Ralph breaks the mold for animated sequels

Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

8/10 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph released near the end of a period of experimentation for Disney Animation studios after its parent company bought its chief rival, Pixar, in 2006, only to maintain Pixar as a separate studio that continued to outperform Disney Animation in the same target demographic.

It was around this time that Disney Animation finally followed Pixar’s lead and moved to primarily computer-generated animation for its movies, but we also see in this period a distinct trend toward mimicking Pixar’s emotional complexity, to varying degrees of success. Wreck-It Ralph was OK, but as with most attempts to mimic Pixar, it feels like an attempt to mimic Pixar.

The sequel, on the other hand, feels much more on the mark.

In Ralph Wrecks Your Mom – No, that’s a different movie –

In Ralph Wrecks the Internet – Not that either, they left that much better title on the table –

In Ralph Breaks the Internet, we return to Litwak’s Family Fun Center and Arcade six years later, and not much has changed. Arcade game characters Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) perform their video game roles in all day and hang out all night inside the surge protector all the games are plugged into. Having spent most of his life ostracized because of his destructive nature, Ralph couldn’t be happier, but von Schweetz is being driven mad by the monotony.

When von Schweetz’ game breaks and Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) deems to sell it for scrap, which would condemn von Schweetz to a potentially very short lifetime of homelessness, she and Ralph venture inside the Internet, which has been newly plugged into the arcade, to find a new part for the machine. As they struggle to find and then pay for the part to the antiquated arcade game, von Schweetz is seduced by the awesome bustle and variety of the World Wide Web.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is spectacular as a sequel. Any time a movie is popular and profitable enough to follow up on, it’s ultimately because people connected to the characters, and to succeed, sequels need to build themselves around those characters, something the writing team was keenly aware of in this case. Everything about Ralph Breaks the Internet evolves naturally and gracefully from Ralph’s and von Schweetz’ desires and deficiencies, which are expanded upon but still grounded in their establishment in the first movie.

What stands out most starkly is the film’s bold choice in setting the leads against each other. Ralph and von Schweetz are diametrically opposed – she wants things to change, he wants them to stay the same. The trend for sequels, especially for toy-selling kid movies, is to focus on a flamboyant new villain, often at the expense of the leads, who viewers are expected to have a built-in sympathy for coming in.

Ralph Breaks the Internet’s story structure turns that trend, and the ideas behind it, right on its head. There are plenty of new characters, and they are plenty flamboyant, but they all get limited screentime in the service of the leads’ stories. The film uses built-in sympathy for the lead characters both to shorten up character development time and as a point of attack – instead of rooting for established heroes against a new threat, viewers are forced to examine the characters they came in rooting for.

The movie’s scrutiny of its own characters is capped off with Mega Ralph, a giant conglomeration of Ralph clones formed by a DDoS virus that takes his form. It’s this skyscraper-sized combination of Ralphs, all moaning about how nobody loves them, that do the titular “breaking of the Internet” – they wander about the web’s streets, destroying structures that represent individual websites as they go. Animators maintain detail on every individual Ralph throughout the sequence.

Visually, it’s Lovecraft-tier disturbing, and emotionally it attacks Ralph at his core in a way that stiffly tests viewers’ attachment to him in the first place. Where Wreck-It Ralph was about him solving the problem of not having any friends, Ralph Breaks the Internet is about him being made to realize that isn’t a valid problem.

The Internet itself seems to get pushed backstage a bit. At a glance, the setting gives me bad flashbacks to The Emoji Movie, but is much more grimey and lived-in, and the background wasn’t the problem with that movie anyway. On closer inspection, it seems to be more directly inspired by New York City.

Ralph Breaks the Internet’s fish-out-of-water setup is primed to make fun of just about everything in our culture in some way or another, and it really doesn’t. This is another movie in which the vast majority of the humor is in the trailers. It’s less a joke-a-minute and more a joke every few minutes, but only if you average it out – they come in spurts. It’s not really a problem because the melodrama is much stronger anyway, but coming in I was looking forward to more cultural lampooning.

A month later and into the holiday season, Ralph Breaks the Internet is still probably the best children’s movie out right now. It was released as the go-to trip to the movies with your kids over Thanksgiving, and while newer releases will certainly outperform it over Christmas, your second or third viewing of this film will still be much more rewarding than your first viewing of Mary Poppins Returns.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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