There’s an almost defiantly earnest sweetness to Ralph Breaks the Internet that snuck up on me. I was actually moved by it, which I did not expect — 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, after all, trafficked in nostalgia for old video game characters that meant little to nothing. It was to that film’s credit that I still rather enjoyed it; I was never a gamer of any kind, but it featured a story that transcended anything that might have been foreign to me.
Ralph Breaks the Internet, as the title implies, broadens its horizons, at least in terms of its world — the story smartly focuses on the friendship between Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a truly simple idea with the backdrop of the complexity of the Internet.
And the Internet, of course, is a language I much more readily speak — as does everyone who might possibly see this movie, of course. There’s honestly nothing especially innovative or memorable about the visual rendering of the Internet landscape as Ralph and Vanellope traverse it, but it’s fine. What sets this movie is its thematic sophistication in storytelling, and how it contextualizes real-world concepts for its young viewers.
There is a scene in which Ralph stumbles upon comments being posted online about him — many of them negative and hurtful. We see how it affects Ralph, and the importance of showing such consequences to a character kids love and care about cannot be overstated. The scene is brief but memorable: it makes its point with a lasting impression.
Furthermore, we all know that, depending on where you go, the Internet is — or can be — a true cesspool of awfulness. Ralph Breaks the Internet never quite references those depths, but it does frame some of its world with a sort of amusing darkness. It’s an impressively delicate balance held steady as, for instance, Ralph and Vanellope make their way into a violent videogame called Slaughter Race.
The great thing about this movie, though, is how it depicts characters both inside and outside such a game as essentially good and without judging them. It even takes traditionally unwholesome ideas (violence, for instance) and flips them on their head in myriad ways, perhaps the best of them being that the characters native to Slaughter Race — led by a badass woman named Shank and voiced by Gal Gadot — are all best friends essentially concerned with each other’s emotional support.
There’s a unique sort of dark humor to this movie, in a way that quickly detours into touching sweetness. Ralph Breaks the Internet is at its heart about friendship, how friends can hurt each other, and most importantly, how friendship can survive such mistakes. The many gags, most of them pretty great, about Internet ideas and concepts and trends and, yes, brands — they are mercifully not overbearing, and never come close to overshadowing that core element of the story. There is plenty of richness in the visual details, but you really have to concentrate to see it all, and in all likelihood you’ll be far more concerned with how Ralph and Vanellope will remain friends.
And just to be clear, it will be a while before I stop loving movies with strong willed, badass girls and women who have agency — something this one addresses with finesse: Vanellope visits a Disney fansite and meets several past Disney princesses — all but one of them voiced by the original voice actors from their respective Disney animated feature films. They collectively play a key role in the plot, and one of them even gets to say, “A big strong man needs our help!”
The thing is, whatever Ralph Breaks the Internet sends up, it does with clear affection — and the movie is all the better for it. It’s not retroactively declaring any of those old films to be bad, per se; it’s simply acknowledging how the world has changed, and for the better, particularly for girls. The is a story that champions those underserved in the past without finding anyone to demonize in the process.
In fact, the villain here is . . . Ralph himself. Or, to clarify, a manifestation of his own selfishness — manifested as a sort of “king rat” version of internet virus copies of himself, which climbs a digital tower in a clear visual reference to King Kong. And to be fair, Vanellope makes her own mistakes, and they both learn from them. As a result, Ralph Breaks the Internet is the rare animated feature that seems on the surface to be made mostly for children, but adults can appreciate the depth and layers of what’s being presented to young minds. It’s subtle yet effective in its themes, yet so entertaining you almost don’t notice.
And even with this film’s clear acknowledgment of the dark forces in the world, and particularly on the Internet, the characters across the board are sweet, giving and endearing. Any character supposedly “rough” (such as the slug-like creature with a second face in his neck voiced by Alfred Molina) is somewhere on the spectrum between funny and cute. So it goes with everything in Ralph’s world, where bad things can happen but good people step up when you’ve made great friends.