The biggest crossover event of 2018 isn’t Infinity War, it’s directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore‘s Ralph Breaks the Internet: A film that mixes every property within the Disney universe, and some that aren’t, while finding roots in existentialism and dismantling Disney’s role in female stereotypes, examining the “nice” guy toxic masculinity of internet and gaming culture, dissecting our online interactions, and bringing gut-punching laughter.
The film retains the central characters from Wreck-it Ralph: Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Venellope (Sarah Silverman). Both now hang out in Ralph’s game, visiting his bar. It’s a good “life,” but it’s monotonous. They work. They hang. They wait for the next day. Rinse and repeat.
Venellope isn’t happy with this existence, racing the same tracks over-and-over again, carrying herself through life’s daily drudges. She wants a change. Ralph tries to bring it to her by creating a new track in her Sugar Rush game. However, when Venellope goes off course the human girls playing the game assume that it’s broken and disattach its steering wheel.
Rather than pay the money on Ebay to a buy a new wheel, Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill), the owner of the Arcade, decides to decommission the game and trade it for scrap when the next garbage retrieval happens. Luckily for Ralph and Venellope, Mr. Litwak has recently installed WiFi. Using the same Grand Central terminal-esque power block, used to travel to other arcade games, they instead employ it to enter into the internet to find Ebay, buy the wheel, and save Venellope’s game.
In a surprise, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a very introspective and existential film. Its central questioning of the meaning of life in a mundane existence would fit as a John Paul Sartre exercise of “Bad Faith.” Ralph happily identifies his existence with his occupation, a video game character. His life requires nothing else, but living as a video game character. In Sartre’s philosophy, this would be a Bad Faith existence. Sarte in Being and Nothingness also discusses “the look.” It’s when we define ourselves through the other person’s existence. We lose our subjectivity and take on the other person’s values. Venellope is literally in an existential crisis, as she glitches whenever she becomes nervous. This existential “glitch” causes Venellope to be consumed by Ralph’s values. When they enter the internet, the ultimate goal of finding Venellope’s wheel is generated through Ralph’s view of existence. That is, to not only save Venellope’s game, but to return to the vapid fruits of life.
When Ralph and Venellope find the wheel, they discover that they don’t have the money to pay for it. The rest of the film becomes a race against the clock to earn enough cash to pay Ebay.
In the film, the internet is presented as a bustling modern city, with each building bearing the name of a website, like Facebook, Fandango, Snapchat, etc. The assemblage and conception of this universe is an amazing piece of world building. In fact, it’s the best world building Disney has done since Zootopia.
Search engines are personified, such as KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk): A query Owl who guesses what you’re searching for as soon as you utter a word. Tweets are literally birds and pop-up ads are shady petty thieves.
In fact, Ralph and Venellope run into a pop-up ad who offers them money if they can go into an online game called Slaughter Race and steal Shank’s (Gal Gadot) car. Shank, an independent bad ass racer, is exactly what Venellope needs. She needs to be subtracted from a previous paradigm where the strong man saves the weak little girl. Upon entering this world, Venellope comes to love the randomness and danger it brings. She comes to divorce her subjectivity from Ralph’s worldview. “The Look” dissipates and the two drift apart, causing Ralph to react negatively.
In a bid to win back Venellope, Ralph releases an insecurity virus. The virus creates clones of him, until his millions of insecurities stack on top of each other to create a King Kong version of him (I can’t imagine the rendering time it took to make this happen). The double metaphor here mixes the current culture of toxic “nice” guy masculinity with a popular film reference. Ralph Breaks the Internet works on these varying levels of assimilated and repurposed references, at one point, even combining the Disney princess ballad motif with a La La Land big song and dance number.
In this crisscross, the film shifts from an existential discourse to an examination of gender roles. Produced by Disney, the film is also well-aware of the studio’s contributions to perceived gender normative behavior which, in the film, is borne out in an amusing Disney princess sequence.
Amazingly, Ralph Breaks the Internet is able to balance these heady subjects and still provide the typical crossover and pop culture appeal of any Marvel film. It digs deep within the Disney vaults to bring out princesses, MCU and Star Wars characters.
The film also acts as a satire of our cultural online interactions. One of the schemes to buy Venellope’s wheel is to visit Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), the head of Buzz Tube, a hybridization of Buzzfeed and Youtube. The command center, which plays as wall-to-wall videos, is inhabited by mini-avatars of humans giving likes to popular videos within the viral realm. Meanwhile, the human doubles in the real world are browsing for these same videos on their laptops. The command center demonstrates a mirrored image of our own mundane lives, as we crowd around our office computers waiting for the next cute cat video to save us from the everyday.
Indeed, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a metadiscourse of our online interactions, our relationship to the internet, our examination of gender stereotypes in popular culture, and the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity in even its most “harmless” forms. The writing here is astute and multi-dimensional, extrapolating existentialism in a way that the glitziest Oscar-bait could only hope for (I would even make the case that during any other year, it would be a serious Best Picture contender). But not only that, it somehow manages to still be hilarious for kids and adults alike.