RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
So the single worst movie of the year so far was the Disney cartoon? Man, I had no great expectations, but I did not expect that.
Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Written by Jim Reardon, Pamela Reardon, Josie Trinidad, Rich Moore, and Phil Johnston
With John C. Reilly (Wreck-It Ralph), Sarah Silverman (Vannelope von Schweetz), Gal Gadot (Shank), Taraji P. Henson (Yesss), plus plenty of others, but let's not
Spoiler alert: moderate
It's been said that the only significant difference between Ralph Breaks the Internet and Sony Animation's cringe-inducing coming-of-age story about a "meh"-face, The Emoji Movie, is Walt Disney Animation Studios' better animators and better computers, with a side of Disney's leverage, which allows them to attract better actors (and, I'd add, better corporate sponsors). Actually, while that has been said, it's not been said very often, because Disney seems to have another advantage, which is that, between their first Renaissance in the 1990s and the one that I think may have just ended, they've built up a store of goodwill amongst critics and audiences such as no animation studio (indeed, no filmmaking organization at all) has ever enjoyed, and so people are naturally well-disposed toward them, even if sometimes they deliver a mediocrity rather than a masterpiece. Even so, since the warm reception this particular movie has gotten is inexplicable even on these terms, let's just ignore it, lest we go insane. So perhaps best to just say, "Tim Brayton, who really hates the shit out of this movie, said the thing I wrote up at the top of this paragraph," and Tim Brayton is more or less right, except it's arguable he doesn't go far enough: The Emoji Movie is, I guess, "worse," but, at the end of the day, what did The Emoji Movie actually ruin? Dropbox? No, The Emoji Movie was never a film with the power to destroy anything beyond itself and the hour and a half you spent with it.
Ralph Breaks the Internet, on the other hand, is capable of leaving you repulsed by every last thing associated with it, and, since Breaks the Internet was made by the umbrella corporation that owns something like half of humanity's intellectual property by dollar value, and since Breaks the Internet is a more spiritually faithful adaptation of Ready Player One than Ready Player One, that turns out to be damned near everything you might've once enjoyed. For starters, just as a sequel, Breaks the Internet makes me like Wreck-It Ralph less, and I liked it fine before. As a Disney film featuring the most nauseatingly cynical kind of cross-promotion with more than a dozen other Disney films, it makes me like some of my favorite movies of all time less, including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and Tangled. It's not even finished. It makes me like Marvel movies less. It makes me like Pixar movies less. It makes me like Star Wars less. The prequels and Solo couldn't make me like Star Wars this much less. God, I think I like cartoons less.
And that makes me hate it more than I could ever hate The Emoji Movie, even if The Emoji Movie is, you know, garbage. Because The Emoji Movie is garbage that Sony left out on the street where it belongs, and it's obviously my own fault if I got dirty rooting around in it. This is garbage that WDAS dumped directly into my garden. I have not, as of this date, seen all of the 57 canonical Disney films starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and concluding with Ralph Breaks the Internet—putting those two titles together like that suddenly just made me sad—but, even so, I will give it the grudging compliment that it may not be the most aggravating Disney cartoon of them all (for I rather despise Peter Pan), nor the worst-looking (perhaps The Rescuers? perhaps The Black Cauldron?), nor the worst-looking in CGI (Chicken Little, I'm confident, even though that's one of my few blind spots). Is it the worst-looking since 2008? Yes, and also the most boring-looking, but given WDAS' high standards, that doesn't really carry much of a sting. However, here's what Breaks the Internet definitely is: it's the longest Disney cartoon, outside of Fantasia, which means it's the one whose abysmally low quality is spread across the greatest possible quantity, and—as Breaks the Internet spends almost 80% of its 116 minutes making itself arbitrarily long by way of references to Disney products and to, essentially, the bare existence of the Internet—it's the one that feels the most like a punishment. It's a crushing disappointment after Moana, the high-water mark for WDAS this century, and Breaks the Internet (and the upcoming sequelization/exploitation of the Frozen brand) leads one down some rather depressing mental corridors. I mean, if I'd been the age I am now in 1942, the year of Bambi's release, the actuarial tables say I would not have lived to see another full-on Disney masterpiece. Which wouldn't be the biggest deal; but it's nothing to be happy about.
On the other hand, the situation is clearly different, because Bambi lost money, and Breaks the Internet is making all of it (see? I too can "speak Internet"; anyway, it's at $207 million as of this writing, already exceeding its production budget, with more profit to come), and Breaks the Internet kind of feels like a movie made by radical Marxists as a parody of capitalism, but it backfired, because they underestimated their enemy and overestimated their audience.
