Disney long ago abandoned any preciousness about their animated properties, churning out sequels at a company-mandated clip to which even the fussier Pixar flicks couldn’t remain immune. Quickie home video releases aside (Atlantis: Milo’s Return, Bambi II(!)), Disney feature film followups have ranged from dreck (The Jungle Book 2) to the sublime (Toy Story 3), with the great bulk of the offerings falling in the “fine enough for children” in-between. Ralph Breaks the Internet lands neatly in this Mouse House sweet spot after its predecessor, Wreck-It Ralph, took the concept of “a Toy Story, but with video games, and without Pixar” and made something clever and, surprisingly, sweetly resonant. With the first pop culture-indebted flick turning out better than it deserved to be, this second Ralph is standard, bald-faced sequel hubris—but also maddeningly preoccupied with trying to be more timely, more self-aware, and, paradoxically, even more distractingly hypnotic to the kiddies.
Six years after the events of Wreck-It Ralph gained its titular protagonist a newfound appreciation for his lot in life, Ralph (John C. Reilly) continues to enjoy a contented existence in Mr. Litwak’s (Ed O’Neill) Family Fun Center and Arcade. By day he’s still the villain of classic platformer Fix-It Felix Jr., leaving him to goof off with his best friend Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) all night in the various other games (Tapper and Tron, to name a few) available at Litwak’s. Unlike Ralph, however, Vanellope’s repetitious domination of racing game Sugar Rush has engendered in her an anxious wanderlust. Liking things just the way they are, and wanting to make his friend happy in any way possible, Ralph builds a new racetrack to liven things up in Vanellope’s game and, in the process, busts the steering wheel in its arcade cabinet. With Vanellope and her fellow Sugar Rush denizens homeless and despondent over Litwak threatening to junk the broken game by the end of the week, Ralph proposes a title-worthy solution: use the arcade’s recently installed wifi to order a new steering wheel from eBay—but not before encountering some compulsory, instantly-dated Internet gags along the way.
Like so many Europe-bound comedy sequels, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes the obvious choice to transplant its main characters to a fish-out-of-water setting. And yet the Internet seems an either too-arbitrary or too-calculated destination for our heroes, as much as the travel options for digital characters are fairly limited. (After spending much of the first film in a racing game, couldn’t the Ralph franchise still get a lot of mileage out of just exploring the rest of the games in the arcade?) The Internet of Ralph Breaks [it] presents itself predictably—which is to say safely and tritely, without daring to present anything too critical or substantive—and as a result the film never finds the knowingly-clever/youngster-appealing balance of, say, Wreck-It Ralph. There are easy jokes and commentary about Spam, Rickrolling and YouTube fame (pornography remains woefully unaddressed); vibrant, Silicon Valley-esque buildings representing websites like Pinterest; and users appearing as simplified little Mii-esque avatars while algorithms and search engines (Taraji P. Henson, a returning Alan Tudyk) appear as Inside Out-ish single-hued cartoons—even going so far as to have Bill Hader portray a skinny, secondary-colored secondary role again. And those aren’t even the most overtly insular Disney nods to cross the screen.
There are cameos aplenty in a trip to a website called Oh My Disney!, including Star Wars and Marvel representatives, as well as a bevy of Disney princesses at various levels of unhinged. (This stuff isn’t nearly winkingly cute enough to conceal the fact that, oh brother, Disney just embedded some aggressive brand synergy under the guise of satire.) The narrative payoff to this corporate wankery sees the princesses using the power of Disney tropes to inspire Vanellope to compete in Slaughter Race, the dangerous online Grand Theft Auto stand-in with which, much to Ralph’s chagrin, she has been entranced. Ralph’s jealous reaction to Vanellope’s decision to grow and join charismatic racer Shank (Gal Gadot) in this new endeavor forms the difficult emotional crux of the film. (It also acts as de facto villain as, despite an all-too-short appearance by a disgusting, sneering cockney slug voiced by Alfred Molina, there is no real antagonist.) This message about toxic codependence is an interesting choice for an ostensible children’s film, but ultimately one that, just like pretty much everything else on display in Ralph Breaks the Internet, only hits the mark occasionally.
Though not disagreeable entertainment by any means, this second Ralph movie, with its pleasantly scattered focus, merely stands pat at “passable.” Sure, the developing relationship of Ralph and Vanellope was worth revisiting, but the neat world established in their first film remains only perfunctorily addressed in favor of forgettable new characters and The Emoji Movie-adjacent humor. (That Jane Lynch’s Sergeant Calhoun and Jack McBrayer’s Fix-It Felix Jr. only return for one brief, lame parenting gag is symptomatic of the film’s overall disinterest in video games at all.) But that’s the underlying problem with this sequel: for (mostly) discarding Wreck-It Ralph‘s premise in order to take advantage of the whole of the Internet, it’s surprisingly unimaginative. Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t as destructive as its title promises: no molds were harmed in its making.
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Directors: Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Runtime: 112 minutes
Cast: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill