The premise of Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” you’ll recall, was, “What if ‘Toy Story’ but with video game characters?” For the sequel, “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” it’s, “What if ‘Toy Story’ but with the internet?” We’ll get to see how our favorite online characters act when nobody’s watching, beloved characters like “eBay” and “Twitter” and “YouTube.” Love those guys!
It’s dangerously close conceptually to “The Emoji Movie,” and I marvel at how quickly the novelty of seeing physical representations of internet concepts wore off. (Oh, is Twitter a bunch of little birds? How cute for you.) But unlike “The Emoji Movie,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has heart, soul, and writers, and a positive message for kids that you don’t see very often. Director Rich Moore has returned, with “Wreck-It Ralph” co-writer Phil Johnston as co-director, screenplay by Johnston and Pamela Ribon. It’s approximately as funny and endearing as the first one (which is to say it’s a good time, but nothing special).
Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) is happy with his new life, where people appreciate the work he does as the bad guy in the Fix-It Felix arcade game, and where he hangs out after hours with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), the glitchy star of the Sugar Rush game and technically a princess (but a cool one). Vanellope is bored, though, and wants new adventures. The opportunity arises when the steering wheel on Sugar Rush gets busted and the arcade owner unplugs the game. (All the characters are evacuated safely, don’t worry.) To make things right, Ralph and Vannellope travel to The Internet to find a replacement part.
What do they find on the internet? Everything you can imagine* (*that would be appropriate in a PG movie)! Internet users are represented by avatars that physically move between websites, which are depicted as buildings. When you click a link, a transparent bubble swoops in to enfold you and whisk you off to your destination. Pop-up ads are guys who run up to you and yell in your face; an ad-blocker is a Secret Service-looking dude who sternly orders ads to get lost. A friendly spambot (Bill Hader) promises you can “Make Big Money Playing Video Games!”; Ralph follows him to his website, which is a dusty, dilapidated shack in the bad part of town. You get the idea.
There are two conflicts. One is that Ralph and Vanellope, having found the $200 replacement part, must come up with a way to pay for it with actual real-world U.S. dollars. The other is that out in the big, wide world, with so many new horizons, Ralph fears Vanellope will make new friends and replace him. It’s a valid fear, because they find themselves in Slaughter Race, an online car-stealing, street-racing game headed by a badass named Shank (Gal Gadot). Vanellope idolizes everything about her, and even gets to sing a “Disney princess” song (with music by Disney veteran Alan Menken) about how she loves this filthy, crime-ridden new game.
The first problem is handled amusingly and soon: Ralph stars in a bunch of viral videos on a site called BuzzzTube where “likes” are worth actual money — which isn’t how YouTube operates, which is why it’s “BuzzzTube,” run by a chic, media-savvy woman named Yesss (Taraji P. Henson). The problem of Ralph’s insecurity takes over as chief concern then, culminating in a sweet reaffirmation of friendship and the comforting message that two people can still be friends even if one of them moves away.
In the midst of all this is a side mission (heavily featured in the trailers) where Vanellope visits a Disney website and meets all of the Disney princesses, even the ones from movies no one remembers, like “Princess and the Frog” (which is great!). There are jokes about the recurring themes among the princesses (no moms, a fondness for gazing wistfully into water, the ability to make animals do their work for them, etc.), and some really terrific gags about the ladies’ lives outside of their movies. In an extra nice touch, they got all of the princesses’ original voice actors (except for the deceased Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) to pop in for their cameos. For people of a certain age, it’s irresistibly fun to imagine Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan hanging out with the newer kids like Rapunzel, Moana, and the “Frozen” sisters.
Now, there’s a little bit of mission creep here. The Disney princesses, like everything else in the world, can be found on the internet, but they’re not internet characters. To really execute this concept you’d need to have Ralph and Vanellope run into, say, Homestar Runner, or the “Chocolate Rain” guy, or Axe Cop, or that “Fred” kid with the high-pitched voice, or dancing hamsters, or people doing the Harlem Shake, or a dress whose color nobody can agree on, or Kim Kardashian’s butt (which is where the phrase “break the internet” came from) — you know, internet things. But I note that most of the entertainment in the film comes from tangents and details that have little to do with the main story.
Finally, do you remember how the ENTIRE CRISIS in “Wreck-It Ralph” was that Ralph’s leaving the game made it unplayable and they had to hurry and bring him back before it got unplugged? Well, he’s out of his game for well over 24 hours this time, and there’s nary a mention of how his absence affects his Fix-It Felix coworkers. Then again, this plot hole gives me something to complain about on the internet, so maybe it’s thematically appropriate after all.
B- (1 hr., 52 min.; )