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What Ralph Breaks the Internet gets especially right about being online

The sequel to 2012’s excellent Wreck-It Ralph is a moving tale of an online world spinning out of control.

Ralph Breaks the Internet
Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope enter the wild world of the internet.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is a picaresque, a joyous romp through the backwaters of the internet that nevertheless packs a powerful punch. At first blush, I’d say it falls just short of its predecessor, 2012’s wonderful Wreck-It Ralph, but maybe I need to see it five more times before saying anything so bold.

And when I say it’s a “picaresque,” I mean it. Like the novels that bear this genre label, it’s an episodic journey through an unfamiliar place, following a merry band of travelers as they visit various corners of said unfamiliar place.

At first, the adventures of ’80s video game villain Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and ’00s racer game heroine Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) seem largely disconnected or plot-driven. But little by little, the voyage reveals itself to be plucking at unexamined emotional bonds between the two.

Perhaps the best-known American novel to fall under the definition of “picaresque” is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a veritable buffet of tropes from all sorts of genres in which Huck and his friend, the escaped slave Jim, float down the Mississippi. As they get deeper and deeper into the South, Jim faces more and more danger, and the humor slowly drains from the book. As the threat to Jim’s life increases, the story becomes about Huck having a moral reckoning with the institution of slavery he’s grown up alongside.

That is ... not what Ralph Breaks the Internet is about, but it’s rather remarkable how closely it follows the same structure, as Ralph and Vanellope plumb the depths of the internet in search of a way to purchase a piece of hardware they need to fix her game back at the arcade where they both live.

They riff on eBay and social media and the dark web, and though the movie is crawling with brand names — whether the sight of a giant tower marked “Google” will fill you with delight or dread is open for debate — it’s much more interested in the internet as a place that binds us together than as any specific series of corporate entities. But it’s also interested in how the internet might bind us together too tightly.

Here are three things Ralph Breaks the Internet gets really right about the internet you’re reading these words on right now. (Alas, Vox does not make a cameo in the film.)

1) The wild, “up all night” feeling of getting online for the first time

Ralph Breaks the Internet
Ralph and Vanellope look out upon the wonders of the internet.

For all its weird adoration of brand names, the first scene where Ralph and Vanellope find themselves online is a visual marvel that captures a feeling I haven’t experienced in 20-ish years: the way it feels to hop online for the very first time.

The two step out of their little wifi portal onto a platform overlooking a vast city, darting with traffic. Little Twitter birds pass along JPGs of Grumpy Cat. Amazon and Google tower over the landscape, but there are plenty of other areas to explore too. It’s at once Times Square reimagined in a digital space and a portal to a wider world. Ralph and Vanellope head down into the throngs to find their way to eBay, and the adventure is afoot.

Later, Vanellope muses that the internet seems disconnected from the day/night cycle of the real world; when you’re online, it feels like the sun is always up. And given that the movie is organized around a pretty strict time limit — after winning her replacement part in an eBay auction, Ralph and Vanellope have 24 hours to cough up the money to pay for it — this “always on” quality makes it a bit difficult to keep track of the story. But Vanellope is right, in the sense that Ralph Breaks the Internet captures that weird, buzzy feeling that comes from being online too long, from feeling like there are a million possibilities ahead and you haven’t even come close to exhausting them.

In some ways, this makes the movie’s inability to imagine the online space in a way that goes beyond a very direct representation of it a little disappointing. Yes, that big, bold city is a lot of fun to look at, but its architecture (which is built atop the very real electronic architecture that houses the internet) never quite conveys the wild, “anything can happen” sense of the internet at its best.

And even if the sequence when Vanellope meets all the Disney princesses (which has been heavily teased for months now) is mostly a lot of fun, the corporate synergy turned my stomach just a bit.

If you place all these gags in the context of Ralph Breaks the Internet co-director Rich Moore’s career, however, they make sense. Moore got his big break taking the piss out of pop culture on The Simpsons and Futurama, and the Wreck-It Ralph movies are among the few big-screen films to manage the same joke-a-minute, satirical snap of those TV shows.

The satire’s a little milder here — Disney’s not going to let him truly mock the princesses — but it’s easier to take the jokes about popular brands when Moore’s the one at the helm. He knows just how to lean into the unhinged nature of the web and speed through them fast enough to keep you from feeling too queasy.

2) The way the internet feels a little dangerous right now

Ralph Breaks the Internet
Ralph and Vanellope meet a new friend named Shank.

The script for Ralph Breaks the Internet (by co-director Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon) was written years ago, which makes it a poor fit for, say, critiquing our current, slightly terrifying online world. But even if it were more up-to-the minute, it’s not as though Ralph and Vanellope would blunder down a dark alley and meet a bunch of 4chan Nazis or anything like that.

And the movie does capture the bleaker side of the web all the same, whether that simply involves Ralph seeing a bunch of comments making fun of him or going to visit the dark web, which promises all manner of salacious items for purchase, right down to a creepy, snake-like virus that looks a little like one of the robot squid critters from The Matrix.

Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn’t want to solely portray the internet as a scary place, but I was a little surprised by how dark the movie was willing to go, especially as it entered a third act that isn’t shy about poking at its heroes’ insecurities.

Ralph and Vanellope meet a lot of fun new characters online — including Gal Gadot as Shank, who occupies an online racing game that catches Vanellope’s eye, and Disney regular Alan Tudyk as an old-fashioned search engine named Knowsmore. But it’s easy to see why Ralph keeps trying to turn back toward the arcade, where life is safe and predictable. To paraphrase Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the internet hasn’t only gotten too commercial; it’s gotten too dangerous.

This marks Ralph Breaks the Internet as belonging to a specific subgenre of the picaresque, one that harks to old Hollywood — the story of two small-town kids who set out for the big city and find their friendship tried by what they encounter there. And it’s in that version of itself that Ralph Breaks the Internet ultimately packs its biggest emotional punch.

3) The way the internet tends to embolden people’s worst impulses (but especially those of dudes)

Ralph Breaks the Internet
How is Vanellope not an official Disney princess?

It’s really hard to talk about what ends up linking Ralph Breaks the Internet’s many loose ends in a third act that feels as bold and smart a story about what it means to live online as any we’ve ever come up with, because to do so is to spoil some of the story’s biggest twists. Suffice to say that if you’re at all familiar with the “two friends go to the big city” format, you’ll know that the big city will seek to divide them. And seeing Ralph and Vanellope realize they’re becoming very different people is legitimately heartbreaking.

But it’s everything that follows from that moment that pushes the movie to another level entirely, one that left me a little gobsmacked. Because ultimately, Ralph Breaks the Internet becomes a story about how entirely well-meaning guys can become toxic to their female friends, as well as a story about how hard it can be to realize that even the best of friends might have to take divergent paths to remain happy.

And the film realizes these themes on just about every level. Its script crackles with references to online toxicity (up to and including a pointed mention of a character who wants to “ride in on a white horse” — a nod to the idea of “white knighting,” when a “nice guy” tries, too aggressively, to come to the aid of a woman online). Its images depict how it feels to have all your vulnerabilities exposed for the world to see. And its themes connect in a way that will make sense to just about any viewer, young or old.

Ralph Breaks the Internet, like all good picaresques, meanders a bit during its journey, stopping to take several little detours that aren’t strictly necessary. Most of these detours are fresh and funny; a few tried my patience. But they’re crucial to what ends up being the film’s ultimate emotional effect. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a movie about how easy it is to forget that the internet is made up of people, sometimes even people you love, because it flatters you and batters you and deflates your ego, until you forget about anybody who’s not yourself.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is playing in theaters everywhere.

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