Ralph Breaks the Internet (Phil Johnston/Rich Moore, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
Back in 2012, Walt Disney Studios gave us Wreck-It Ralph, a pleasant diversion of a nostalgia trip to the world of 1980s arcade games. Its main character, the titular Ralph, a Donkey Kong-like villain who yearns for the love and respect of his fellow characters, escapes the confines of his physical game console to show he can do more than just wreck buildings. Eventually, after many adventures and near-death experiences, Ralph achieves his goal, gaining a new friend, Princess Vanellope, from the nearby Sugar Rushracing game, in the process. As that film ends, all is right in their pixelated world, and a good time has been had by all.
Now, six years later, we have Ralph Breaks the Internet, or “Wreck-It Ralph 2.” As all effective sequels must do, the movie explores new territory in its previously well-constructed universe, taking Ralph and Vanellope outside their beloved arcade into the internet beyond. The story begins with the fast friends looking for ways to change up their normal routine, with Ralph’s attempt leading to an existential problem for Sugar Rush, which now faces a permanent shutdown. Since the arcade owner has just purchased Wi-Fi for the space, and Ralph overhears him discussing eBay as the only solution for a missing part needed to save Vanellope’s game, our heroes take a chance on the unknown and head off into the digital ether. Bye-bye, familiar; hello, excitement!
The filmmakers have a lot of fun with what follows, spoofing the ever-trending memes and videos of our daily life in mostly inventive ways. Still, some of the gags begin to tire by the end, so obvious are the punchlines. Where the film shines, however, is in its unexpected trajectory for Vanellope, who discovers brand-new, exhilarating possibilities in her travels. Why would she ever head back to Sugar Rushnow that she has seen what the ultra-violent Slaughter Racehas to offer? Will Ralph lose his best friend, even as he tries to save her? The stakes are high, and Vanellope’s to lose. The film may bear Ralph’s name, but it’s really her story.
I also love how much fun directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore have with Disney, which is clearly not above a good joke at its own expense (especially if it can help market their products). At one point, Vanellope finds herself in the midst of the entire Disney canon of princesses, who complain that all that ever happens is they end up rescued by a “big, strong man.” With Vanellope’s help, that cliché may soon be flipped. Nothing wrong with a feminist twist to one’s entertainment.
John C. Reilly (The Little Hours) returns as the voice of Ralph, along with Sarah Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) as Vanellope and a large ensemble of fine supporting actors in other roles, including Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) and Taraji P. Henson (Proud Mary). The animation is slick and the tone jaunty. When it works, it works well; when it doesn’t, it’s not long before it does again. By the conclusion, what was broken is fixed, though not as it was. Change in a film series is always good. We’ll see what Disney comes up with in six more years.