Ralph Breaks the Internet ★★½

There are many things I appreciated about this film, and they're all aspects of marginalia - a throwaway joke here, a clever visualization of an aspect of the Internet there (the manifestation of the eBay Pay Now reminder as an old-timey bellhop boy was especially inspired), a gorgeous piece of production design over there, a uniquely nightmarish bit of grotesquerie way down near the film's end that put me in the strange position of flashing onto a specific image from Antichrist during a children's movie. None of this as anything to do with its utility as either a children's movie or as a basic storytelling device, and maybe that shouldn't be a problem, considering I just wrote a quick piece wherein I praised The House by the Cemetery despite the fact that its story is openly pointless garbage. But it is a problem - House is using its dumbass scenario as a means to an end, as a way to get to the horror at its heart, where Ralph here still very much is aiming to be a good piece of family entertainment in addition to its fringe pleasures. There is something very specific about why this ultimately doesn't work, and I don't think the road to that leads through Fulci, because ha ha ha, why would it, this is still a kid's movie.

So, anyway, about that Antichrist parallel...

The easy match for Ralph this year, one thinks, would be Ready Player One - both stories not just set in but immersed in the inescapable Internet culture we've built around ourselves, using pop culture shorthand and postmodern irony to explain the ways in which this has changed How We Live Today. But to really delineate the failings of this, I think I need to look at it as the flipside to a different 2018 work from a significant world auteur, so... here goes.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is the head of a coin on which the other side can be found The House That Jack Built.

No, really, stick with me here.

It's not just that both have toxic masculinity and its fallout and their primary subject - it's that there's no way to miss that because the films won't let you. Ralph and Jack are both films wherein the subtext is pushed so far up into the text that it goes past becoming text into becoming about that elevation - that you're being given an image or idea, and then that image or idea is broken down and deconstructed for you becomes the whole of the film in both cases. They're suitcases that unpack themselves, films that anticipate future bells-and-whistles physical media releases by building the critical essay booklets inside and around the films. The work of breaking down meaning comes pre-done, and all that's left to do is observe and quantify.

Should it be that easy? I mean, who wants a crossword puzzle where all the answers have already been filled in? Of course it's never really that easy, is it? If we're given an object where all facets of the object come pre-examined, the question still remains as to why the object was presented to us in this manner. An upside-down urinal still wants us to think about why we're looking at an upside-down urinal. With Jack, LvT turns this deconstruction into its own sort of tension - we're told what everything "means" by Dillon explaining his philosophy of life and death and art, but space is given to us (both within the film via the character of Verge - e.g. when he shuts Jack down for going full Nazi - and sewn into the fabric of the film by LvT's late-career depressive tendency to provoke and then castigate himself for provoking) to poke at this intended meaning - even as The Author insists that This Is It, we're given enough wiggle room to wonder Why Is This It. And as it moves from a piece about The Author into a (near-literal) piece about The Death of The Author, that's where the productiveness sneaks in - if the object presented to us in this manner wasn't enough to justify its initial thesis, and indeed ends up mushrooming into a lacerating work of self-loathing, how does this reflect on the earlier parts of the film? How does this shift what we thought we knew - what we were told it meant, what The Author insisted it meant?

Ralph, on the other hand, is not nearly as complicated. If it presents tropes (like the Disney Princesses) for the reason of self-awarely blowing them apart ("Look, a big strong man to save!"), it does so benignly, as an object lesson in teaching youngsters how to engage critically with the works they consume. It lays out its cards not as a strategy of complication but as one of simplification. (Baby's First Graduate Thesis.) And I'm supportive of this in theory. But the methods used strike me as cynically and destructively eat cake/have cake, far more so than LvT's morose artpunk ouroboros. If we're given the keys to signifiers and the smart-ass methods to undermining the expected genre cliches, it's only as a way to solidify Disney's intellectual property stranglehold - you can poke at the tropes and flip them around, but only so far. The underlying trops are still there, dominant as ever, and, say, making a "princess" song into a self-consciously silly ode to a grim Grand Theft Auto-style carnival of chaos doesn't mean it's not also still a princess song. Pointedly looping in Star Wars characters and making jokes about Merida being from "the other studio" are cute and self-aware but in a monolithic way that curiously serves to reinforce the Disney Brand: look, we're hip, we know what you think, we think that too, aren't we cool? Where Jack is ultimately using its pre-chewed structure to complicate audience identification and subsequent response, this is using it to shut down individual thought. No need, Disney has it covered for you. The asides and winks are distractions from the fact that the script is bland and boring, that if they literally make male insecurity the ultimate villain we won't notice the lack of connection in the central relationship - they're friends because that's how they left it at the end of the first. It's brand extension posing as self-awareness, ass-covering calling itself "woke." Nuts to that, and nuts to this.