“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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“Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” movie review

rogueoneJust when all hope was lost, the force has awakened this time. After the disappointingly stale installment last year, I did not have high hopes for Rogue One. To my surprise, the first standalone Star Wars franchise film exceeded expectations. Although the public is accustomed to Star Wars films coming in threes, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Studios took a risk in creating an original single story to successfully setup A New Hope. Unlike when the force tried to awaken last year, THIS feels like a new Star Wars film. With twenty-some-odd years to fill between Revenge of the Sith and the original movie, how was one film going to do it? Focus on what was ultimately important. Not that the development of the Empire would be uninteresting, but the white elephant in the room was “how did the rebels get the plans that setup the events at the beginning of A New Hope“? And that is precisely what director Gareth Edwards did, and it paid off! Rogue One is as exciting as the original film; and furthermore, is built upon a solid plot that is mostly new with a little nostalgia and Easter Eggs (visual references to A New Hope) in the form of locations, props, shots/frames, and familiar featured characters and a surprising cameo. One of the elements that plagued Episode VII was the simple fact that it was little more than a remix and mashup of everything that had been done before, including main plot points, subplots, and predictable behavior. Rogue One feels fresh and new. Yes, there are obviously appearances and references to characters and settings from A New Hope, but that is to be expected since this film ends where the original film begins. Thematically darker than the original film but not as dark as Empire Strikes Back, this installment strikes a balance in the force that makes it interesting to watch. We all know that the rebels get the plans in the end, but this film makes the adventure worth watching as it unfolds.

With the old republic in ruins and the senate all but disbanded, the Galactic Empire has  its eyes set on a feat of engineering never seen before. But they need to attach the right scientific talent in order to create that which would become known as the Death Star. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a brilliant scientist and former Imperial officer, devoted husband, and loving father. Director Krennic, head of the secret Death Star project, arrives at Erso’s home to forcibly recruit him to head up the science and engineering divisions. When recruitment does not go as planned, Erso is separated from his family and taken away. Escaping to the caves, his daughter evades capture. Many years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) finds herself a criminal and angry that her father never came back for her. When an Imperial pilot allegedly defects and claims to have a message from Galen for the Rebel Alliance, Jyn is recruited by the rebels to lead them to a former rebel turned rogue and ultimately to her father. With Captain Cassian Adnor (Diego Luna) at the helm and lead of the small band of rebels accompanying Jyn to her father, they uncover a secret that thousands will die for in order to attempt to make things right in the galaxy. All the while, they have no idea that this clandestine mission will spark events that they could have never imagined.

Already, this film seems to have sparked arguments among fans of the franchise and those who enjoy them but may not be fanboys. Even this morning, I noticed many comments on social media that commented on the film positively or negatively. Interestingly, at first glance, it seems as those who liked Episode VII: The Force Awakens did not like Rogue One, and those–like me and the friends I went with last night–who thought The Force Awakens was garbage but found Rogue One to be exciting, dynamic, and refreshing. Of course, there are plenty of people who like both films released under the Disney banner, either because the Big D can’t possibly do anything wrong or because they are true fans for better or worse of the nearly forty-year-old franchise and staple in the future fantasy genre (notice I did not say science-fiction–no real science here). At this point, I am unsure why those who liked last year’s film may not have liked this weekend’s installment; however, it appears to be clear from multiple comments and reviews that the reason why those who did not like Episode VII enjoyed Rogue One is the newness of a film that embodies the spirit of the original but provides audiences with a new adventure that connects well without redundancy. One of the reasons for the success of the original film–aside from a great cast–is the focus on the drama between characters and camps. There is the drama between Rebels and the Empire but also drama within the camps themselves. Rogue One borrows from A New Hope in that the focus is more on the drama than resting its laurels on the technical elements. Not that this film lacks in the technical category. Rogue One comes complete with great direction, color grading, cinematography, and impressive editing (especially with some rather surprising CGI that will definitely cause you to do a double take utter delight).

For all that this installment did well, the beginning of the film following the prologue was dreadfully ill-conceived and mostly unnecessary. Unlike all the other Star Wars films, this one did not open with the trademark scrolling written prologue offering exposition to setup the movie. Instead, after the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” the film cuts to the opening scene of Krennic recruiting Galen. Following the prologue and rather PowerPoint-looking Rogue One title card, is a rapid, incoherent, and confusing sequence of montages. Honestly, I am still unsure why that whole sequence was necessary. Between the PowerPointy title card and this sequence of montages, I did not have hope for the film at all. Obviously, I ended up enjoying it immensely, but I look back and feel strongly that it could have been left out. The settings/planets that were depicted did not play into the plot at any level of significance. Felt like filler. Thankfully, the scenes following the prologue are but a small portion of the film and the film really begins to take off after Captain Cassian and his team rescue Jyn from a prison transport vehicle. After Jyn’s rescue covert operation, the rest of the film is nicely paced and developed. Other than knowing the ending, the majority of the film was unpredictable. Unpredictable in that you know the direction it’s going and ultimately what’s going to happen but you don’t know HOW it all happens and works together to setup A New Hope.

