“Ralph Breaks the Internet” Full Review

It’s cute and entertaining. The highly anticipated sequel to the Oscar-nominated Wreck It Ralph hits theatres everywhere today. Much like the first film, this sequel relies heavily upon nostalgia and familiarity with pop culture more than it it does a strong narrative. All too often, it’s more concerned with making you laugh than it is delivering a meaningful narrative. However, no mistaking it, you’ll have a fun time watching this film. And sometimes an entertaining story for the whole family is all that is needed to accompany your holidays. Ralph Breaks the Internet took what the Emoji Movie attempted to do, but failed, and delivered a heartwarming story that comments on our usage of and fascination with the internet. Return to the brightly colorful animated world of Ralph and Vanellope for a highspeed adventure that takes them from the 8bit world of 80s video games to the immersive world of a visualized, stylized internet. If it’s gone viral on the internet, then you’ll likely find it in this movie. What we see in terms of abstracts or constructs, this film creatively translates that which only exists in 0s and 1s into something far more tangible. For all that Ralph Breaks the Internet did right, and that constitutes a lot aesthetically, it appears as though the writers were far more concerned with cramming every bit of Disney, pop culture, and digital media into the movie than developing a compelling narrative. And that was the part that I found obnoxious, the amount of time we spent on the Disney brands. It became self-serving instead of plot-serving. That being said, this uplifting movie accomplished what other animated films attempted, making what users do on the internet interesting. Must in the same way that Searching brilliantly captured screen-life, Ralph delivers a sensory explosion of what a visualization of the internet may look like. But who would’ve known that we were all POP Vinyls???

Vanellope is bored with her game Sugar Rush. In order to change the tracks up and give Vanellope a new experience to revive her love of her game, he builds a new track! Unfortunately, this means that Vanellope ostensibly takes control of the game’s steering wheel causing the user to break it off when trying to correct Vanellope’s car. When the arcade owner is unable to find a replacement steering wheel on eBay within his budget, he decides to shutter the game. Unbeknownst to him, he forcibly displaces the citizens of Sugar Rush. With no home to return to, the citizens of Sugar Rush are relocated to other games and the racers are adopted by Felix and Sgt. Calhoun. Ralph and Vanellope are determined to replace the steering wheel by exploring the unknown world of the internet where eBay is located. Upon arrival, it is clear that both of them are way in over their heads. They must rely upon intuition, wit, and the citizens of the internet to help them on their quest to make enough money to buy the steering wheel. Their journey soon leads them to Yesss, the head of the algorithm of BuzzTube, the most popular video sharing site, to guide them through turning likes into cash.

Central to this film are the (1) theme of friendship (2) one’s identity with home or work and (3) commentary on one’s insecurities. A nice trifecta of themes and concepts upon which to build the plot. But there is something missing. Something that is a fundamental to any screenplay. And that is clearly defined opposition to the goal represented or manifested by a character. In other words, there lacks a “villain” in this story. The villain in this story is the friendship shared by Ralph and Vanellope. Suffice it to say, it is not a requirement to have a physical villain (or more precisely, a character of opposition), but when abstracts, constructs, or concepts are the villain, it is advisable to select a character from the story to represent the true enemy. Take Jaws for example. The villain is NOT the shark; it is the folly of man. And in order to visualize this opposition, the screenplay uses the character of the mayor to personify it. Looking at Ralph Breaks the Internet, we go nearly the entire movie before we have a true character of opposition. A central character(s) is only as interesting as the character of opposition. Sometimes, the character of opposition is even more interesting than the central character.

There is also very little struggle experienced by Ralph and Vanellope. Vanellope nearly out races Shank of Slaughter Race the first time and Ralph’s first video and all his subsequent videos go viral. Not having a well-denied villain paves the way for Mary Sue characters. Just good at everything. This ease of success takes away from the ability to empathize with the struggle. That being said, after Ralph and Vanellope have their falling out over Ralph’s obsession with what he feels is best for Vanellope, their friendship is called into question and forced to face the fact that their friendship is evolving. And fighting with friends is something with which we can all identify. When Ralph’s insecurities manifest themselves in the form of a virus that takes over the internet, the movie finally has a villain that we can see, hear, and experience. The lack of a villain in this story affects the ability for the story to be as compelling or interesting as it could have been. One of the dangers of not having a villain in a story such as this one is the risk of disjoined subplots. Without a villain, the central characters have to work exponentially harder to get the audience interested in them. As it is, the audience is far more likely to find the internet setting, product placement, and mentions more interesting than our two central characters. The takeaway: make sure your screenplay has a CHARACTER of opposition.

