The company's newest animated hit tries, and fails, to evolve with the times.
Disney’s “Wreck-It-Ralph” told us the “bad guy” was not really “bad” just because he did bad things in his video game.
That’s similar to how the Mouse House reframed the perspective of “true love” from romantic love to family love in “Frozen.”
The sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” finds Disney setting its sights on a larger goal: justifying and clarifying their evolving brand.
The company doesn’t succeed.
Warning: Light Spoilers Ahead
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” begins six years after the previous film. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) have stayed good friends and they constantly repeat their daily patterns—so much that Vanellope ultimately becomes dissatisfied.
When her game at the arcade breaks, thanks in part to her own distraction and Ralph’s aid, Vanellope and Ralph go to the Internet in order to find a new wheel for her game.
Once there, Vanellope is amazed to find a new racing game, “Slaughter Race,” run by a tough-girl named Shank (Gal Gadot). While Vanellope explores new possibilities, Ralph sets out to earn enough money to buy Vanellope’s new wheel in order to get his normal life back.
But when he finds out Vanellope wants to stay in Slaughter Race, he decides to “fix it” so Vanellope will have to go home—and ultimately, “breaks the internet” as a result.
Respawn: Rebranding for the Modern Era
Vanellope, just like Disney, wants to “grow up” and “try new things.” As a result, the movie itself is just as awkward as sticking a Candyland character in Grand Theft Auto. This is where Disney’s slight-of-hand rebranding principles collide with their storytelling abilities.
Rebranding can be a good experience for any company that’s been around for a long time. Starbucks’ rebranding has been very successful over the years, for example. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” easily serves as a metaphor for the company’s own rebranding, or “growing up.”
The concern over losing friends, facing unexpected challenges, going “viral,” (though perhaps maybe for the wrong reasons), suggestions for therapy and “never reading the comments” all try to capture a modern, growing up situation.
With today’s technologically-driven and post-#MeToo culture, it’s not surprising there are some big hiccups in this film—starting with Disney’s own startling misconception of its own original brand.
Apologizing for the Past Without Understanding It
Imagine an older man who one day wakes up, reads Twitter and decides that he’s no longer “cool.” He is upset about this, so he immediately goes out to correct it.
He buys lots of shiny new things (such as Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel). Now, he’s cool. Oh, but all the other stuff he had before? It’s got to change so he can stay hip.
Thankfully, he has a lot of things from his past (every video arcade game ever, it seems) that he can easily rebrand as “retro.” But the women in his life have to get made over in a fashionable, modern way (Disney Princesses).
That’s essentially what this movie did—and despite all the cameos and side-adventures into different Disney Universes, this is never clearer than when they bring out the Disney Princesses.
With the storyline that takes you “behind the scenes” to different parts of Disney, Vanellope meets the Disney Princesses while they are “backstage” from their various appearances around the Internet. Once there, Vanellope is threatened, and she tries to convince the others that she is a Disney Princess, too.
As the princesses list off various elements from their respective narratives, Rapunzel steps forward and offers this qualification for being a (Disney) Princess: “Did people just assume that all your problems were solved because a big, strong man shows up?”
But it’s not enough to rebrand the Disney Princesses as simply women who need a big strong man who solves all their problems—a scenario which almost never actually happens in Disney Princess films—we have to make fun of it, too.
The way Disney Princesses are treated in this film is not funny.
They are more like a harem of abused lovers protecting their territory in their introduction scene. Making them the ones who save Ralph from falling in the end shows Disney Princesses are now more concerned with what they “do” for approval than what they “are.”
(My friend Faith Moore discusses why this idea is antithetical to the princess narrative in her new book, “Saving Cinderella.“)
It comes off as an apology for the Disney Princess movies that weren’t feminist enough. While this self-deprecating attempt at humor might be well-intentioned, it misses the mark. That’s especially true when John Lasseter, who has been accused of sexual harassment, is still given a producer’s credit on “Ralph.”
Mixed Messages and Pop-Culture Preaching
Once the apologies and fan service fun wrap, it’s time to preach.
This is seen not only in specific lines (such as, ‘Yesss’ “You never read the comments on the Internet” with her quick, a pseudo-therapy session scene with Ralph and Fix-It Felix realizing his upbeat optimism might not be enough to properly parent the Sugar Rush kids) but with the characters and their related themes.
Ralph is too afraid of change, to the point he ruins Vanellope’s “Slaughter Race” game hub with a virus that finds and copies any “insecurity.”
Vanellope, more than ready to embrace change, is afraid of telling Ralph she wants more than her candy racer game back in the video arcade. The theme of “growing up” and “growing away” from old friends and moving on is similar to how a parent (in the form of Ralph) has to let go of their children so they can go off to college.
FAST FACT: Disney bought Lucasfilm, and the “Star Wars” saga, for $4 billion in 2012.
Vanellope’s promise never to leave Ralph is creepily similar to Rapunzel’s bargain with Mother Gothel in “Tangled” — more something a lover would say to the beloved.
Disney’s focus has shifted from providing coming-of-age (which often includes romance) tales to more pro-family and pro-friends-who-become-family, this mixed messaging is contradictory, and comes off as preachy.
Disney used to be in the business of telling us to follow our dreams, not all the reasons why we should like them and their movies (let alone doing it poorly). “Ralph Breaks the Internet” comes off as a mid-life crisis blended with the #MeToo movement, and it’s not a pretty sight.
Thankfully, the brand can recover and respawn. Here’s to “hoping and wishing and dreaming” the next movie will be more resolved and put together.
C. S. Johnson is the author of several young adult novels in a variety of genres. If you like magic and alternative history, check out her latest novel, “One Flew Through the Dragon Heart,” now available for preorder. With a gift for sarcasm and an apologetic heart, she currently lives in Atlanta with her family. Find out more at Johnson’s official Web site.