Well, this storm of nonsense does have a story, sort of (and in case I implied Disney was merely stealing that film's ethos, this film's story is also scowl-inducingly similar to The Emoji Movie's). So it's been six years since the "villain" of the classic platformer Fix-It Felix Jr., Wreck-It Ralph, heroically intervened in the domestic affairs of a neighboring arcade cabinet, a racing game called Sugar Rush; as we know, Ralph overthrew their impostor king, and made an ally of one of his persecuted subjects, a glitchy character never quite intended to be playable, Vanellope von Schweetz. Since then, Ralph's been very happy, especially because of the friendship he forged with Vanellope, which is basically a father/daughter thing except complicated by the fact that they're immortal video game characters whose routine never changes. Or so it seems until Sugar Rush breaks, which means the machine will be turned off, and all the characters in it sentenced to an uncertain exile. However, the recent installation of a wifi router gives them one desperate chance, and Ralph and Vanellope seize it by striking out into the wilds of the Internet, which looks like The Fifth Element if the mayor of New York in 2263 had been Michael Bloomberg for another 250 years.
Through various misadventures, our duo wind up winning the eBay auction for the part they need to fix Vanellope's game, but, not having the means to pay for it, Ralph has only one choice: become a camgirl. Actually, he becomes a viral video sensation under the tutelage of a something-something-algorithm named Yesss (hm). Yet all the while, Vanellope is increasingly unsure that she even wants to go back to her rut in the arcade, and wonders if her dreams of driving cool cars would be better served in the kind of next-next-next-gen game she and Ralph have discovered, an Angeleno hellscape sandbox game with a major racing component called Slaughter Race. Ultimately she decides that, yes, she does like it better out here, and that would be the end of the movie if Ralph were willing to respect that decision, but the movie still has at least a half hour left to go, so you figure it out.
Now, of course this film was always bound to be a feature-length conceptual objection, though I doubt it ever had to be this brazen, lazy, and aggressive about it. This was already a defining feature of Wreck-It Ralph—it's the case for any story where the fundamental premise is "little people live inside my machine and make it work," and so it tends to engender a great many nagging doubts when you watch TRON or its sequel or, hell, for a biological example, Inside Out. But those doubts were easy enough to push aside because those movies were fun, and (at least in the case of the two TRONs) existed mostly to justify an aesthetic, and they didn't throw your doubts in your face and laugh at your confusion the way Breaks the Internet does. Incoherencies breed like termites here. They have about the same effect on the structure. For example, Ralph and Vannelope, despite that father/daughter thing, are explicitly, over and over again, presented as equals and as friends; our cameoing supporting characters from last time, Fix-It Felix and Jane Lynch With a Gun, are moved to adopt the other homeless Sugar Rush racers, because they're "children." Also: Ralph is seen by people as an 8-bit character with limited animation in Fix-It Felix, yet Ralph can apparently make a living appearing in off-branded YouTube videos doing stupid human tricks that have no conceivable value if he's not a human. (Incidentally, I can only speculate as to why Yesss' platform is "BuzzzTube," when it's a barely-disguised YouTube, and this film has Google in it.) Also also: fictional characters we encounter on various websites seem to think their fictional lives were real, yet this is in opposition to the other fictional characters we encounter, who've always known that they're just notions rendered into collections of code, and the whole/only point of Wreck-It Ralph is that appearances are often deceiving, sometimes even to ourselves. And so on forever. This movie does not care about anything it does. To say it "doesn't know how the Internet works" is to already give it too much credit; it doesn't even know how its own story logic works.
Still, underneath everything that's actively bad and even actively terrible about Breaks the Internet, I can be swayed to the opinion that it has a decent moral message about friendship: basically, that even best friends can drift apart, and seek divergent dreams, and still be best friends. That this doesn't seem to be really, factually true doesn't make it any less appealing than, say, the power of true love, such as has driven so many other Disney cartoons, and, anyway, the "moral" part, that you have to let people find their own way, and you can't force somebody to be your friend, is true.
This message, unfortunately, is only the spine upon which a lot of rotting flesh hangs. The rest of it is Ralph and Vanellope, together or separately, navigating the dullest, most surface-level version of the Internet possible. It almost has something to say about how the simplistic twitch pleasures of classic arcade games have given way to inordinately complex online games that seek to simulate whole worlds—in the form of Slaughter Race, ones that give a lot of leeway to over-the-top violence, at that—but it has neither the focus to make Slaughter Race much more exciting than watching a video game trailer, nor the constitutional ability to do anything of much interest with the contrast between the kiddie racetrack Vanellope came from and the Mad Maxian apocalypse she'd rather compete in, because, after all, it is a Disney movie we're watching.
