Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Review by Michael O’Malley
“if it’s so bald a delusion, why do […] we keep watching in such high doses?”
-David Foster Wallace
PART 1: DISNEY IS ITS OWN SEQUEL
The recent release of Ralph Breaks the Internet feels, at least for sad little nerds like me, like kind of a big deal. It’s not that there’s anything about the content of the film itself that’s particularly exciting--I’ve found the ad campaign to be pretty unimpressive, although it’s been amply documented that I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with Disney animation and thus was cursed to see the film regardless. But no, the bigger deal is that Thanksgiving week, the year of our Lord 2018, brought us filmgoers the rare beast of a Walt Disney Animation Studios theatrical sequel. For Ralph Breaks the Internet, for those hiding under some Disney-free rock for the past decade, is the intrepid (and awkwardly titled) sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph.
If we’re being technical, there have actually been three theatrically released Disney animated features that could qualify as sequels prior to Ralph Breaks the Internet: The Rescuers Down Under in 1990, Fantasia 2000 in… uh, 2000, and Winnie the Pooh in 2011, follow-ups to, respectively, 1977’s The Rescuers, 1940’s Fantasia and 1977’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. But neither Fantasia 2000 nor Winnie the Pooh are sequels in the way that, say, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a sequel to the original Ant-Man film, which is to say that neither Fantasia 2000 nor Winnie the Pooh are premised on continuing the narrative of their predecessors; both films are much more akin to iterations on a concept (in the case of the former, setting classical music to animated pantomime; in the case of the latter, stitching together A. A. Milne-based animated shorts into a feature-length metafiction) than they are narrative continuations. Only The Rescuers Down Under is a sequel in the traditional sense, and even then, both the original Rescuers and its outback sequel maintain a relatively low profile in the world of Disney animation.
The larger point is that up to now, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been mostly free from the aggressive sequel impulse that often grips successful IPs. There has been, of course, the litany of direct-to-home-release sequels and threquels and prequels that Disney dumped into the booming VHS (and then DVD) market in the ’90s and early 2000s--you know, the likes of Return of Jafar and Stitch! The Movie--but none of these have been theatrical, and Disney has always been careful to keep these movies cordoned off into a space where their strange semi-canon antics won’t touch the much more prestigious mainline brand. For the most part (and this includes The Rescuers movies), Disney has been good about not immediately cramming theaters with narrative sequels to any movie that makes good money, in the way that, say, DreamWorks did with Shrek or Illumination did with Despicable Me.
It’s not that Disney doesn’t milk its successful films for every bit of money that they are worth. But rather than letting the films do the milking, Disney has instead invested the energy that most studios devote to sequel development into something a lot more difficult to pull off but also a lot more lucrative in the long run: a brand. Historically, this has taken the form of Disney’s theme parks, established in 1955 and, given their popularity, likely to exist until the heat death of our universe. Fans of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can’t seek out theatrical sequels to feed their fandom in the way that fans of Star Wars or Rocky do, but what they can do is trek to Anaheim (or Orlando, or Paris, or Tokyo, etc.) and visit Cinderella’s castle in person or take pictures with Grumpy and Sleepy. Disney took this a step further with the inauguration of the Disney Store in 1987, a retail chain probably housed in what remains of your city’s shopping mall; with this store, Disney linked fandom not just with experiences but with shopping. Lest we miss the point, this type of store is known as “retail-tainment,” i.e. Disney’s way of saying that it’s the mere inclusion of Disney-themed purchasing in our lives that should entertain us--who needs another movie? The fan energy, rather than being invested in the continuance of a narrative, becomes instead tied up in the larger experiential world of Disney as a whole--a sort of unified aesthetic and commercial sensibility not connected directly to any one character or story but rather as the network of all of that collectively shaped into those iconic, globular mouse ears. Ya know, a corporation. Disney is its own sequel. This explains why, when I was a youngster, my family’s VHS copy of The Lion King had this commercial for Disney World sandwiched between all the trailers for Disney movies: it was another trailer.
