Ralph Breaks the Internet Review
It's not that the original Wreck-It Ralph wasn't a corporate exercise, but it managed to gloss over its product placement for every sugary snack under the sun and corporate brand synergy with various video game franchises with a sweet (albeit tried and tested) story about friendship. This is, of course, the Disney method, and their 2012 animation was doing for video games what Toy Story did for, well, toys. So why was I left feeling trepidatious about its belated sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, when it was merely extending the same corporate formula of the original?
If I was left enjoying its predecessor despite the somewhat unpleasant product placement for brands ranging from Nesquik to Oreos (which in a lesser film’s hands would be more apparent fuel to the child obesity epidemic), what was it about Ralph Breaks the Internet's use of branding that felt more uneasy in comparison? It's thoroughly unpleasant for children to be subjected to a film that appears to glorify the same online brands that can potentially warp impressionable minds, with more than a whiff of the widely derided Emoji Movie around its quest narrative. But this isn't new for the franchise - and the most surprising thing is that, despite the shameless corporate pandering, the film manages to overcome its flaws to become massively enjoyable in spite of this inherent insidiousness.
The film is set six years after the events of Wreck-It Ralph, where John C. Reilly’s titular hero proved himself to be more than just a video game villain to win the hearts of his gaming community. His friendship with Bubble Rush racer Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) is as strong as ever, but her desire to see a world outside of their overly familiar arcade has led to an unspoken tension between them. Ralph surprises her by building a new racetrack inside the game, but this leads her arcade machine to become faulty to the children playing it - and when it breaks, there is little hope of it getting fixed due to how archaic the machine is.
Soon after, a new machine gets plugged into the arcade: WiFi. Discovering that a replacement steering wheel for the arcade game is on eBay (the first and most egregious example of product placement here), Ralph and Vanellope head onto the net to buy for themselves. This leads to money-making schemes ranging from defeating challenges in a violent video game known as Slaughter Race (whose main character, Shank, is voiced by Gal Gadot), to Ralph using his kitsch brand recognition in order to make money via becoming a meme. Surprisingly, this is not the trainwreck any written plot synopsis will make it sound like.
Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn't unambiguously criticise the brands its been given the rights to namedrop. This is no unexpected capitalist critique in the same vein as The Lego Movie, but it is acutely aware of the dangers the virtual world poses - something that its corporate branding may otherwise lead you to assume it wholeheartedly embraces. In a culture where children are using computers at earlier ages, the film's understanding of the childlike wonder of infinite content and the problems with consuming it may have more moral depth than it initially appears. The worlds of social media and viral video sites are even dismissed with the very of the moment message that you should never scroll down to the comment sections in any circumstance, so as to not blunt your self esteem.
But these are lightweight messages occasionally ushered in to temper any deserved criticisms about the sheer corporate nature of the whole product. The most depressing thing about this film might be that, despite the ghastly concept of excessive product placement and brand synergy rolled into one package, the film is mightily enjoyable and genuinely very moving in its portrayal of friendship. It's the cinematic equivalent of a John Lewis Christmas advert; it tells an affecting story that doesn't feel cynically designed to pull on your heartstrings within the moment, only for various brand logos to flash onto the screen and remind you of its true purpose.
I can't deny that I enjoyed Ralph Breaks the Internet, and that I thought it was one of the finer family films of recent memory - even if the story it tells will likely be reduced to period kitsch in just a few years time, when technological advances have rapidly altered our online habits. Ralph and Vanellope's friendship has a genuine sweetness to it; in concept, the very nature of these characters being friends is bizarre, but it proves to be the most down to earth element of the franchise - grounding a world of sentient pop up ads and Disney character cameos into something more recognisably human. This is a film that should leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth for any number of reasons, and yet tells a story charming enough to make it easy to overlook the corporate nature of the whole project. I understand and agree with any criticisms others may level towards the film on this front - but it remains a personal problematic favourite of the year.