Which means what it can do with the Internet is downshift into a very long advertisement for Disney itself (Disney has, since nearly its beginnings, made advertisements for itself that it expected you to pay for, but in ages past they were at least almost charming). Here, Vanellope comes to terms with her status as a princess amongst Princesses, which is the most vile conscription of feminism into the service of shareholder value I think I've ever seen in a film, as the leads of all of Disney's princess movies cameo in the form of an edgeless, self-deprecating parody straight from one or other of the Shreks to bemoan their sorry predicament, which isn't even really very clear. The most troubling feature of that predicament, anyway, isn't so much that they were characters in stories that were always formulaic and, sometimes, less-than-empowering. It's either the fact that Disney keeps them locked in a gilded cage in order to generate cash, or that Disney has, apparently, lobotomized them, because none of them act in any way according with their actual personalities, though all of their various skills do certainly come into play in a wearying, overcomplicated (there are fourteen of them) setpiece in the film's actiony climax. Well, there's maybe some pleasure in some of the gags here regardless (what they manage with the Pixar Princess, Merrida, is genuinely funny), which is better than you can say for most of Breaks the Internet, which I'm unhappy to say is the least funny Disney cartoon since they decided every one would be at least partly a comedy (which is basically "since always"). It's not even that the jokes fail, though they usually do; it's that so many don't even register as "jokes" at all.
Above: a joke.
I can't imagine Disney's animators found this an enjoyable experience, either—the film is just so generic and bland—but maybe the Princesses did provide some avenue for imagination, rendering a mostly cel-animated crowd into CGI. Not that it really works out: Cinderella's CG version is so wrong that the only way you know she's Cinderella is that she's wearing Cinderella's dress (and when she's wearing something else she's only only identifiable through the process of elimination). Meanwhile, Ariel and Aurora are actually kind of great (Ariel makes sense, but I'd have thought Aurora might've been the hardest alongside Cinderella, since they're basically real, life-referenced humans with exaggerated eyes and alien waists); but the reconciliation of the aesthetics does the highly-distinctive design of Pocahantas no favors. I'm not even sure they got ones who were already CG right: there's something badly off about Rapunzel (the interior lighting, maybe, or the way they take her malleable facial expressiveness past the model, perhaps). But then, this sequence couldn't possibly inspire actual passion beyond the design stages, and there wouldn't be much designing when it came to Rapunzel, so it's entirely plausible nobody cared.
Still, I doubt this was ever quite as soul-crushing for everybody involved as I assume The Emoji Movie was for Sony's animators, even if parts of the work might've been: at the very least, Breaks the Internet isn't about talking yellow spheres, and it must've let some of its animators stretch their horizons, and this is maybe the nicest thing I have to say about it. Slaughter Race is conceptually ersatz, but nobody comes to work for Disney expecting they'll ever get to animate musclecars exploding, so, sure, that was something; Slaughter Race is also the setting for Vanellope's Princess-inspired "I want" song, and while it's a mediocre composition by the great Alan Menken with downright bad lyrics by Tom MacDougal and co-director Phil Johnston ("parodic" lyrics; I don't care), and performed by people who can barely sing (Sarah Silverman and Gal Gadot), it's staged like a post-apocalyptic Grease, and that's not nothing. Above all, the movie even scrapes against the kind of actual greatness you hope for out of any Disney film, right at the end. Taking on the very basic idea of "a terrifyingly giant-sized villain" (and this movie only has one possible villain), such as Clements & Musker made a tradition of from The Little Mermaid on, Breaks the Internet introduces the kind of horror film imagery to the concept that Disney has never really been known for, introducing the most unsettling thing that any Disney film has ever depicted, including Dumbo. It's a mass of crawling and clambering... well, odds are, if you care, you've already seen it.
It's a waste in this context, but Ralph Breaks the Internet managed one unimpeachable success right before the end, and I don't even know how to feel about that—it doesn't help that it goes on for what feels like, but can't be, another quarter-hour afterward, wrapping up its simple emotional loose ends as slowly as it possibly could. On the one hand, it justifies the thesis that there's no Disney film so destitute and barren that it's not worth seeing and studying. On the other, this movie is emphatically not worth seeing—it's not even worth studying, for the ways it fails are pretty obvious, and the idea that this instantly-dated entry into the "canon" will endure for any longer than six months is preposterous—and the very, very few things it does well make every other thing in it look as shameful as they truly are.