I’m not convinced that anybody involved with the creation and subsequent release of Wreck-it Ralph in 2012 ever really expected it to be the monster hit it would become. After all, this is a movie entrenched in video game arcade culture from the 80’s and 90’s that features references and character types that are largely obsolete in a time where on-line gaming and portable games consoles offer players much more sophisticated and technically enhanced games experiences. No doubt there was a belief that the film would secure a reasonable return, but the fact that it became such a success is largely because the film is a lot of fun whilst also delivering a powerful message about friendship and learning to like yourself. Appealing equally to adults and children, Wreck-It Ralph amassed more than $400 million in box office receipts, thereby making a sequel an inevitability that has taken some six years to reach fruition.
Unlike Incredibles 2 though, which compressed time to produce a sequel that ignored the 14 years that passed between movies to pick up action in the immediate aftermath of the first film, six years have indeed passed by in the world of clumsy kind-hearted behemoth Ralph (John C Reilly) and the squeaky-voiced Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), the star of racing game Sugar Rush. Ralph is happy enough working in his game in Litwak’s arcade during the day and hanging out with his best friend at night. For fun, they sneak into the Tron game or hang out and drink root beer, but Vanellope has become disenchanted with the repetitive nature of her daily routine and is seeking something more substantial. The now-married Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Calhoun (Jane Lynch) also appear in the early scenes, which are really just designed to reacquaint us with the key characters before the story kicks into gear, the catalyst for which is when Litwak plugs in a wi-fi router. When the steering wheel on the arcade machine that hosts Sugar Rush breaks, Vanellope races off to the mythical internet, looking for a little adventure (and a new wheel to ensure Litwak doesn’t retire the game), taking Ralph along for the ride.
In the same way the first movie delivered consistent references to the world of arcade games, this film is filled with jokes that revolve around the good and bad elements of the internet and the world that has been created does actually resemble how we might visualise the internet if it was a tangible entity rather than merely a digital construct; a city-in-the-sky concept in which avatars of real-world users are whizzing about in search of the information they seek, harangued by pop-ups along the way. This ‘world’ is a mix of the real (Amazon, eBay etc) and the fictional, such as Knowsmore and a hit GTA-inspired game called Slaughter Race in which Vanellope discovers that her considerable skills are wasted in Sugar Rush. She relishes the prospect of a new digital life, an enthusiasm that Ralph doesn’t share.
There are a number of smart themes woven through Ralph Breaks the Internet for children and adults alike, not the least of which is how the internet broadcasts and amplifies our insecurities. Interestingly, the film takes aim at Disney in a subplot that sees Vanellope befriend the various princesses who populate stories such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Tangled, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid and others. The princesses themselves mock the similarities in their narratives; breaking into song when they’re sad (usually while looking over a body of water) and always relying on men to save them. This is a witty scene in a film does a great job in encouraging young people to not only be themselves but to understand that their friends don’t have to be exactly like them. Standing out from the crowd and being different is perfectly okay. It’s a message that is weaved through the story very effectively and Ralph Breaks the Internet works so well because it never panders to its audience.