Ralph Breaks the Internet

My wife and I are obsessed with The Great British Baking Show. You probably are too. This paean to excellence harmonized by graciousness, which is itself excellently and gracefully produced, has been a delight in these rancorous times. Even when we’re not watching it, I think about it often, and I talk about it with friends and family who also love it. Society laments the ways our on-demand world lends itself to insulated media habits, but then there is The Great British Baking Show, a boon to community as resplendent as a Thanksgiving dinner.

However, as much as I love The Great British Baking Show, I do not Google it. I’m sure a quirk of international distribution rights and Britain’s unique television channel situation conspired to make it so that seasons of The Show are released out-of-order on Netflix here in the United States, but the effect of this quirk is that we cannot access information about the show on the internet for fear of having seasons we have not yet seen spoiled quicker than milk mixed with lemon juice. We simply watch the show and stay off our phones. We wait for that valourous, red “New Episodes” banner to appear on the show’s tile on Netflix. We rejoice when it appears.

The one time we did Google the show we were sorry. In the first season we watched, a contestant angrily throws away his cake. It is a moment of rage on an otherwise good-natured if urgent show. We didn’t know better than to look up how the public responded when the incident happened in real time. What we discovered was heartbreaking. Public shaming. Emotional distress. Bullying and depression. All the rancor we were watching the show to escape came roiling to the surface of our browser windows. We cast our phones to the floor in disgust. Okay, that last bit is an exaggeration, but we did sigh despondently. Even our beloved Baking Show had been besmirched by the comment section.

I thought about The Great British Baking Show a lot while watching Ralph Breaks the Internet, for two reasons. One, no where in directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore’s expansive visualization of the internet is there any of the beauty, campaigns for justice, and access to truth or the communities that form around those things that I have found online.  The internet that Ralph and Vanellope encounter while trying to find a part for Vanellope’s broken arcade machine is purely transactional. It’s a place that bargains for dollars and attention, nothing more.

Where are the ways the internet makes available to many instances of beauty like The Great British Baking Show? Where are the messages sent between my mom and me in Texas and California as we watch the show? Ralph Breaks the Internet overflows with memes but not with recipes for apple tarts and meringue pavlovas. The movie’s ennui-stricken avatars throw heart-shaped dopamine drops at videos of human suffering, but no one contributes to disaster relief or the unexpected medical costs of friends across the country. Even Ralph Breaks the Internet’s most exuberant moment—a hilarious musical number sung by puckering Princess Vanellope—exults only in the potential for limitless ambition and destruction the internet provides her. It’s funny in its perversity, as is the movie’s most indelible image – that of a mountain-sized mass of writhing Ralph-viruses holding our protagonists in the palm of their hands. Emotional insecurity made manifest as the digital kind – this is the internet in the movie’s estimation. I think it is more.

The second reason I kept thinking of The Great British Baking Show while watching Ralph Breaks the Internet is because of what I’ve learned about gelatin watching the cooking show. Time is never on the bakers’ side during the competition, and many of their tasked bakes typically require more time than they are afforded. This is never more evident than when the contestants have to chill something in order for it to set. Gelatin requires upwards of four hours of refrigeration to set properly. Some Baking Show contestants dare to freeze their gelatin-based confections to speed up their process. This does not work. Freezing destroys the integrity of the gelatin, and the bakers get a melty goop instead of a firmly set sweet.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is frozen gelatin. It’s a one-hundred and twelve minute animated movie—long—but not enough time is given to letting themes develop narratively or visually. Instead, they are forced through in the dialogue during the last act. You can seen clearly what the filmmakers were going for. They make sure of that, but, in the words of Paul Hollywood, “It’s a bit of mess.”

Making a movie is no easy thing, and the internet is a complicated subject to tackle in a children’s film. I don’t like to negatively criticize something that obviously took a lot of work and which includes much evidence of real skill. The presentation is great. The flavors are good. It’s just under-baked. It’s a shame really. Johnston and Moore’s previous film, Zootopia, was similarly ambitious in it’s focus—the ins and outs of societal prejudice—and similarly messy. I think they’re good bakers. I’d just love to see everything come together in their bake.