Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), and all of the video game characters from the previous film enjoy their lives in their video game world, but Vanellope is getting restless with the same routine day in and day out. To help spice up her life, Ralph creates a new track for Vanellope during a race that a real human player is participating in. When the player struggles against Vanellope’s detour, the arcade steering wheel breaks, making the game unplayable. Unfortunately, the only existing replacement for the steering wheel is on eBay. Now it’s up to Ralph and Vanellope to venture onto the internet to secure that steering wheel.
It’s been six years since we’ve seen Ralph and company, and it was refreshing to find them mostly unchanged. The actors’ voices sound the same, and everything audiences loved about their characters makes a return, like Ralph’s earnestness and Vanellope’s cute arrogance. Supporting cast also make a return, like Felix (voiced by Jack McBrayer) and Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch). Regrettably, those familiar faces have very minor roles.
On the positive side, expanding the story universe onto the internet opens up the film to new comedic opportunities as it explores internet culture. Audiences get a reminder of – if not a fresh perspective on – everyday behavior watching YouTube, shopping on eBay, visiting disreputable websites, and all of the other mundane insipid things humans do to fill up their day. So, as we laugh at the film, we laugh at ourselves good-naturedly.
The danger of expanding the story world in this way, however, is that it can confuse audiences if not handled correctly. For instance, the humans in the Wreck-It Ralph universe have always seen Ralph as an 8-bit character in a video game. So, when Ralph ends up doing YouTube videos that are watched by humans, what does Ralph look like to them? Does he look like a cartoon or does he look like a human? For that matter, how is Ralph making YouTube videos from within the internet? Maybe the answers don’t matter in the scope of the film, but without establishing rules, audiences can feel held hostage to the randomness of the plot.
The plot does meander quite a bit. In order to secure enough money to purchase the steering wheel for Vanellope’s game, Ralph and she agree to help a down-on-his-luck entrepreneur find expensive items in video games to sell to human players over the internet. Despite this plot having memorable, sympathetic characters and a defined goal, this idea is abandoned after a few scenes, and Ralph sets off to be a social media star. From there, the film also explores other parts of internet culture, like the Dark Web and purchasing malicious programs. It’s all a far cry from the video game world that launched the series.
As a video game character, Ralph is what might be called an anti-villain or, perhaps, a reluctant villain. His actions, while good intentioned, seem to result in bad outcomes. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, however, Ralph just seems like a bad guy. His actions that break the internet are borne from selfishness and seem completely out of character for someone who would sacrifice himself for the people he cares about. The choice to make Ralph a real villain is disappointing.
That decision seems like it was in service to the grander moral story that the film conveys heavy-handedly towards the end of the film. And, that message is to let people go and explore new things without you if that’s what they want. Who is that moral for? Kids? I think that’s going to fly right over their heads. If it’s for adults, then why is it in a kids’ movie? Also, Ralph (an adult) is trying to protect Vanellope (a kid) from making a decision that puts her in a dangerous situation. Isn’t that what adults should do? Maybe kids won’t understand, and maybe they won’t care, but it would have been nice to have something for them at the climax of the film.
Finally, there is a shoehorned sequence in Ralph Breaks the Internet where Vanellope meets all of the Disney princesses from previous films. They seem to lament having to wear gowns and define their princess status by being saved by men. There’s also a gratuitous scene that showcases just how capable the princesses are on their own as they use their unique traits to reverse roles and save a man for a change. It’s clever and cute, but also completely unnecessary in the film – not just the grrrl power or the jabs at the genre that Disney essentially perfected, but the whole idea of visiting Disney at all.
Visiting Disney on the internet only helped to confuse the logic of the film. For instance, are the Disney princesses in Ralph Breaks the Internet the same ones in their respective films? If so, then why does Rapunzel have her long hair here? If they’re not the princesses from the cartoons, then where are these princesses from? Are they from a video game as well? Are they versions of the princesses that exist only on the internet? How does the logic work? We’ll never know.
Video games have come a long way over the last few decades. No longer are they seen as the pastime for maladroit nerds who lacked social and athletic skills. Now, video games are mainstream, played by all, with a burgeoning e-sports league to provide athletic competition to the unathletic. There’s so much territory for a video game-centric film series like Wreck-It Ralph to explore. A storyline that incorporates the internet was the perfect conduit to the broader video game landscape. Imagine Ralph exploring MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or getting lost in mobile games like Candy Crush. I’m sure the Clash of Clans marketing team would have loved to have teamed up for something truly hilarious. Alas, the gaming audience doesn’t get that story. Instead, it gets a hodgepodge of ideas that don’t make complete sense dressed up as a Wreck-It Ralph movie.
The characters deserve better and so does the audience.