Just the right amount of nostalgia and Easter Eggs. For those who are fans of or simply familiar with the movies, there are cameos, references, and shots taken from the chronologically preceding films (mostly A New Hope). Just enough nods to and direct connections to provide the audience with a film that IS as much a part of the Star Wars saga as the official Star Wars cannon. It’s no surprise that the Death Star is a big part of Rogue One, Senator Mon Mothma is seen leading the rebels, Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) makes several brief appearances, and a couple other nostalgic cameos; but there are some characters who are included in the diegesis of this film who will delight old and new fans alike–one in particular that will incite an eruption of cheers! Beyond the human characters, there are other appearances by iconic ships and war machines that aid in cementing this story in with the rest of the franchise. While the film contains some lighthearted, witty dialog between the core group of principle and supporting characters, the film also contains some dark moments. Personally, I think the film should have been a little darker since it sets up the installment all about hope reborn; but, the atrocities of war are definitely not hidden from the audience and events transpire that are atypical of future fantasy films between heroes and villains. In a manner of speaking, and as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the film’s diegesis strikes a balance in the force in terms of the light and dark content.

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is an exciting narrative that successfully sets up the film that started it all. If you’re a fan of the original trilogy but did not enjoy Episode VII, you will most likely enjoy this installment. If you are a fan of the original trilogy and liked Episode VII, then there is moderate chance that you may not like this story. It will be interesting to see how this film plays out amongst mild, moderate, and hard core Star Wars fans from both the Disney and Fox camps. I had my doubts of Disney taking the reigns of the franchise after last year; but this film gives me a new hope that Disney may be able to successfully navigate the rest of the franchise.

“Huntsman: Winter’s War” movie review

HuntsmanWintersWar“Let it go” Universal, Disney already has dibs on the Snow Queen. Prepare for the unnecessary prequel/sequel Huntsman: Winter’s War this weekend. It won’t take long for you to realize that you have seen this story before. Albeit, a more family friendly and Disney’d version, but this plot nevertheless. However, after researching the actual Hans Christian Andersen fairly tale The Snow Queen, it is clear that Universal Pictures does a more accurate job of adapting the fairy tale’s words than Frozen did. The problem with this attempt is that it feels like it’s coming around a little too late. With one-dimensional characters and a predictable plot, Huntsman attempts to tell the “real” story of the Snow Queen that appeals to teens and adults, but it looks so incredibly “Frozen” that it leaves you feeling like you’ve done this all before. Although there are increased action and romance scenes in the film, the whole idea of close sisters having a falling out, the one heading to the frozen north, while the other remains in the south with the north creeping on its doorstep, and love melting frozen hearts, is the foundation of the narrative and feels like a bad case of deja vu with little to add.

Travel back to the land of Snow White, and come face to face with a little known story that has yet to be told. Before poison apples and dwarfs, Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and her sister were running the kingdom after the death of the good king (Snow White’s father). Ravenna’s younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt) falls in love with a man promised to another woman but has come to bare his child. After Freya finds her lover having set fire to the nursery and the innocent child, Freya becomes acutely overcome with anger, grief, and hatred and suddenly displays powers of ice and snow. Unable to control her anger and power, Ravenna send her sister to the north to find a kingdom of her own. After having her child murdered, Freya decides to raise a kingdom by making love illegal and taking children from villages and raising them up as warriors known as huntsman. When she finds that two of the huntsman Brighton (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) have committed the unpardonable sin of falling in love, Freya steps in to put a stop to their forbidden love. Banished from the kingdom of the frozen north, Brighton is contacted by Snow White’s kingdom to retrieve the infamous mirror filled with dark magic before it falls into the wrong hands.

Every once in a while, I come across a movie that really doesn’t require a lengthy description of the critical elements of the film; and this is one of those. Just felt very much under-developed and forced. Anyone who has seen Frozenand let’s face it, that’s practically everyone whether they wanted to or not–will instantly pickup on the parallels between both movies. Huntsman: Winter’s War is definitely geared towards an adult audience but it still feels like it stole many elements from Frozen. Even the coloring and costuming are very similar. For those who have examined Frozen from a critical perspective and read up on the development of the blockbuster, you may be familiar with the evolution of the script: it starts out as an adaptation of The Snow Queen but then the writers scrapped that idea for more of a contemporary Disney animated feature story. But then the writers didn’t like that direction either, they essentially took the first half of the first draft of the script and spliced it together with the second half of the second draft, added in some catchy music and boom! You have FrozenHuntsman is similar to what you would have got in Frozen had the first draft been the produced movie.

On the plus side, this film contains some beautiful imagery and simple but stunning visual effects. The goblins are extremely well done–too bad you get so little time with them in a scene that is completely removable from the rest of the film. That scene and others were clearly under-budgeted and under-developed. Despite the fact that you can watch this movie in D-Box and IMAX, there is really no reason to spend the extra money. Watching it in a standard auditorium will suffice perfectly. If you want to get a better idea of the darkness of the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale before Elsa and Anna, then you may enjoy this movie. However, if you would rather wait for it to be on Amazon Prime or iTunes, then that works too.