Hopefully this conveys just how much of an anomaly something like Ralph Breaks the Internet (and next year’s Frozen 2) is within the world of Disney. It also helps to explain some of the film’s marketing. A trailer for the movie earlier this year prominently featured a scene in which Princess Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman, returning from the first Wreck-It Ralph), finding herself inside a physical representation of the internet, stumbles into a real-life Disney fan site, called “Oh My Disney,” wherein she meets Eeyore, gets chased by Stormtroopers, and finds a break room where all the Disney Princesses (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Pocahontas, etc.) are just hanging out. Basically, the Disney park experience. And when I say “prominently,” I mean, “takes up half the trailer.” Disney is selling Ralph Breaks the Internet not as a sequel but as yet another iteration of what Disney has substituted for sequels all along: a chance to live under the umbrella of the Disney brand. Disney’s first real sequel in decades, and it’s just CGI Orlando.
PART 2: SELF-AGGRANDIZING SELF-CRITIQUE
It’s weird, because when you actually sit down to watch Ralph Breaks the Internet, the marketing doesn’t reeeeeally capture what the movie is in practice. I mean, it sort of is; unlike some of the trailers’ footage (more so than other recent movies, Ralph Breaks the Internet’s ads contain a lot of material that didn’t make it into the final film), that whole sequence on the Disney site actually is in the movie. But it’s only like ten minutes, tops, of a movie whose runtime is nearly two hours. The film’s main thrust is the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope as they venture onto the internet in search of a spare part to save Vanellope’s arcade machine home. The segment on Oh My Disney is a narrative detour, and honestly, a detour that’s pretty clumsy at that--the movie literally is going to send Vanellope to an MMO racing game, then, via dialogue, abruptly decides to send her to the Disney site, then sends her to MMO racer anyway after the Disney site bit is concluded. It’s a total closed loop of a subplot that easily could be excised without the film’s plot losing anything (though we would miss Alan Menken’s very funny “A Place Called Slaughter Race,” the film’s lone musical number and a send-up of the princess-movie-staple “I Want”-style songs that Menken himself popularized in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast).
So why is it in the movie? Why is it featured so centrally in the trailers? The obvious answer is, “Because it’s funny,” and I mean, yeah, I guess it is kinda funny seeing Vanellope stumble around the iconography of her parent media conglomerate. Sorta. The slightly less obvious (but still pretty obvious) answer is that, “Disney is cross-promoting its content.” And… yeah, true. That fits with Ralph Breaks the Internet’s role as a continuance of Disney’s “branded experience as sequel” sensibility.
But it gets weirder than that, because Vanellope’s experience on the Disney site, for all my quipping earlier, isn’t really a recreation of the Orlando park or the Anaheim park or any of that. Unlike our own world’s “The Happiest Place on Earth,” the site in the film is an actively threatening environment, one in which Star Wars Stormtroopers seem to helm up a literal police state that violently expel vagrants like Vanellope. Cinderella breaks her glass slipper to use as a shank; the Disney princesses are depicted as unstable and paranoid as they rattle off the tropes of their various movies once Vanellope announces that she, too, is a princess: “Do you have magic hair? Magic hands? Were you poisoned? Cursed? Do you have daddy issues?” “I don’t even have a mom,” Vanellope answers nervously; “Neither do we!” all the princesses chime in. And then the punchline--Rapunzel: “Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?” A lot of folks have interpreted this scene as a feminist critique of Disney’s own previous features and particularly the persistence of the “damsel in distress” idea, and that’s definitely how it’s positioned, with Vanellope as a kind of voice of reason shouting dissent in the face of the parade of princess tropes. Audiences have sure connected with it on those grounds: The Wall Street Journal reported applause at a test screening of the footage. People love this stuff. Disney is no fool.
In that most-David-Foster-Wallace of David Foster Wallace essays, 1993’s “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace talks about television’s use of irony, specifically the way that television increasingly references itself and critiques against itself as a method of increasing its own viewership. In the essay, Wallace describes a Pepsi commercial wherein a savvy beach concession stand owner disguises his shop as a Pepsi truck, thus attracting a mindless mob of people who, in their thunderous clamoring for Pepsi, do not realize that they are in fact being manipulated. Why would Pepsi air an ad that makes fun of people who crave the very product they wish to advertise? To explain why, Wallace imagines how “Joe Briefcase,” aka your typical viewer, will interpret such an ad, and he comes to this conclusion:
“The commercial invites Joe to ‘see through’ the manipulation the beach’s horde is rabidly buying. The commercial invites a complicity between its own witty irony and veteran viewer Joe’s cynical, nobody’s-fool appreciation of that irony. It invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of. It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him.”