But Ralph Breaks the Internet is not without well-developed characters. More specifically, a well-developed character in Ralph. Two of the film’s themes are manifested in Ralph. The themes of personal/interpersonal insecurities and evolution of friendship are witnessed in the actions of Ralph and Vanellope, but Ralph in particular. Audiences of all ages easily identify with him because they can observe traits, characteristics, and idiosyncrasies that have likely been experienced by each and every member of the audience at one time or another. How many among us do not depend on some sort of external validation in order for us to feel confident in what we do, what we wear, or where we go. We empathize with Ralph when his demonstrably gentle, generous soul gives way to self-destructive behaviors that form a wedge in the friendship between him and Vanellope. And that leads us into the third main theme of this film, and that is the theme of the evolution of friendship. There is no questioning the strength and loyalty of the six-year-long friendship between Ralph and Vanellope. There have been many movies that comment on the state of or evolution of our best friendships, but none quite so creative as this one. However the plot may be lacking in its ability to be truly compelling, the mountains and valleys of the central friendship are ones that many of us can identify with. It’s also a great opportunity to teach kids how their lives may go in different directions from their friends but that doesn’t mean that the friendship has to die or become burdensome. Children (and all of us, really) learn that sometimes when you love someone so much that you have to let them go to pursue their own dreams because that’s what friends do–selflessly support one another’s dreams.

Despite the inundation of recognizable brands and incessant, obnoxious Disney product placement, Ralph Breaks the Internet is an entertaining animated movie that finds a way through the underwhelming plot and constant reminders that we are in a visualized world of the internet into our hearts to brighten our holiday weekend.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Don’t Pass GO, Don’t Collect Your Oscar

Corporate monopoly is the enemy of creativity and variety. The biggest news in entertainment this week was the talks between Disney and Fox to sell most of 21st Century Fox to The Walt Disney Company. Whether the talks are still going on behind closed doors or not presents a fascinating topic to discuss! This deal, which would be the biggest film/media deal ever, has far reaching effects upon the industry. Some may even argue that it has danger written all over it. If there wasn’t already a rigid oligopoly amongst the studio/distribution companies, there will be if this goes through. Should this go through without the government swooping in to save the day with monopoly claims in the vein of the historic Paramount Decision, the lion’s share of the cinematic marketplace would be controlled by Disney, TimeWarner (Warner Bros.), and Comcast (Universal), with Sony (Columbia) and Viacom (Paramount) bringing up the rear. Five. That’s right. Five companies would essentially determine the future of the industry, and control the majority of the motion pictures released in theaters and the content on cable television (and the streaming services that access it). It’s a mirror image of the 1940s. Instead of The Big Five and The Little Three, we have The BIG Three and the Little Two.

From the big screen to the small screen, you will notice the effects in the programs you watch. When one company controls the majority of any marketplace, it usually spells disaster for the consumer; furthermore, it means that there will be a primary gatekeeper in future artists getting his or her work out there. Not to mention that the programming on FX and other Fox (non-broadcast) subsidiaries could begin to gradually feel and look more like ABC programming. Could this put shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy on an endangered species list of sorts? Not right now. The deal, in off-and-on talks, would sell off 21st Century Fox (movie studios) and not Fox or Fox Sports (an acquisition of that sort would not be permitted because it WOULD be illegal). So, even if this buyout were to happen, The Walt Disney Company would still continue to be the brunt of many jokes on The Simpsons and Family Guy. A buyout could mean, however, that program options will seem less varied and just more of the same ABC-schlock that already pervades the bandwidth. The two companies that have the most TV programming are Fox and Disney, with Sony (CBS), Viacom (non-broadcast Nickelodeon), Comcast (NBC), and TimeWarner (CW) trailing in original programming. That being said, TimeWarner has done very well with The CW, and I hope it continues to churn out programs such as Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Riverdale, etc.

