In the opening minutes of Ralph Breaks the Internet, John C. Reilly’s Ralph and Sarah Silverman’s Vanellope Von Schweetz — stars of the film’s 2012 predecessor, Wreck-It Ralph — sit in a sort of Grand Central Terminal for video-game characters and play a round of “I Spy.” “I spy with my little eye, something that is round, yellow, and eats dots,” one of them says to the other. That something is, of course, Pac-Man. There’s a bit of banter about that fact, all of it only funny if you know who Pac-Man is. The bit is predicated on you being at least a little excited by the existence of Pac-Man in this movie, which is not a movie about Pac-Man. He’s making a special guest appearance, one brand hopping into another. That intended frisson of recognition, of wonder that a thing could cross over with another thing, is the foundation upon which the Wreck-It Ralph franchise is built.
As of 2012, such crossovers were a rarity. When critics praised the first film, they took note of how potent the idea was. “It’s impossible not to feel a strong sense of nostalgic amusement, if not sheer delight, at the comings and goings of all these characters,” said The Globe and Mail’s Dave McGinn in a characteristic write-up. “I don’t own an MRI machine, but I guarantee that just seeing Sonic the Hedgehog lights up the Gen X amygdala like a house on fire.” Not just Gen X, either: those younger could marvel at the presence of the host of Dance Dance Revolution, those older could giggle when the paddles and ball from Pong popped up. Street Fighter’s Zangief and Chun-Li waved hello, Q*Bert played a memorable role, and so on. It was a shock-and-awe tactic: viewers were supposed to sit back and wonder, How is any of this legal?
The answer is: it’s legal because, really, what corporation wouldn’t want to have its intellectual property appear in a cheery Disney cartoon that’ll be in front of the eyeballs of millions of consumers? All the House of Mouse had to do was ask, pay the licensing fees, and put the characters into situations deemed appropriate by the copyright holders. Everybody wins. The idea makes so much sense that it’s becoming increasingly commonplace. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to expect that branded mash-ups are on their way to becoming a staple aspect of blockbuster cinema. It’s not necessarily a cheery thought.
The past 17 months will have seen the release of no fewer than four movies that fall into this basket. First came The Emoji Movie, a saga in which anthropomorphized pictograms ventured through an array of popular apps inside a teen’s phone. Then there was Ready Player One, the most infamous of these offenders, derided for relying on the weaponized nostalgia of an array of cultural artifacts from the 1980s and beyond. Disney’s Avengers: Infinity War brought together virtually every strand of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Spider-Man, a character Disney doesn’t own the film rights to but borrows from Sony. These were all hits of one size or another. The market is speaking.
It’s hard to imagine Ralph Breaks the Internet breaking that streak. It’s a decently written kids’ movie with a constant stream of amusing gags and comforting character beats. It offers up the kind of clean whiz-bang CGI visuals that we’ve come to expect in a post-Pixar animation environment. The voice acting is often delightful. But these factors, on their own, can only take the flick so far. What its creators clearly believe is that viewers will be over the moon at the melange of familiar brands that agreed to throw their lot in with Ralph and Vanellope.
There are appearances from game characters, but the real action this time around is in the tech sector. Thanks to a newly installed modem at the arcade in which they dwell, Ralph and Vanellope leave their respective games and embark on a quest inside the internet. The film’s visualization of the world wide web is a gleaming hyper-metropolis of flying vehicles and impossible skyscrapers, something between Tokyo and Coruscant. As our protagonists venture through it, they find all the behemoth brands made manifest: here’s the endless warehouse of Amazon, there’s a tower that Pinterest calls home, watch out that you don’t crash into the Fandango building — and why not make a little pit stop at Snapchat HQ?
“This is the most beautiful miracle I’ve ever seen,” Vanellope declares upon entering the internet, and we are given no reason to disagree. This is the digital utopia that tech CEOs verbally conjure when they attempt to sell us on their agendas, a marketplace of dollars and ideas where everyone’s free to satisfy their desires and escape the disappointments and inefficiencies of fleshy existence. Sure, there’s a brief excursion to the darknet, where viruses and scams lurk, but no brands appear there, and it’s presented as a marginal portion of the landscape. This is not the Internet as it truly is — Ralph encounters no racist Facebook memes, Vanellope never accidentally wanders into Pornhub — but rather as it is sold to us.
The brands are not strictly bits of set-dressing, either. The instigating conceit of the plot is that Vanellope’s arcade game breaks and, in order to save it from being decommissioned, she and Ralph attempt to purchase a replacement part via eBay. The filmmakers could have chosen a generic stand-in auction site, but going with eBay is a win-win for creators and licensors, alike. In this vision of the company’s service, fast-talking, old-timey auctioneers bark at the avatars of potential buyers in a bustling, capacious work space. Ralph and Vanellope don’t have sufficient funds to pay for the part and have to find the cash within a set time period, during which they’re periodically hit with automated reminders that take the anthropomorphized form of a plucky little bellboy (Ralph calls him eBoy). The soullessness of an online transaction is thus replaced by charmingly anachronistic human faces seeking to engage you as a human being. One can imagine an eBay boardroom erupting in delight at an early screening. There would be nothing for them to complain about.
