Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Review: "Ralph Breaks the Internet"

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” has more brains than heart. The filmmakers seem to have thought very carefully through the implications of taking throwback arcade game villain (now reformed) Wreck-It Ralph and shooting him into the wild world of the Internet.

It’s represented as a vast, science fiction-y cityscape where every major Internet player has their own building hub -- Google, eBay, SnapChat, etc. People are represented by little blocky icons as they steer through the landscape. Those annoying pop-up ads are street barkers holding up signs imploring folks to click. Likes are hearts, which can translate into actual money. And so on.

(There’s no hint of a sleazier neighborhood, fleshy pursuits taking up an astonishing portion of the real digital domain. But hey, it’s a Disney animated flick.)

I wish the movie had given as much care to its emotional navigation. If the message of “Wreck-It Ralph” was to not put people in the little boxes society assigns them, then the sequel is a mushier muddle about setting someone free if you really love them, or something.

The story picks up six years later, the same amount of time that’s passed between movies. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and pint-sized racer Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) are still fast friends, spending virtually all their downtime when their arcade is closed sloshing root beers and having adventures in various other games. During the daytime they go to “work,” aka starring as characters in their own games.

In the last movie, Vanellope’s game, “Sugar Rush,” was the hot new thing, but time saps everyone’s glow. Vanellope is getting a little tired of winning all the time on the same old tracks. She’s craving the “not knowing what comes next feeling,” while Ralph is content with the same-old, same-old.

When the steering wheel on her game snaps off, the kindly old arcade owner doesn’t have the cash to buy a new one off eBay. So Ralph and Vanellope take a ride on the wifi he recently installed.

Finding out they need money to buy the wheel, they at first stumble upon the idea of acquiring rare items in online games to sell. They invade a post-apocalyptic game called Death Race, and encounter Shank (Gal Gadot), the smooth leader of a road gang whose car they’re supposed to steal. That doesn’t work out, but leads to the idea of making goofy videos starring Ralph to splash all over a YouTube clone with their head algorithm, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), lending advice.

Things go from there. The movie hits a torpor around the middle, though it picks up soon enough.

By far the most interesting stuff is when Disney pokes fun at itself, represented as a chaotic mishmash of its classic cartoons and IPs it’s acquired in recent years: the Muppets, Marvel Comics, Star Wars. It’s the sort of thing you’ll want to freeze-frame when it comes out on video so you can catch all the Easter Eggs and inside jokes.

This leads to Vanellope, who’s at least nominally a princess, landing in the quarters of all the Disney princesses -- Snow White, Moana, Rapunzel, Belle, you name it, they’re here. Together they share a freewheeling moment where they trade their stiff gowns for comfy sweats and talk about the foibles of their trade.

There’s the downside, like being expected to wait for a strong man to solve all their problems, but also the bliss of finding your perfect dream song.

They actually bring back most of the original voice actresses to reprise their roles. I loved the self-poking fun of even the other princesses being unable to comprehend the thick Scottish brogue of Merida from “Brave.”

The last act gets very action-oriented and super hero-y, which the kiddies will love but I found a little rote. Still, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is a fun sequel with lots of color and spectacle. It doesn’t quite pass the test of “Did this movie need to exist?” But I don’t mind having it around.

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