(An advance warning that this contains spoilers. LOTS AND LOTS OF SPOILERS.)
I knew that Vanellope von Schweetz would go far when she announced that she wanted to be President of Sugar Rush. It really DID have a nice ring to it, and after years as the outcast glitch I was rooting for her to take her new position of power and use it to do whatever the heck she wanted. So on Saturday I sat down in my cinema seat, cried at the opening shot of the Disney castle (as per the norm) and then waited a little breathlessly to see how my old pal Vanellope was doing.
And you know what the answer was? Well… not really so good.
I mean, don’t worry. Vanellope is FINE. She’s still racing. She hangs out with Ralph. She’s not in danger. She has everything she needs. But in Ralph Breaks The Internet there’s something niggling at her, something that started small at the very back of her brain and has now begun to grow and shout, and you can see it every time she talks. There’s this scene right near the start of the movie where Vanellope asks Ralph if there’s anything – anything at ALL – about his life that he would change. Anything he would want to try or do differently if he had the chance. Ralph is baffled and says no, and Vanellope apologises for acting weird. It seems as if she’s torn. On one side there’s security and warmth and gratitude – because, like Ralph, what she has now is SO much better than what she had before – but on the other side there’s the unknown. The WHAT IF?s. The WHAT NEXT?s.
Ralph isn’t torn. He hasn’t even thought about that other side, because that other side is scary and for the first time ever he has an actual real-life friend. He isn’t visiting Tapper alone or sleeping in a pile of bricks anymore — he’s content with the way things are. Just him and Vanellope. And you can see him start to process and struggle with her urge to pull away and try something new — why would she want to do that? Why can’t she be happy with what she has? Why isn’t Ralph – and only Ralph – enough for her?
Ralph calls Vanellope “kid”. This isn’t new — and it’s always been super-sweet — but watching Ralph Breaks The Internet all of a sudden I noticed how often Ralph says it, and then I started to wonder if it could be laced with subtext without him even realising it.
YOU’RE A KID!
REMEMBER YOU’RE SMALL AND YOUNG AND YOU NEED ME!
Ralph and Vanellope’s relationship is interesting because (in my eyes, anyway) it has the potential to represent SO many different forms of love. In the movie they’re friends – best friends – but at times I saw Ralph flit over to more of a paternal role; he worries for Vanellope’s safety and wants to keep her close. He wants to be needed. During one scene, the way they argue reminded me unintentionally of a couple – “She wants a new track? I’ll give her a new track!” – and Ralph’s dislike of Shank, a racer Vanellope instantly clicks with, feels rooted in jealousy and reminiscent of relationship insecurities. I felt like I could see Ralph’s fear and Vanellope’s restlessness in so many of the complex connections we all have. That’s why the crux of the movie – the focus on stepping back and allowing the people you care about to grow – is as relatable as it is.
“YOU MUST LOVE YOU”
What I got from Ralph Breaks The Internet was not simply that Ralph liked Vanellope and would be sad without her — it was messier and more complicated than that. The way I see it, Vanellope is the source of all of Ralph’s positivity. He says it himself at the end of the first movie – “if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” – and I feel like his knowledge that Vanellope cares for him and enjoys his company was probably what started to rebuild his wrecked (hur hur) self-esteem. But as all good therapists would tell you, that’s not really enough. “Ralph”, I would say, if I was a Bad-Anon group leader, “You’ve gotta have some DEEP-DOWN-SOLID-CONCRETE LIKE for yourself – if you’re basing all this on what someone else thinks of you, you’re setting yourself up to fail. You’re giving that person too much power.”
And power isn’t always a good thing, because Vanellope actually seems like she’s crumbling under the pressure of it. She is the only good thing in Ralph’s life. She is the only person he wants to spend any extended amounts of time with. When Ralph refuses to let her go to work as a pop-up across the internet, you can see her torn between irritation and dejected defeat. At that point, I started to cry — I hated seeing Ralph so needy and Vanellope so trapped.
What’s powerful about Ralph Breaks The Internet is that we have all been Vanellope, and we have also all been Ralph. We’ve had friends we loved so much that we wouldn’t step back to share them when they started dating someone. We’ve been in relationships with people who can’t understand why we’d want to spend time with anybody else. We’ve secretly, selfishly hoped our pal would choose job A instead of job B so they could stay living a five-minute drive away. We’ve all felt smothered and numb and penned in, yet conversely we’ve all felt that shoulder-crunching, stomach-searing despair of please don’t go.
It’s part Marlin and Nemo in Finding Nemo. I’d argue it’s actually kind of part Mother Gothel and Rapunzel in Tangled, when it reaches its worst form. But Ralph isn’t a bad guy. He doesn’t want Vanellope to be unhappy; he just wants her to be happy with him and the life that she has. He wants her to swing by Tapper every day and stick to her routine, and that’s not enough for her. I feel like Vanellope is angry that it IS enough for him — she tells Shank that life will never be exciting if she stays put, because every day is the same with Ralph and that’s how he likes it. Even at the start of the movie, when there’s the potential for the broken Sugar Rush game to be permanently switched off – and for Vanellope to become homeless and jobless – Ralph still doesn’t really GET it. He hates that his friend is sad, but he still cites the positives of being in her situation: she can sleep all day and hang out with him all evening. Great, right?? Vanellope, on the other hand, is dripping with ambition and enthusiasm, and the thought of being minus a racer job – even one that was getting stale – is crushing for her.
NO MAN IS AN ISLAND…
I have always been a huge fan of a recurring theme from the 2002 movie About A Boy, which is: no man is an island. And, more importantly: even if a man stops being an island, he needs to make friends with more than one person on the mainland (I’m paraphrasing, but you know what I mean). Remember when Marcus (AKA a young Nicholas Hoult) says: “Suddenly I realised – two people isn’t enough. You need back-up. If you’re only two people and someone drops off the edge, then you’re on your own. Two isn’t a large enough number. You need three at least”? THAT was what I kept thinking about throughout Ralph Breaks The Internet.
Look at it this way — Ralph is so excited to spend time with Vanellope that he doesn’t have a huge amount of interest in other activities or other people. Felix? A bit. The Nicelanders? He spends enough time with them during the day. New stuff? No thanks. Things are fine as they are. I felt really strongly that Ralph had lost his way a little when it came to investing time in other people OR (hear me out, I know this this sounds cheesy) IN HIMSELF. And as a result, I really loved that he started to get involved in other social events and actively wanted to better himself by the end of the movie. He wasn’t doing it because he was bored or because he missed Vanellope, but instead because he could now recognise the perils of expecting one person to provide him with everything he needed, and because he wanted to grow and learn and build his support network. And that to me was as important as Vanellope getting the chance to move over to Slaughter Race, because it wasn’t just about Ralph accepting Vanellope’s growth — it was about him ENCOURAGING it while still taking steps to focus on his own, enriching his life with new stuff and new people.
Is Ralph a bad guy? No. He was an insecure guy, and at times I saw the potential for that to really flip into something not-at-all cute. But you know what makes Ralph a cut above the rest? HE SAW THAT TOO. HE RECOGNISED THAT IN HIMSELF, AND HE WORKED TO CHANGE IT. My love for his character has only increased, because instead of taking his insecurities and throwing them onto Vanellope and saying “HEY KID, WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT THIS? HOW ARE YOU GONNA MAKE THIS BETTER FOR ME???” he turned inwards and asked “HEY RALPH, WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT THIS? HOW ARE YOU GONNA CHANGE YOUR OUTLOOK SO YOU CAN KEEP THIS PERSON IN YOUR LIFE?”
And personally, I feel like we could all learn a lesson from that.
(Image credit: Disney / geektyrant.com)