The same goes for all of these excursions into cinematic corporate symbiosis. The Emoji Movie is a curdled yogurt of perfunctory storytelling and Bible-page-thin characterization, but it sure is nice to its beloved mobile apps. The heroic emojis ride a boat through the “music streams” of Spotify, dance their little yellow butts off in Just Dance, and satisfy their sweet teeth over at Candy Crush — and I’ll be forever haunted by my colleague Emily Yoshida’s description of hearing a child at a screening delightedly bellow, “It’s Instagram!” upon the appearance of the beloved photo app. Ready Player One was a binder stuffed near to bursting with pop-culture love letters: the leads hung out in the world of The Shining, drove around in a Back to the Future DeLorean, and fought a grand video game battle royale alongside the Iron Giant, Voltron, and Spawn, all of which accounts for maybe 1/1000th of all the references in the film. Infinity War was easiest to pull off from a licensing perspective, given that Disney owns the film rights to all the non-Spidey Marvel characters therein, and it is what all of these movies aspire to be: a billion-dollar picture that milks every bit of excitement that can come from having its various pieces of IP hang out together.
It’s long been obvious that studios are trying to ape the Marvel model by building their own cinematic universes in which various characters are established in their own movies and then thrown together for crossover appearances. But crucially, no one has succeeded in their imitation attempts. The DC Extended Universe is moving away from interlinked stories, the Valiant universe is years behind schedule, and only the maddest of scientists would say Universal’s monster-filled Dark Universe has a promising future. All of that leaves the higher-ups with a conundrum: how can you synthesize Marvel’s crossover thrills without going through the trouble of building a shared universe that people give a rat’s ass about?
Brand-synergy movies offer an alternative that’s expensive in dollars but cheap in creative effort. If you can’t build out a pantheon of characters that you convince an audience to become familiar with, why not just rent a bunch of properties they’re already familiar with, duct-tape them together, hoist them aloft before the camera, and declare that movie magic has been made? That way, the viewer gets to feel the thrill of seeing people, places, and things that come from different worlds coexist for a moment in time, but you don’t have to put in the work of establishing these properties.
It’s the next level up from mere cinematic adaptation. We no longer feel any particular elation when it’s announced that someone is making a filmed version of our favorite brand — that’s become de rigueur in the nostalgia economy. If you want to feel that old excitement, now you have to see your favorite brand be adapted in conjunction with another one of your favorite brands, and another, and another, until you have a filmic turducken of corporate interests. The ante has been upped, and as long as the big players in Hollywood can play nice with corporate partners, it will only elevate further.
This trend doesn’t have to be a death knell for creativity in blockbuster cinema. A turducken can be baked and seasoned well by the right cooks. The ne plus ultra of this phenomenon actually predates our present trend by 25 years: Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 Disney flick Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In preparation for Ralph Breaks the Internet, I rewatched Roger Rabbit for the first time since childhood and was amazed by how well it holds up. Sure, it gets its fair share of kicks out of constructing a world inhabited by classic Disney animated characters, their Looney Tunes competition, and a cavalcade of other cartoon stars. But their appearances in this surprisingly daring neo-noir are sparing and clever: Daffy and Donald Duck in an increasingly violent dueling-pianos competition, a black-and-white Betty Boop struggling to prove she’s still got it it in the world of color cartoons, a headline reading, “GOOFY CLEARED OF SPY CHARGES,” and the like.
Roger Rabbit uses these cameos as building blocks for story and world-building, not mere showing-off. Okay, there’s a little bit of showing-off — I mean, how cool is it that Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse signed a truce long enough to appear together for a gag in the third act? — but for the most part, these characters are present to help critique show business. The toons, disrespected by humans and isolated in Toontown, are stand-ins for marginalized groups (particularly black people) whose labor has fueled the entertainment economy while being exploited by greedy white people who exclude them from the highest echelons of the industry. When we see Dumbo literally working for peanuts, it’s not just a joke about elephants’ preferred diet, but also a way to make our hearts break at the injustice of one of our most beloved figures being nickel-and-dimed by a crass studio chief. There’s just so much good storytelling and acting — not to mention still-impressive integration of 2-D animation and live action — that you can’t help but get caught up in the ride. These things can be done well.
But it seems all too likely that they will be done poorly. One struggles to imagine brands being okay with Roger Rabbit–level subversion these days. It’ll all be focus-group-approved portrayals that advance the joint agendas of the creators and the companies, alike. The temptation to take a dull plot and spice it up with branded guest appearances is simply too strong. Such a process can create an illusion of familiarity and comfort that masks mediocre workmanship, and lord knows Hollywood will take any chance to spray a new perfume on a turd. To paraphrase Orwell: If you want a vision of the future, imagine Luke Skywalker and Jean-Luc Picard fighting Voldemort — forever.