3 out of 5 stars.
The current state of technology and the internet—especially how so many people live their lives online through social media—is endless fodder for satire. The sequel to Disney’s 2012 animated hit “Wreck-It Ralph” trades in the video game nostalgia of its predecessor for a look at the internet as it is today, but it’s fairly light on the satire, opting instead for a message about friendship that’s sweet but struggles to find its footing.
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” is directed by Phil Johnston and Rich Moore and is set six years after the events of “Wreck-It Ralph.” Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), the bad guy of the arcade game Fix-It Felix, is now longer really a bad guy. He loves spending the nights outside of his game with his best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) of the racing game Sugar Rush. But while Ralph is content with his days remaining the same, Vanellope is longing for something different. Ralph’s attempts to help her result in her game potentially being shut down. But when the owner of their arcade installs wi-fi in the building, Ralph and Vanellope journey into the internet to find the part her game needs before it’s too late.
In the film, the internet is portrayed as being a huge city, compared to the small-town like digs of the arcade. Disney’s signature cleverness is present at every turn, as websites and apps that we casually click through on our computers and phones daily are brought vividly to life. Internet users are embodied by little people journeying through the city. Ebay is an actual auction house. The Search Bar, manned by KnowsMore (frequent Disney animation voice Alan Tudyk), uses autofill to find what users are looking for, before they are whisked off to the website of their choice. There’s a dark web beneath the gloss of the big city, and scam artists pushing clickbait at gullible users. It’s a lot of fun to see how Disney interprets all these familiar sites and the amount of detail and thought put into this world, making the internet appear as vast as it truly is. And it’s done tastefully, too, although it lacks the timelessness of other Disney films, even of “Wreck-It Ralph.” People in the future are not likely to look back on things like YouTube or Amazon with fondness or nostalgia, and with the internet constantly changing, it’s likely that some the memes and apps depicted in the film will be out of fashion within the next year or too. But the film doesn’t overuse super specific references, so while those who are internet-savvy will get more of the jokes, it doesn’t exclude everyone from enjoying the story and characters. The one very bizarre, specific, and meta tangent that the film does go on is when Vanellope goes to OhMyDisney.com, the website that most real-life Disney fans will recognize as the home of Disney-themed videos and quizzes geared toward the millennial audience. In “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” the Oh My Disney website is an amalgamation of all things Disney, from the parks to the characters, including Star Wars, Marvel, and, of course, the Disney Princesses. It is a joy, especially as a Disney fan, to see all the princesses in one place, and voiced by their original voice actresses, at that. Their scene with Vanellope (also a princess, if an unconventional one) is the ultimate example of Disney poking fun at themselves, particularly some of the old-fashioned tropes of their princess movies that have come under some criticism in recent years. And while the jokes, and even the more subtle sight gags, are hilarious, some of the references might go over the heads of, or not land as solidly, with casual viewers. On its own, it’s a really fun sequence, but within the movie, it feels like a distraction.
But it is nice to see Disney taking the same approach to the animation that they did with “Wreck-It Ralph.” Visually, the film is colorful and incredibly detailed, but the animators also provide different characters from different programs with different styles of movement. This is particularly the case with the characters from the arcade, but is also evident within the online games in the internet. A good portion of the film takes place within a brutally difficult racing game called Slaughter Race, and the jittery motions of the playable characters are hilariously spot-on. All of the new characters have varied and interesting designs, from Shank (Gal Gadot), a human racer in Slaughter Race who Vanellope befriends, to Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), a blue humanoid who is the head algorithm at YouTube rival BuzzTube.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t pack the same punch that somany Disney films do, partially because it takes a while to figure out exactly what the characters’ motivations are this time around. While a lot of Disney’s movies follow a certain formula, it’s a formula that works, and that informs us right away of what the protagonist wants. Even in “Wreck-It Ralph,” we learn early on that Ralph doesn’t want to be the lonely bad guy, and that’s what fuels his journey. In “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” we learn in the beginning of the film that Vanellope is a bit bored with Sugar Rush, but as she and Ralph race off to find the missing part for her game, that tangent is dropped until the final third of the film. It isn’t until Vanellope meets the princesses and realizes that she doesn’t know what her dream is that the audience also realizes that they don’t really know what the characters are trying to get out of this. And suddenly the film is no longer about a romp through cyberspace, but about Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship, and how Vanellope wants to try to new, but Ralph is too insecure to let her go. Their friendship is portrayed with an honesty that few films manage to achieve, it’s just a shame that it takes so long for the story to focus on that—and also that the climax of the film devolves into a rather soulless, action-filled sequence before the conflict is resolved.
Overall, fans of the first “Wreck-It Ralph” and of Disney in general will come away pleased. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has the right balance of funny and heart-wrenching scenes,all brought to life by a wonderful voice cast and the talented Disney animators. But it feels like there was a missed opportunity to take advantage of the online setting and provide more commentary about the superficiality of the internet and social media, and like the story needed a lot more refocusing. It may not be as great as the first movie, or as the other films Disney animation has put out during this era, but think about it: this is only the second time Disney animation has released a sequel to one of their films. It does at least succeed at not repeating the same story, and giving these characters we now know and love some new challenges to face.
Runtime: 112 minutes. Rated PG.