Perhaps I shouldn’t be too shocked by this project’s quality, given that Moore and Johnston also collaborated on Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia, two similarly impressive feats of world building. While one section of Disney has done a good job updating the princess movie for the 21st century (with entries like Frozen and Moana), Moore and Johnston are deeply invested in interrogating the way the world works today without sacrificing a sense of adventure. Ralph Breaks the Internet is an improbable success, though the same could be said of Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia.
Wreck-It Ralph followed Ralph (John C. Reilly), the oversize villain of an old-fashioned arcade cabinet, as he rebelled against his programming and moved through the realm of video games in search of new meaning. Ralph Breaks the Internet sees him settled and happy, now accepting of his bad-guy role; he’s also best friends with the rude-tude racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who lives in a neighboring game. But when Vanellope’s game is imperiled and in need of a vintage part, the pair journey into the internet (literally) to try and buy one.
From there, things spiral out of control for the duo, and it’s hard not to relate to their plight. Who hasn’t cracked open a laptop to perform one simple task and quickly been sucked in to some black hole of online noise? In Ralph Breaks the Internet, the web is an endless city, dotted with skyscrapers bearing brand names like Google and Amazon. The place is crawling with grinning avatars of real people using their browsers who are constantly harangued by huckster computer programs with pop-up ads and video recommendations. It’s a chillingly accurate vision of modern life, like Ready Player One with extra verisimilitude. The film also manages to translate extremely ordinary activities into thrilling action sequences (if you click on a link, you’re immediately enveloped in a vehicle that zips you to another part of this virtual world).
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Ralph Breaks the Internet offers some frightening insight into how this buzzing universe of choices shapes the film’s heroes. Vanellope, always the odd one out in her candy-themed racing game, is immediately bewitched by a Grand Theft Auto–esque multiplayer experience called Slaughter Race, and considers making it her new home. Ralph, used to being the center of attention, develops a very macho attitude problem and sense of entitlement (which might feel familiar to anyone who’s spent a lot of time on a social-media network), and starts lashing out in ways even he doesn’t fully understand.
Much of the film’s action takes place in a YouTube-type program that’s governed by an algorithm called Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), where the content is always flowing and users compete for “hearts” from viewers; its true chamber of horrors is, of course, the comments section. Even more amusing is the broken-down “dark web,” where computer viruses can be bought and where shady, pea-green creatures try to create new forms of sleazy clickbait. Ralph Breaks the Internet is, without a doubt, the best film made about the lives of computer programs since the Wachowskis’ Matrix sequels; I mean this as a glowing compliment.