We are, in short, highly susceptible to having our intelligences flattered, especially at the expense of others. Advertisers, according to Wallace, realized this, and capitalized on it. Wallace continues:
“You can see this tactic of heaping scorn on pretensions to those old commercial virtues of authority and sincerity--thus (1) shielding the heaper of scorn from scorn and (2) congratulating the patron of scorn for rising above the mass of people who still fall for outmoded pretensions--employed to serious advantage on many of the television programs the commercials support.”
It doesn’t take much work to draw the line from Wallace’s insight into television to what’s going on vis-à-vis Disney and Ralph Breaks the Internet’s Oh My Disney sequence. Disney voices clever critiques of its own films, thereby letting us viewers feel both validated for being smarter than those older, stodgier, sexist-er movies (“yeah, there are a lot of princesses whose problems magically seem better once the man comes along”) and also more endeared to Disney for being hip enough to call attention to its own shortcomings. It’s self-aggrandizing self-critique.
PART THREE: MOVIES VS. BRANDING
“But wait a minute,” you, my fellow sad Disney nerds, may say after a moment’s reflection, “there are a lot of princess movies where princesses aren’t saved by a man!” And you’d be right. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, and Moana are all movies whose conflicts resolve without men saving the princesses; that’s seven of the thirteen Disney princesses featured in the scene--eight of fourteen, if we include Pixar’s Brave, whose Princess Merida makes an appearance in Ralph Breaks the Internet as well. Being saved by a male character is hardly an all-encompassing trope, nor even the “million dollar question,” as Rapunzel puts it in the movie, to determine whether or not a Disney character is a princess. For goodness sake, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is a feature-length critique of male saviors in the form of the character of Gaston, whose determination to “save” Belle leads to a riot that ends in Gaston’s own destruction.
“Not so fast!” an imaginary, strawman Disney creative type butts in. “There’s more! The princesses in the movie don’t just refute male saviors; they save a male at the end of the movie. Presto! Subversive feminism!” And yes, this is true. Good point, strawman Disney creative. At the end of the movie, a complicated sequence of events leads to Ralph falling through the air, presumably to his doom (as all good Disney villains must eventually do), only to be rescued by the princesses from earlier in the film, who team up with their collective powers to gently break his fall.
But again, an actual princess movie has beaten Ralph Breaks the Internet’s subversion to the punch: the finale of Pocahontas, of all movies, is premised on Pocahontas saving John Smith (am I saying something nice about Pocahontas? What is happening?).
“But what about the magic hands part?” our Disney dude asks. “Wasn’t that clever?”
Clever, yes. But none of it’s really a critique, is it? Okay, a lot of Disney princesses have magic powers; a lot of Disney princesses have absent mothers; a lot of Disney princesses have been poisoned, cursed, or otherwise befallen misfortune; Disney princesses have a weird habit of staring into water to think longingly about their problems before bursting into song. But none of these tropes are especially misogynist or patriarchal in isolation, nor is simply listing them all as this scene does particularly subversive. It’s just pattern recognition.
All of which seems to indicate that the Oh My Disney sequence is an ill-informed and ineffectual critique of the Disney film canon. But assuming that Disney, the media giant who might very well swallow the entire entertainment industry whole over the next decade, is savvy enough to avoid such blatant ignorance and ineffectuality, there’s another target of the critique that fits a bit better: not the Disney films but the Disney brand, the stuff you see at the parks and the Disney Store, which does indeed flatten out its own history into somewhat patriarchal lanes and its own characters into an aesthetically homogenized cast that leans toward, as The Wall Street Journal says, “outdated notions of femininity and damsel-in-distress narratives.” There’s been a lot of ink spilled by authors critiquing the Disney brand and particularly how they brand their princesses, both within those movies and in the larger world of merchandise and experiences, and even if you don’t agree with every one of those takes, there’s no denying that these critiques loom large in the cultural narrative surrounding the Disney brand. And in branding, the cultural narrative around your brand is your brand.
For Disney, whose whole approach to franchises is the cultivation of a connected brand identity rather than the development of sequel cinematic narratives, this is a problem. You can incrementally move the needle in your favor with new, feminist-conscious films (and in fact, Disney has done this many times over the course of its history, most recently with Frozen and Moana but also historically with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast–both of which I’ve written about with regard to gender politics, if you’re wondering how they can be read as feminist), but that takes years, if not decades, and cultural winds are fickle. Plus, what about all those old properties you’ve already sunk all this branding into that are now seen as promoting “outdated notions of femininity?” If you’re not going to make a sequel to something that the culture has deemed “problematic,” how are you going to course-correct? Well, you can’t; not really. Those parks and merchandise can only go so far when people are starting to sour on the films they’re based on. You’re gonna have to make some sequels.
