Ever since the internet transformed from a wild west of forums populated exclusively by tech nerds to a cultural necessity, big companies have been trying to show their customers how much they “get” the internet. From the early infamous Quizno’s “Spongmonkeys” ad to disappointing sponsored content like Tay Zonday’s “Cherry Chocolate Rain” video, the evidence of companies leveraging memes to sell stuff is both overwhelming and exhausting. And just like the time your aunt described her Precious Memories collection as “on fleek,” as soon as these ad campaigns get ahold of something that’s seemingly fun and relevant, it’s a signal that that thing has come to the end of its life cycle.
With all of that in mind, Ralph Breaks the Internet seemed to be poking a bear that had already mercilessly devoured many kids movies before it (shout out to The Emoji Movie). The first Wreck-It Ralph movie was undeniably enjoyable, but it capitalized on 80’s arcade nostalgia, not on the endlessly-changing zeitgeist of internet culture. It seemed dubious that Ralph Breaks the Internet could recreate the fuzzy joy of its predecessor while also telling its story in an often horribly heartless and unforgiving setting.
But, thankfully, Ralph Breaks the Internet does not fall into the trap of cheesy meme-based jokes or gratuitous references. Instead, it focuses its attention on a very mature story of friendship and introspection. The movie begins a few years after the end of Wreck-It Ralph, with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) complaining to Ralph (John C. Rilley) about the repetitive nature of their comfortable but predictable day-to-day existence. The action sets off when an arcade patron breaks Vanellope’s game, and she is forced to journey to the internet with Ralph by her side in order to locate a replacement part on eBay and save her game from being trashed. What follows is a thoroughly entertaining quest that mostly does not rely on the short-lived relevance of its subject matter.
Unfortunately, Ralph Breaks the Internet does stumble quite obviously in the actual implementation of its online setting. While the movie thankfully doesn’t make too much use of tired in-jokes, it does partake in some absolutely mind-numbing product placement. Internet brand names are abundant in ways that are obviously paid for (you cannot convince me that one of the first and largest brands you would see when arriving to the internet is Purple Mattress), and the entire movie is smeared with grubby Disney fingerprints. At one point, the scenes start to feel like a grim vehicle for Disney to reminded us of how far into popular culture their entertainment monopoly reaches.
Inevitably, it’s the scenes that take place in entirely fabricated websites that pack the most punch. When it stops feeling like an ad, it’s much easier to enjoy the movie for all its campy fun. Thankfully, most of the plot takes place in these satirized worlds, and that allows the genuinely heartfelt story to shine through the fog of brand names. Whereas the first movie focused on finding a friend, this movie focuses on the great lengths we will go to in order to keep that friend around, even if doing so is not healthy for either of us. It’s a relevant story to anyone who’s ever realized that clinging desperately to someone will actually make them like you less, and it’s a refreshingly emotionally mature message for a kid’s movie to deliver.
Overall, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a fun experience. If you can keep your eyes from rolling out of your head during the first ten ad-saturated minutes of Ralph and Vanellope’s internet adventure, you’ll be rewarded with an honest and entertaining story that just might live up to its delightful predecessor.