomes that nobody behind the scenes ever thought through the notion of autonomous AI. From the real-world implications to the most basic storytelling mechanics, the world-building is only getting more and more broken. Couple that with the useless and overlong (albeit funny) inclusion of the Disney Princesses, and it’s clear that the genuinely creative voices are getting consistently drowned out by those with no idea of what they want to make except money. So instead, the filmmakers decided to try and make this movie all of the things, resulting in a flimsy and uneven mess.

Disney Animation deserves better than this, and so do we. Not recommended.

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