Or better yet, one sequel. One that addresses all the plots and characters that people have been taking issue with recently. One that shows that your brand is hip to the critiques and don’t worry: it’s way better than those terrible old movies with their damsels and their male saviors. Perhaps one that’s able to convey all this in a short, self-contained segment that can easily be test-screened for audiences to give the brand a bump even before the film hits theaters?
Enter Ralph Breaks the Internet. Enter Oh My Disney. And enter, as Wallace says, the shielding of the heaper of scorn from scorn--i.e. Disney’s brand identity. It’s self-critique as brand rehabilitation.
Which explains just how tepidly subversive the whole Oh My Disney scene is. If we peel back the neutral pattern recognition pretending to be critique (magic hands!), the only real critique of the Disney canon that Disney raises against itself in this scene is its invocation of the damsel archetype, a trope that only occupies half of the princess films and one that Disney films have, in one way or another, been consciously subverting for decades. If the whole purpose of this scene were simply self-critique qua self-critique, it would be both redundant and reductive. But that’s not the purpose of this scene--at least, not solely. An unmistakable co-objective of the scene, and of this sequel in general and of all Disney “sequelizing,” is to manage the brand. And when you’re managing a brand, you’re not actually going to tear the brand to bits with a critique, as a third-party subversion might (e.g. the original Shrek, whose loathing of all things Disney is virtually unparalleled in the world of feature film animation).
PART FOUR: HALF-MEASURES
Honestly, this tendency to take half-measures when it comes to self-reflexivity plagues the film as a whole. If I were writing a more traditional review instead of whatever sprawling monstrosity this essay is, I would bring up the late-film plot point involving a virus that finds Ralph’s own insecurities about his increasingly strained friendship with Vanellope and copies them ad infinitum until they all bundle together into a gigantic King Kong-esque figure comprised of little squirming insecure iterations of Ralph himself--a clear critique of the way the internet magnifies our most toxic impulses (Ralph is, after all, reacting to Vanellope wanting to leave their arcade to be with the new, diverse friends she’s met online, which, like, hello GamerGate, et al) made entirely toothless by the film’s inability to probe the power dynamics and racist underpinnings that so often make online spaces overrun by toxic males. In the same way that the film as a whole is too invested in the idea of supporting Disney as a likable brand to truly commit to any biting self-critique, it also is too committed to Ralph remaining likable to make its depiction of online hate work as real social commentary. Ditto for the film’s depiction of malware, its satire of the click economy, its parody of meme culture, and its glance at video game violence. In fact, the only commentary in all the film and surrounding ad campaign that has any bite whatsoever is the bit at the end of this trailer when the characters all collectively agree that the movie should have been called Ralph Wrecks the Internet instead--a point so self-evidently correct that I wonder if Disney gave the film the inferior title on purpose just to set up that interchange.
There’s an open question here: at what point does self-critique become too trenchant to double as brand maintenance? Certainly it’s possible to make a character too unlikable for audiences (hence the shying away from a more toxic Ralph), but a brand? I’m not sure if that point even exists--take, for example, The X-Files, one of the most self-loathing TV series in history and all the more compelling for the inclusion of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” It seems impossible for a brand to seem too savvy about its own shortcomings, since (assuming DFW is correct) self-awareness only endears a brand to consumers. But Disney seems to think that point exists, and it is terrified of reaching it. This terror informs a lot of what the company does with its properties. It’s why, for example, it has buried Song of the South rather than actually reckoning with its racism in a public way. And it’s why, when explicitly critiquing its princess tropes in Ralph Breaks the Internet, it goes for the old, easy “damsel trope” chestnut instead of pointing out the issues the films have with reinforcing oppressive and unattainable standards of beauty; how women of color are routinely more sexualized than their white counterparts; how every single one of them before Frozen and Moana reinforces heteronormativity to one degree or another; how the comic relief characters are so often coded with ethnic or regional stereotypes; how pretty much all of them are classist, pro-monarch propaganda--all deep issues with the Disney animation film canon that remain largely unremarked upon, either explicitly in a film à la Ralph Breaks the Internet or implicitly by a needle-tilting progressive new movie.
Because for Disney, self-critique is only useful for the extent to which it makes Disney look good. And a sequel is only as good as the value it adds to the company stock.