Beyond the negative impacts on content, which, in all honestly, can be quite subjective in nature, are there legal or ethical implications here? Is there perhaps a past precedent that could be used in the courts to stop such a buyout (or sellout rather–Fox)? Let’s look at the most famous suit brought against the major motion picture studios: The Paramount Decision [(U.S. V. PARAMOUNT PICTURES, INC., 334 U.S. 131 (1948)]. Prior to the Paramount Decision, the motion picture industry was controlled by a few companies that were heavily vertically integrated. The Studio owned the facilities, production companies, staff (under long-term contracts), the films themselves, distribution channels, and the movie theaters. When the studios were growing so large that they began infringing upon the free marketplace, the US Government forced the (then) eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking (meaning, films would now be sold on an individual basis), divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (though, this would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. There are many similarities between the situation in the late 1940s and today. In fact, it’s a little worse today because the industry is mostly controlled by five (instead of eight) companies, and these companies have heavy investments in streaming and television programming.

The problem with the current state of capitalism in the Unites States isn’t worries of monopolies but oligopolies (monopolistic practices between a few firms that essentially control a market). Certainly the state of the film industry already lends itself to an oligopoly because of the few companies; but the buyout of 21st Century Fox by The Disney Company would greatly increase this issue of a blatant oligopoly. If a monopolist (in many other industries) did what Disney is doing, neither the public nor the government would stand for it; but because it’s Disney, and because it’s the film industry, most of the general public is unaware of the negative consequences of such a buyout. Technically speaking, oligopolies are not illegal nor is monopolistic competition; however, this can be a slippery slope towards stifling creativity or making is increasingly difficult to break into any given industry as a newly emerging competitor. Incidentally, monopolistic competition causes the variety or level of differentiation of similar products (i.e. moves and TV shows) to become less heterogeneous and nearly come across as homogenous. For many, it will feel like there are only two primary companies controlling the majority of programming on TV and a few companies controlling a large portion of the movies that get released in movie theaters.

When a strong oligopoly exists within a specialized industry (for our purposes, media & entertainment), one of the side effects is a concept known as parallel exclusion. This concept can be described as the collective efforts of the few industry leaders who essentially act as the main gatekeepers to prevent or make it difficult for would-be newcomers to enter the arena. Parallel exclusion is nothing new, and has been in the news as recently as the last 2-3 decades within the airline and credit card industries. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Visa and MasterCard essentially blacklisted any bank that set out to do business with AmEx. Thankfully, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in when the manner in which the exclusionary rules were written crossed legal, fair trade boundaries. There were similar issues within the airline industry as well. When a few companies control the content or services in the marketplace, antitrust issues are raised.

Although we are not facing a technical monopoly with the possible acquisition of Fox by Disney, we are looking at an abuse of power that leads to anticompetitive conduct. If nothing else, the consumer should be worried about having fewer options for programming. Not that the number of programs or movies will shrink, but there will be little difference between what is released under the Disney banner and the Fox name (if it’s still even called that). In a deal like this, it’s the consumer who gets the short end of the stick. The consumer would be wise not to give Disney a pass just because there are a small group of big film studios instead of just one. While Marvel fans may be excited that the X-Men can join the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), there is the possibility of a lack of competition between brands thus mitigating innovation and ingenuity. Competition is the mother of innovation just as necessity is the mother of invention.

Because the Walt Disney Company is primarily focussed on producing the biggest movies possible (after all, they made five of the 10 most successful films last year), the mid-budget dramas and comedies that used to thrive in Hollywood–you know, the ones that cause you to cry and laugh–would dwindle in number–there would be little room for them to make their respective ways into theaters in a predominantly Disney controlled industry. What we are essentially talking about here is a corporate cinematic monolith, the likes of which, has never been seen before.

Written by R.L. Terry

Graphic by Tabitha Pearce