By Preston Wilder
Something quite exciting is happening this weekend: for the first time since the week of July 15, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is not showing at a local cinema. That a cartoon threequel of no particular merit was able to hold down an audience for four months (granted, a big chunk of that was as a weekend matinee at the Rio in Limassol) speaks to the popularity of kids’ movies, especially cartoons, which – at least in Cyprus – are single-handedly keeping cinemas afloat at the moment. The Cineplex schedule speaks for itself: a fortnight ago The Grinch, three weeks ago The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, coming up in December an Asterix cartoon, a Spider-Man cartoon and, for Christmas week, Saving Santa. The common refrain in the 80s, begging Hollywood to mend its ways, was that films were being made for 14-year-olds rather than adults. That age has halved in the years since.
It’s a problem, in my opinion, not just because 90 per cent of kids’ films (even Pixar, sometimes) are made to the same formulas and peddle the same wishy-washy messages, but also because the kidpic industry holds children back; a 10-year-old should be starting to explore grown-up cinema, not getting stuck in the same Disney fare they watched as a six-year-old. Then again, there are compensations. Ralph Breaks the Internet, for instance (you knew I’d get there eventually) is indeed quite formulaic, and does peddle wishy-washy messages – yet its message is also quite sophisticated, being about letting loved ones go and not getting overly possessive, and the formulaic structure works to enable some smart digs at online culture, social media and, it turns out, Disney itself.
This is not The Emoji Movie, with its simplistic be-yourself plot and talking animals who happen to be emojis. That said, it’s hard to know what precise age-group this sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph is aimed at, simply because different parents tend to introduce their sprogs to the internet at different ages – though older kids will presumably enjoy knowing more than Ralph and his small, sparky friend Vanellope, characters in an old-school arcade game called ‘Sugar Rush’, who venture online for the first time and are suitably awestruck.
The Web is presented as a giant mall, dotted with brand names. A search engine is an owlish little man with an annoying tendency to auto-complete. Our heroes are distracted by pushy touts, a.k.a. pop-up ads. But it doesn’t end there: forced to monetise in order to pay for an eBay purchase, klutzy Ralph uses his brand recognition as an old arcade-game character to make degrading – hence instantly viral – videos, proving that nothing sells like pain and humiliation. (Our good-natured hero is taken aback by the mocking comments, but a friendly algorithm reminds him of the first rule of the internet: Never read the comments.) Meanwhile, race-car driver Vanellope leads him into a game called ‘Slaughter Race’, whose gratuitous – and hugely exciting – violence is a long way from the sweetness and light of ‘Sugar Rush’. The internet, you might say, is the end of childhood.
None of this is new, even in the world of kids’ cartoons; the end of childhood was explicitly the theme of Toy Story 3 and Inside Out. The meta aspect isn’t new either (see e.g. The Lego Movie), though it’s still quite striking. Anyone who watched the trailer for Ralph (which, nowadays, means almost everyone) may have noticed a gag that’s not in the actual movie – and the film admits the omission in so many words, showing the gag as a post-credits sequence instead. Even more meta is Vanellope’s jaunt to a (real-life) Disney website where, in between the frankly scary product placement – you may not have realised what a huge chunk of pop-culture real-estate Disney own till you see Groot next to Grumpy and C-3PO – she wanders into a room full of cartoon princesses, allowing her to explore her femininity and decide what kind of woman she wants to be. Ralph, the typical male, wants her to be more feminine, i.e. not go back to ‘Slaughter Race’ – whose speed-queen is voiced by Gal Gadot, a.k.a. Wonder Woman – and promptly tries to scuttle her prospects. This is quite advanced stuff for a kids’ cartoon.
Does it make a difference? Probably not. If this were 1998, Ralph Breaks the Internet might seem revelatory – but it’s 2018, and we’re quite used to (some) kids’ cartoons being smarter than they have to be. Parents of very young kids may end up with confused five-year-olds asking if the internet is a real place, but at least they (the parents) also get to learn the secret to raising perfect children (alas, a car passes by just as someone is explaining it, drowning them out). The real question is why the brilliant minds behind this film aren’t making films for more mature audiences – but meanwhile we can safely report that both kids and parents should enjoy this slick, knowing ‘toon. Even if they don’t, no matter; another one will be along next week.
DIRECTED BY Rich Moore & Phil Johnston
WITH THE VOICES OF John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot
US 2018 112 mins