For this critic and fan, a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph had a lot to live up to. Disney’s 2012 animated fantasy wrapped an endlessly clever homage to arcade video games in a hero’s-quest story that went in unexpected directions, gave meaningful roles and snappy dialogue (“Flattery don’t charge these batteries, civilian”) to its supporting characters and featured one of the best surprise twists in 21st-century cinema. Its narrative was self-contained, its tribute to a key strain of pop culture complete. What could they do for an encore?
The answer is, returning director Rich Moore and co-scripter Phil Johnston (this time also taking the helm) tackle tech that’s very much here and now and have just as much fun with it, scoring some even bigger laughs. Once again, there’s real heart amidst the humor, though it takes a little while to get there and the road is occasionally bumpy—and that’s not just a reference to the makeshift track that Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) pounds into the landscape of the Sugar Rush cart-racing game to bring a little excitement to its leading driver, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman).
Johnston and Pamela Ribon’s screenplay opens six years after the original’s events, with Ralph and Vanellope now best friends, spending all their off-work time together and occasionally jaunting into other games (apparently, attitudes about “going Turbo” have relaxed at Litwak’s Family Fun Center). He’s content with the way things are, but she’s getting bored with constantly running the same course and itching for new challenges. Ralph’s attempt to provide one with that handmade track leads to Sugar Rush being threatened with shutdown unless a new part can be procured; fortunately, salvation is at hand via a newly plugged-in “game” called Wifi and a feature within it called eBay.
And so Ralph and Vanellope head into that brave and dizzying new world known as the Internet, as the directors and their design team have a field day visualizing and physicalizing the household-name sites and online distractions that netizens experience every day. As opposed to the rush of nostalgia engendered by Wreck-It Ralph, the new film plays off all the modern delights and frustrations of the web world, embodying some of its most familiar elements in amusing characters like jabbery sentient pop-up J.P. Spamley (an uncredited Bill Hader), professorial search engineer KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk), and Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), the trend-obsessed operator of video-sharing site BuzzzTube. The most significant new face is Shank (perfectly voiced by Gal Gadot), top driver in a dark-and-gritty on-line game called Slaughter Race, which offers Vanellope the thrills she’s been seeking—and threatens to distract her from pal time with Ralph.
It is here, after a first half crammed with action and laughs coming from every which way, that Ralph Breaks the Internet finds its focus. It addresses the nature of friendship through its two thoroughly endearing leads, bringing some unexpectedly touching moments through to its epic climax—which, despite its scale, remains tied to that theme. One of the film’s achievements is that it elicits true dramatic tension amidst the spectacle without having a villain, just two “people” struggling with conflicting feelings. That spectacle, it almost goes without saying, has been beautifully realized by the countless digital artisans, who have created any number of visually distinctive environments and populated them with all sorts of odd, funny details, characters and in-references. (Be sure to stay till the very end of the closing credits for the best gag of all.)
And then there are the Disney princesses. You’ve no doubt seen them in the previews, and that’s just a little taste of the priceless self-satire the studio revels in through this gathering of their classic heroines. They went the extra mile in casting, too, bringing in every one of the surviving actresses who voiced them, from Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho on back. The princess scenes are so good that you can forgive the self-promotion for its various divisions that Disney indulges in, which occasions a few other fun vocal and visual cameos (and one in the Marvel area that provoked a bittersweet sigh from the preview audience). With Ralph Breaks the Internet, the Mouse House has successfully extended this particular brand in the right direction.