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Wreckin’ It Twice

November 25, 2018

Wreck it Ralph was director Rich Moore’s first film for Disney.  It was a fun and inventive movie, full of great potential and lots of heart, yet marred by lackluster storytelling, extraneous jokes, and veering away at the last minute from actually engaging with the very strong contexts (ostracization and bullying) it had been heading towards.  My opinion has shifted gears over the years to where I now find it a solid movie, if one that still feels like it could have reached higher.

So, for me it was a great delight when Rich’s next film (along with Byron Howard and Jared Bush) came along to find that these weaknesses had all been addressed – the storytelling was buttery smooth, the humour well integrated, the puns turbocharged, and in absolutely. no. way. did the movie avoid the profound and difficult inquiries it was grappling with.  It was moving, it was beautiful, and it was, of course, Zootopia, a film I may have written a thing or two about

Now, two and a half years after Zootopia and six years later from the original comes the sequel to Ralph (directed again by Rich along with Phil Johnston).  As was the tradition, I avoided as many spoilers as possible, watched the original to get ready, and headed to the theatre opening weekend to catch a showing.  Would Ralph Wreck the Day (in a good way) again?

(Spoilers Ahead!)

Hurrrg.  This is me wrestling with a conflicting set of emotions and thoughts and desires.  In short, the answer is a yes… in the same way that the original was solid so too, in the end, is this.  So whence the conflict?

Well, imagine my surprise to discover that many of the shortcomings with the first film in terms of storytelling were present once more.  The growth in skill and caliber that had been on display in Zootopia was not in evidence here, with a glaring and ham-handed narrative weaving together many bits and set pieces that felt more episodic than a flowing whole.   The biggest unfortunate for me is that it felt like there was a distinct lack of subtext – it was mostly all text.  As in literal, character speaking, dialogue, text in place of actions and interactions to deliver the message.  And, while fortunately there’s nothing as egregious and disjointed as the laffy taffy scene in this movie, there do remain moments that still feel forced and contrived.  Maybe the whole thing needed a few more rounds of script polishing, I don’t know, but as it stands, the movie is at the starting line and gunning hard yet isn’t carving a smooth line down the track.

With all that said though, to be absolutely clear this movie still packs a lot of heart.  And guts.  In a time when Walt Disney Pictures seem to be as adamantly and absolutely committed to staying as safe as possible, with remake after remake of animated movies from Walt Disney Animation, that animation studio they’re borrowing from is the one, at least sometimes, leading the way and being bold.*  The original Ralph was a departure from the common themes and material that build the mouse house’s legacy, and, of course, Zootopia was way out there, even playfully and explicitly trouncing some of those usual themes.**  Ralph Breaks the Internet is another step down that bold path.

At its core, this movie has no villainous plot to foil and thus no external villain.  The troubles and challenges all arise from within the characters.  That’s pretty cool.  It is also a movie about perceptions, friendship, what it means to love and support someone, how to let go to let things grow, and how to walk (drive?) down the path between squeezing things so tightly that they wither and opening your hands completely in disengagement and sorrow.  That’s all very cool.  As a premise, this is golden:  at the end of the first film, Ralph is happy, but he’s still co-dependent, replacing his attachment to the game with an attachment to a single person.  What happens when, as can and will happen years later, things begin to shift?  And what lies at the heart of Vanellope’s cravings for more, and how to they arise so differently from Ralph’s contentment?

While that last bit is taken mostly as a given and not explored, alas, the rest of the premise is indeed carried forward to drive the story.  Even if it’s not all that deeply explored (and delivered in perfunctory ways), it is this core and the continuing, changing, bond between Ralph and Vanellope that gives the movie its heart that keeps beating through all the patches of rough storytelling.  Ralph as a character has a definite arc (Vanellope kinda has one) and comes to transform in ways that allows him, and those around him, to grow.  Which is absolutely great.

More thoughts:

  • The visuals and, even more so, the visualization in the movie are great! The same environment designer lead who was on Zootopia was on this (Matthias Lechner) and the whole team did a bang-up job.  The look and feel and operation of the internet was cool.
  • And overall, this remains a very inventive and fun movie!
  • So. Many. Cameos. Going to OhMyDisney.com, to me, didn’t feel as crass or commercial as some of the comments I’ve seen out there.  It’s playful enough that I didn’t think tie-in, more just a scene for humour.  And there’s so many cameos more to discover on future viewings.
  • I’m surprised at both how few and how low-grade the puns were in this, a Rich Moore, movie!
  • The driving scenes are, no surprise, pretty sweet, including all the in-car motions. I mean, it’s Disney, I’m sure they brought in a bunch of stunt drivers to make sure they got it right and exciting.
  • The Felix and Calhoun sub-plot about child rearing is at the same time cliché (ie, kids are terrible) and then rendered into a double cheap joke at the end with the “perfect parenting advice that will never be heard”. Especially given how the bullying wasn’t tackled in the first movie this could have been rich to see!  (That said, it would have bloated the film, so deserves to be in its own short or just not included in the movie in the first place)
  • I really should’a seen the post-credits scene coming… very a propos and amusing (and actually spoiled by the credits just moment earlier)
  • “Never read the comments…” this could/should have been explored more. It kind of pops up, and I kinda guess Ralph is affected by it and it ties into his feelings of loss of place/worth, but it overall feels isolated and short.
  • The princess scenes were amusing*** if, again, perhaps a bit too on the nose. And that they showed up at the end there was kinda random?  (as in, nothing seemed to indicate that they would be following the now-princess Vanellope, given she didn’t have contact with them after their one encounter or even talk to them after her song about her realization)
  • Though it was great to see them acting in concert to win the day!
  • And the “she’s from the other studio” in-joke made me smirk.
  • So we need to talk about that instigating event. Because it goes against all the (great!) worldbuilding that had been so, immensely, important in the first movie.  Ralph leaves his game during opening hours to create a new track for Vanellope, who then ignores and overrides the players to race it.  Ralph’s even standing around there, on screen, while Litwak is talking with the customers.  C’mon!  Abandoning your game and interfering with the players are the two biggest no-nos in all of the arcade!  You just threw out your world’s rules and made the characters do something highly out of character.  And it’s not like they couldn’t have worked this in much better:  Ralph, next night, goes to make the new track.  (Maybe even not hanging out with Vanellope for the first time in ages, which makes her uneasy, or even excited because its new, which could add to the whole friendship/changing theme)  Vanellope sees the new track the next day, as does the customer, who takes it, but it’s so intense with all its twist and turns that the wheel breaks.  Ralph sees this from his game.    Same thing, but without needing to ignore/twist/trash the very thing that makes this world, and the characters, unique.
  • Also didn’t Sugar Rush have two screens and wheels in the first movie?
  • Also also, why would Vanellope be so sure about ‘winning this race’ when it’s the players who should be controlling things?
  • Still more also I’m wondering how players wouldn’t notice the oddity of Vanellope driving in Slaughterrace compared to the otherwise more photoreal characters. Then again, there is a shark in the sewers… and creepy clowns… so… maybe not so weird after all?
  • And further also still, Vanellope says “I can not be in Sugar Rush, there are 16 racers no one will miss me” but at the beginning players clearly like to use her because she has “the best superpower.”
  • And also yet more still, can her code really be entered into a new game that easily so she can respawn? (but I’m willing to handwave this one…)
  • I think it’s now contractually required to have Alan Tudyk in every Disney Movie…. (Which is fine, he’s great!)****
  • Vanellope’s “No, I said you were being a bad friend…” was brilliant. Not that Ralph IS a bad friend, or a bad person, or damaged, or whatever, but what he was doing in that moment was not what a good friend would do.  And that he can, from now on, not be that way.

All in all, I say this (power) drifts into solid, fair, movie territory. I know I harped on the storytelling above, but it is more clumsy than downright poor, and the premise***** and intentions are strong.  Much as with the first one, I can foresee re-watching it and having the storytelling bugaboos become less intrusive over time, letting its strong heart beat through.

Definitively worth seeing, and a fine enough addition to the Disney canon.  The Disney Resurgence is still going strong.

 

* As a side note, Pixar has, more often, been willing to be bold as well, though they too have fallen into some ruts of late.

** It could be argued that both Frozen and Moana, while hewing strongly to the traditional princess movie (Moana even tried to lampshade it), were both in a way bold in ditching the usual prince routine, with Frozen being about sisters and Moana, even more boldly, having no love interest/subplot at all.

*** Doubly so for me, as we just started a D&D campaign where we’re playing characters based off a set of warrior-fied fanart of the princesses….

**** HOLD THE PHONE.  Disney just bought out Fox.  Fox owns Firefly… Tudyk is in every Disney movie.  HOLY THE COW, DISNEY!  You want to make your new streaming service get a bazillion subscribers?  MAKE A NEW FIREFLY SERIES.  Pick up where the original left off.  Animate it if you want, if you’re afraid the actors look different 20 years later, just have them voice act.  But there’s BANK in this idea.

***** The claim (that I mostly believe, though not 100% certain with Frozen 2) is that Walt Disney Animation doesn’t make sequels unless they have a story that calls to them.  The realization that Ralph hadn’t really come to terms with himself and had, instead, just transferred his fixation (and locus of self worth) onto another character (in what could be a rather toxic way) is what set the story wheels turning in the team’s head.  That’s cool.  They saw an opportunity, both for a story but also to not leave the character there and instead let them get to a place that leaves him at true peace (and it’s true that when we create characters for a story they can be very real for us…).

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