At its heart, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a buddy film, as Ralph and Vanellope find themselves on an adventure in cyberspace. Both are arcade characters, but it is Ralph who is an analogue creature in a digital world; an 8-bit character in an HD environment.
His sidekick, the young Vanellope, a racing driver from an arcade game, is more digitally savvy – and it is largely Vanellope’s role that makes the film work, with the traditional Disney tropes about female characters simultaneously inverted and subverted.
It is very much Vanellope’s self awareness, drive and purpose that makes Ralph Breaks the Internet so compelling. She is both a damsel in distress and a sister doing it for herself.
Disney draws on its huge universe of characters to give many of them cameos in the film. Buzz Lightyear, C-3PO, Sonic the Hedgehog and Baby Groot are among those who make appearances in what Peter Bradshaw, writing in the Guardian, calls a “mashup of memes, brands, avatars and jokes”.
For this reason the film, though largely pitched towards children, will also hit the spot for adults, who will appreciate the references to films and shows from their childhoods.
The anti-Disney princess
Yet for all the riffing on pop culture, Ralph (voiced by John C Reilly) is far from a conventional Disney hero, or any hero at all. With Popeye-esque forearms and tough-guy features, Ralph is in fact the villain of a 1980s era arcade game. But he has a big heart and it is his naivete that brings texture to the central idea of rendering what today’s internet would look like if it were a real, physical place.
The characters fly through the information superway and arrive, for example, at ebay, where they hope to acquire a steering wheel to fix Vanellope’s game. Ralph is immediately accosted by popup ads. “Sassy housewives wanna meet you,” is one, to which he replies “Oh really?”.
Although the imagining of the internet as a metropolis is beautifully executed, much of the film’s brilliance lies in the dynamic between the two buddies. Ralph, for all of his strength and machismo is, in fact, a kind, caring character. Similarly, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) is the anti-Disney princess. She’s assertive, smart, and fiercely independent.
One of the highlights of the film is Disney’s irreverence to its own intellectual property. Snow White, for example, wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Poison” above a picture of an apple. Better still is Vanellope’s interaction with Snow White and the entire cast of Disney princesses, who ask her a series of questions about what kind of princess she is.
She answers “no” to queries from Pocahontas, Elsa, Cinderella et al that include “do you have magic hair?” and “were you poisoned?”. Rapunzel rolls in with the killer line: “Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?” Vanellope then proves she is one of the girls with her answer: “Yes! What is up with that?”
Poking fun at traditional tropes
Ralph Breaks the Internet succeeds because it takes what AV Club called “a series of micro-targeted idiosyncrasies and in-jokes” and uses them to poke fun at the traditional tropes that are the building blocks of fairytales. At the same time its narrative leans on the driving force of conventional fairytales: that is, a female protagonist who is unhappy with her “station” and who is eager to find a different place in the world.
For Vanellope this is in a gritty game on the internet, which has echoes of Grand Theft Auto. Ralph, meanwhile, is no knight in shining armour, and instead embodies a sense of conservatism and contentment with the status quo in his arcade game – his home – and struggles to make sense of Vanellope’s ambition.
It is very much Vanellope’s self awareness, drive and purpose that makes Ralph Breaks the Internet so compelling. She is both a damsel in distress and a sister doing it for herself. Women, in the world of Wreck-It Ralph, no longer need a Prince Charming to be complete.