In 2017, ‘The Emoji Movie’ told the story of a computer-generated character discovering the world of the internet. It was largely an advert for huge brands like Instagram, Spotify and the extremely uncinematic Dropbox. It was dire and rightly lambasted for being cynical marketing very thinly veiled as entertainment. Ralph Breaks The Internet, or Wreck-It Ralph 2, is essentially the same thing, but it gets away with it by having better jokes and considerably more appealing characters.
In the first movie, set in a world where video game characters have real lives, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), a villain from a Donkey Kong-like arcade game, and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) a glitch from a racing game, buddied up as they both tried to become the heroes they dreamed of being. Now all is well in their computer world, until Vanellope’s game breaks and it’s switched off, leaving her homeless. This fortuitously coincides with the arcade where they live getting wifi, so Ralph and Vannelope head off into the internet, which is constructed as an endless city of games and services, to the great land of eBay to find a new part that will fix Vannelope’s home.
The onslaught of branding is initially very offputting. Google, eBay, YouTube, Venmo, on and on and on goes the list of brands that are mentioned either by name or visually. The film makes jokes about spamming while effectively repeatedly spamming its audience with marketing messages. That feeling of having paid to watch an advert never entirely goes away, but it’s dissipated by some very clever writing and smart use of Disney’s enormous catalogue of brands.
It’s an interesting storytelling choice not to have a villain in the movie. The story is propelled by Vanellope’s excitement about the possibilities of the internet and Ralph’s keenness to get back to the predictable world they know. It’s a buddy comedy about letting your friends live their best life and it’s often very touching. Around it are some superb comic scenes, particularly one that brings together most of Disney’s animated princesses for a sequence that pokes fun at Disney, the sexism of fairytales and the really uncomfortable costumes these women have to wear through their everyday life. It’s so good that a spin-off must, and should be, in the works. There’s also great material with Star Wars, The Avengers, Eeyore, Peter Pan, Buzz Lightyear and others, because Disney owns basically everything.
It feels a little wrong to enjoy a movie designed to promote other brands and very few of the film’s gags will work in ten years time, but it is enjoyable. The film makes repeated jokes about how easily distracted we are and how we’ll give up our time and money for things of no lasting value, just for some brief amusement. It’s exploiting us in the same way, but at least it’s making us laugh while it does it.