Film Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

A cartoon followup sends two arcade-game heroes into the wide world of the web.
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The smartest kind of sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet remembers what you liked about the first film. And then, not only gives you more of the same, but something different.

The original 2012 movie, Wreck-It Ralph, imagined the private lives of arcade-game characters. Ralph—basically a humanized version of Donkey Kong—was tired of being the bad guy and breaking things. So he went in search of new things—and made a friend in Vanellope, a tiny racecar driver from a surreal sort of high-tech Candyland.

Six years later, they’re still the best of friends—but Vanellope’s arcade game is broken, and about to be sold for junk. Can she—and her self-styled, overprotective big brother Ralph—find a way to get the necessary part, currently available on eBay for the buy-it-now price of $200?

They sure can, if they’re willing to dive—literally—into the Internet.

It takes a little while to get them there and it takes a bit of patience on the part of the audience. The character designs remain not quite realized—they look more like typical, rubbery, computer-animation figures than characters out of an old game. And while John C. Reilly adds a pleasant goofiness to Ralph, Sarah Silverman’s oh-so-adorable squeakiness as Vanellope gets tiresome, fast.

But then they finally get to the ’net.

And the movie quickly begins to brighten up. The web is imagined as a gigantic shiny city, where big sites are towering skyscrapers, and spam and pop-up ads are shady characters. There are also some wonderfully original inventions—like Yesss, voiced by Taraji P. Henson, a chic algorithm who runs a YouTube-like site. Or KnowsMore, a constantly interrupting search engine given a goofy Ed Wynn vibe by the terrific Alan Tudyk.

And then the movie kicks it up another surprising notch by sending Vanellope into the official Disney website.

Surprising because, once I saw where she was heading, I immediately groaned. Just how synergistic, how self-referential, how relentlessly self-promoting was this going to be? How crammed with corporate characters and merchandizing opportunities—Star Wars, Winnie the Pooh, and every beautiful singing princess—was this Disney product going to get?

Pretty crammed.

Yet the script also keeps a witty sense of self-mockery about it all (mostly, reportedly, the work of writer Pamela Ribon). It not only acknowledges the clichés of its tentpole stories—dead dads, personal quests, yearning ballads—it gently lampoons them. Vanellope even gets her own, perfectly parodied song to sing, while staring into a puddle. (And, like the best satires, it’s all done with a respectful devotion to accuracy—most of the original films’ stars return in vocal cameos.)

Of course, other movie conventions have to be observed, too—like a silly, end-of-second-act argument that threatens to separate Vanellope and Ralph forever. And since Marvel is now a Disney property too (the movie even, weirdly, features an animated Stan Lee appearance), there’s an overblown, the whole-world’s-at-stake climax, which drags in everything from King Kong to World War Z (oddly, because they may be the only things here the Mouse doesn’t own).

Those touches feel a little fake in what’s been an otherwise original script. (Also ringing false—a subplot about how Ralph is able to instantly monetize idiotic homemade online videos. But then I never really got that in real life, either.)

But even with that, and its slow start, this is still an enjoyable, smartly done movie, with plenty of flash and dazzle for the kids, a gentle message about friendship and a few sharply pointed parenting gags for the adults. (There’s also, unexpectedly buried in the end credits, a blackly comic Monty Python and the Meaning of Life reference.)

It’s just what a sequel should be, and it ends perfectly—so perfectly that to make another Ralph movie would be to, well, wreck everything just for the sake of another couple of hundred million. Let’s see if Disney has the power to resist that.