After going from 8-bit zero to arcade hero during his original outing, Wreck-It Ralph levels up in a big way with “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” an ambitious, all-around-satisfying sequel to Walt Disney Animation’s wonderfully outside-the-box smash that ranks among the studio’s very best toons: It’s a poignant buddy movie that’s sincere in all the right places but knows better than to take itself too seriously. While the 2012 project was an inspired example of easily expandable world-building, this more-clever-than-expected follow-up skips the obvious next step — simply exploring the other games that share the same power strip — and sets out to conquer the relative vastness of cyberspace instead.
That’s a lofty goal for any sequel, further complicated by the fact that reformed bad guy Ralph (voiced by lovable lug John C. Reilly) has made friends with fellow misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), which calls for an all-new dynamic. Part of what made “Wreck-It Ralph” so much fun was the way director Rich Moore, a “Simpsons” alum, subverted the wholesome, kid-friendly world of singing princesses and their predictable fairy-tale adventures in favor of irreverent fun with characters that Gen X viewers might recognize as being inspired by the video games of their childhood.
This time around, Moore shares directing duties with Phil Johnston (who co-wrote the original with returning screenwriter Pamela Ribon), and together they tackle the challenge of finding an intuitive way to depict the web that will be recognized worldwide, and for years to come. The creative team’s answer is less “Tron” than sleek 22nd-century Tokyo, a futuristic super-city where floating information superhighways snake through virtual skyscrapers, while billboards and pop-up ads tout practically every (family-appropriate) brand you can think of — which was plainly some clearance lawyer’s worst nightmare.
After some amusing late-night interactions between the video game characters at Litwak’s Arcade, the ensemble gathers to examine the latest addition to the already overloaded surge protector: a Wi-Fi router that looms as menacingly as Buzz Lightyear did to a roomful of outdated playthings in “Toy Story.” Just as the new device arrives, a malfunction to the “Sugar Rush” game forces Vanellope and her fellow racers to flee, prompting the quest that will send the glitchy princess — who flickers whenever she’s feeling insecure — and her temperamental bestie out in search of a replacement part before Litwak (Ed O’Neill) pulls the plug.
Like Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” earlier this year, the internet-as-metropolis metaphor vastly oversimplifies what it’s trying to illustrate, which may date this sequel somewhat in the long run, though it feels perfectly fresh for the moment, allowing reformed villain Ralph to become both a viral-video sensation and a computer virus at various points in the story. Besides, the object here is to playfully riff on the way people use the internet, contrasting all that these sites have to offer — from online auctions to auto-complete search engines — with the frustration of figuring out how everything works in the absence of an experienced adult.
For parents worried about how their kids use the web, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” sounds a note of mild caution, reinforcing the importance of understanding the sites one visits: Social-media commenters are depicted as potentially toxic, and eBay can be dangerous. In their naiveté, Ralph and Vanellope accidentally wind up bidding $27,001, making one nostalgic for the day when the worst a child could do was run up a phone bill calling 1-900 hotlines to listen to recordings of Hulk Hogan or the Backstreet Boys. Woefully ill-prepared for the internet, the two old-school arcade characters come across as a couple of country bumpkins overwhelmed by the big city.
By this point, Vanellope has already been nursing doubts about her place in the universe, questioning whether there could be more to life than doing endless laps around the same tracks. On the internet, she discovers “Slaughter Race,” a more grown-up, “Grand Theft Auto”-style driving game where she’s finally able to pit her daredevil driving skills against someone as well-matched to her tricks: That would be Shank (Gal Gadot), a strong female role model who does wonders for her self-confidence. It’s a crime-infested hellhole, but to Vanellope, it’s paradise, inspiring her hilariously unconventional “I want” song, and one of the movie’s standout sequences, “A Place Called Slaughter Race.”
Whenever a CG character suffers an existential crisis of this magnitude, the creators are cribbing from the Pixar playbook. Even though this movie was made by the folks at Disney (John Lasseter gets a credit but was on leave for the final year of production), it adheres far closer to the feel-good formula of its NorCal cousins. In this case, that’s an asset, considering how much of the original film’s renegade spirit remains — as in the openly satirical approach the sequel takes toward so many other Disney brands, the princesses in particular.
While Ralph discovers how easily a reformed meanie can become a meme, Vanellope ventures over to the “Oh My Disney” virtual world, where she spots several “Star Wars” characters and the obligatory (newly poignant) Stan Lee cameo. There, living happily ever after in a posh lounge, she stumbles on Disney royalty, now idle celebrities: Anna and Elsa, Ariel, Aurora, Belle, Cinderella, Jasmine, Moana, Mulan, Pocahontas, Snow White, and Tiana — all but the eldest voiced by the original performers (Ribon subs for Snow White). Even Kelly Macdonald, who embodied “Brave” for “the other studio,” drops in, earning laughs by making Merida’s Scottish brogue all but unintelligible.
Looking at Vanellope — who’s a Disney princess, too, albeit an unconventional one — surrounded by these icons, fans may flash back to the poster for “Lilo & Stitch,” which featured the studio’s most recognizable characters recoiling from the oddball alien: “There’s one in every family,” the tagline read. Sixteen years later, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” delivers on that notion, celebrating the joys of being the black sheep, even as it preaches a fresh understanding of friendship. Vanellope’s the first to understand that lesson, while Ralph is distracted by the joys of becoming an internet sensation, making clickbait videos for hype-master Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) on BuzzzTube — many of which were used to promote the film itself IRL.
When fickle audiences lose interest, Ralph gets desperate, venturing into the dark net for a shortcut that will exploit his insecurities and, you guessed it, break the internet. Things could have spiraled out of control in this last act, as a swarm of tiny Ralphs (who was loosely modeled after Donkey Kong in the first place) combine to form a massive King Kong-like mega-monster. In this virtual city, of course Google owns the equivalent of the Empire State Building, making it the logical place to stage the final showdown. Luckily, the jokes keep coming even as the film takes this potentially intense turn, giving all those princesses a chance to flip the script on their traditional gender roles.
Trace Disney animated features back to their roots, as many an academic has, and one can find plenty of sexist and racist problems, though the studio has taken a proactive role in trying to correct that over the past decade or so, culminating in 2016’s brilliant can’t-we-all-just-get-along parable “Zootopia.” Ralph is a disruptor by design, and in many ways, he’s the ideal character to bring about the next seismic shift, creating a space where the studio can poke fun at itself while presenting a more enlightened narrative for fans. The movie isn’t all laughs, however, managing to surprise at times by how nuanced the animation can be. Who would have thought that while breaking the internet, Ralph might be breaking our hearts as well?