Wreck-It Ralph, fictional star of a fictional 80s arcade game, is back for another exhaustingly pointless romp in the frenetic and jeopardy-free world of virtual reality. Only this time he’s not wrecking, he’s breaking, an entirely different concept. It is destruction for winners, not losers, like Kim Kardashian’s bottom, or the Beatles breaking America, or that man in the Bois du Boulogne breaking the bank at Monte Carlo.
This headspinning, Ritalin-fuelled sequel to the 2012 film is somewhere between Ready Player One and The Emoji Movie, summoning up a zero-gravity spectacle of dazzling colours and vertiginous perspectives, a featureless and inert mashup of memes, brands, avatars and jokes. Some of these gags are pretty good: like the fairytale princesses who gather round the heroine to explain that a life-changing moment is always accompanied by “staring into some water”. Some other gags aren’t quite so fresh, like a gamer being called “Babe-raham Lincoln” – stolen from Wayne’s World – and a nerd superfan asking pedantic questions at a convention — stolen from Galaxy Quest. And the incessant and eerily unsatirical product placement is enough to give you a migraine: especially the complacent Disney cross-promotion.
First time around, that mega-forearmed doofus Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C Reilly, whose claim to be the hardest-working man in showbusiness is incidentally stronger than ever) wanted to bust out of his bleepingly constricted game. Nowadays, in the imaginary adjunct pixelzone he calls home, existing somehow behind the retro little coin-operated arcade, Ralph is entirely happy where he is, in his own game, but with licence to roam in other people’s – like the neighbouring Tron, the game famously converted into a virtual reality film for Disney in 1982. His best pal is Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), who is a character in a pretty old-fashioned racer game. When Ralph boisterously breaks into her game to create a new track, it causes the steering-wheel to break off in the real world and Vanellope’s world has to be catastrophically unplugged. The only replacement steering wheel is to be procured from eBay, for an unrealistic two hundred bucks.
So Ralph and Vanellope journey into the internet on a mission: they will raise the money to bid on the wheel by creating an online viral video so massive it will be lavishly monetised. (But how can you create video when you are inside virtual reality…? Oh, never mind.) Yet before that scheme is conceived, they had another one to steal virtual loot from a next-level racing game in which Vanellope becomes starstruck by its supercool petrolhead heroine Shank (voiced by Gal Gadot). Bewildered and jealous of Vanellope’s infatuation with her new best friend and this new “internet” thing, Ralph faces a crisis. Or is he just like a grumpy dad, unwilling to let a teen-daughter figure grow up and grow away from him?
Just like the first film, there is a strange and unsatisfying period-uncertainty about this. We just accept that this is an arcade of retro games, an arcade that time forgot, but then there is a weird moment when the “WiFi” is plugged into a power-point that would otherwise host one of these games. Everyone behaves as if WiFi is a new thing, and with a kind of sleight-of-hand, the film suggests that we are not in fact in the present day – at one moment in the real world we glimpse the arcade manager’s own computer which looks a bit like an old iMac.
But then we are inside that freaky Oz that is recognisably the ultra-contemporary internet, or to be precise, the world wide web. Its virtual world is here supposedly given solid geography and substance in a kind of vast, endless 24-hour mall, with gleaming retail storefronts representing websites like eBay, Google and Imdb, and wandering hucksters representing pop-up windows. Oddly, real brand names are mixed with fictional ones like video platform BuzzTube and search engine KnowsMore (clearly those corporate entities YouTube and Google have to be treated very deferentially). But it is unsubstantial, unsatisfying and pretty tiresome.
To be fair, Ralph Breaks the Internet is facing a problem faced by every other film: we are all on the internet nowadays, and how on earth do you represent that on screen? People looking at their phones and tablets is a boring image. One answer is to go inside this hidden world, like Pixar’s Inside Out, but that had a strong connection with a real world where real things were at stake. This is different: essentially vacuous, provisional and dramatically low-octane. The internet has broken Ralph.