It’s strange to think that Wreck-It Ralph came out before Frozen, but it did; the former arrived in 2012, while the latter emerged a year later. Frozen was a juggernaut that placed Disney Animation Studios on the same level as its sister studio, Pixar, but Wreck-It Ralph was a solid offering that kept Disney Animation’s momentum going after the triumph of Tangled two years earlier. Ralph’s deft and witty blend of adult nostalgia for 1980s 8-bit arcade video games, combined with a wonderful visual palette and a story that could enrapture little ones, proved to be a unique and satisfying combination.
After six years we at last have a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, and it’s gratifying to say that Ralph Breaks the Internet, while having the slight whiff of corporate obligation around it, is an entertaining, delightful and heartwarming follow-up. It sends our main characters — the massively strong yet relatively naïve Ralph (John C. Reilly) and the feisty, rebellious and glitchy racer girl from the Sugar Rush game, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) — on a new adventure in a different environment, allowing the sequel to avoid repeating too much of the first film while still enabling both to grow as characters.
As Ralph Breaks the Internet opens, Ralph and Vanellope have been best friends for six years while enjoying their home and routines at Litwak’s Family Fun Center and Arcade. Well, at least one of them is; while Ralph luxuriates in the simple pleasures of his “life” as a video game villain (who now has friends and is accepted in the community), Vanellope is growing tired of running the same races over and over again and yearns for something different.
A misguided attempt by Ralph to liven things up in Sugar Rush results in the game being broken and a steering wheel — near impossible to find for the vintage game — needing to be replaced. At first it seems that this might condemn Sugar Rush and its denizens to the scrap heap, but Mr. Litwak’s (Ed O’Neill) introduction of wi-fi to the arcade opens up the internet to our heroes, and with it the chance to find a replacement steering wheel on something called eBay. So into the modem and out along the phone lines shoot Ralph and Vanellope, into the vast digital megalopolis known as the World Wide Web.
Other films — most notably last year’s misguided The Emoji Movie — have tried to portray the Internet and its various edifices in similar fashion, and there’s no small irony in an entertainment behemoth like Disney attempting to do the same (we’re somewhat surprised that there isn’t a Disney Plus skyscraper already lurking within). But unlike, say, Ready Player One, which treated its endless parade of corporate IPs as hallowed icons of our imaginations and youths, the filmmakers behind Ralph Breaks the Internet (primarily the returning Wreck-It Ralph trio of directors and writers Rich Moore, Clark Spencer and Phil Johnston) willingly, if subtly, admit that the Internet mainly exists now to sell us things.
This is personified in the annoying little green pop-ups that constantly attempt to lure our heroes to malware sites and other online scams, but there’s also a sly little poke at the parent company as well when Ralph and Vanellope stumble into the Disney site (OhMyDisney.com) and meet a variety of characters from Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm. The most hilarious moment comes when Vanellope finds her way into the Disney Princesses green room and meets every single major female animated character from the studio canon, with many of them (almost all voiced by the original actresses) proving to be either stuck in or wildly divergent from the personas audiences are accustomed to.
Further Reading: Ralph Breaks the Internet Creators on Breaking Down the Web
Ralph Breaks the Internet also takes us into the world of violent online games via a trip to Slaughter Race, where they meet the tough but empathetic Shank (Gal Gadot) and her racing crew, and even briefly into the dark web, although awful places like 4Chan or Gab are conspicuously absent. When Ralph finds he has a knack for funny viral videos that can be posted to raise money to buy the Sugar Rush part (the cost of which has ballooned to $27,000 — of course — on eBay), he begins posting them on Buzzztube, where the hive mind allure of such videos, as well as some of the ugly vitriol and hate that any social media expression can inspire, is also neatly satirized.
At 112 minutes, the movie starts to feel long just as the third act begins, and some of the plot turns down the homestretch feel like they were contrived just to keep the story going. But the usual action-filled finish leads to a surprising and rather emotional conclusion in which our two characters — both of whom are given genuine life by the flawless animation and the lead actors’ engaging voice work — have clearly evolved in different ways even as their friendship endures.
Gadot, Taraji P. Henson (as Buzztube chief algorithm Yesss) and Alan Tudyk (as the officious search engine KnowsMore) are worthy additions to the cast, although other returning players like Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer get little more than cameos. The animation and visuals are spectacular and eye-filling as always, the electronic world that these characters move through is endlessly imaginative, and like its predecessor, Ralph Breaks the Internet weaves enough sophisticated humor into the kid-friendly antics to keep adults watching as well — instead of surreptitiously surfing the Web on their phones.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is out in theaters November 21.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye