By: Steve Pulaski
I vividly remember how floored I was by Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, which shockingly just turned six years old. Not only did it catch me off guard with its attention-to-detail, it won me over with the chemistry between its two characters and clear love for the days of arcades and quarter-machines. I called it "a film where colors, craft, characters, vision, creativity, worlds, look, voice-acting, etc shine over cartoon idiocy and redundant childishness" in my review and I don't regret a syllable. When a sequel was announced, with the same cast and crew coming back for another round, I was thrilled. It's not every day you're actually crossing your fingers for a sequel, especially one to a nearly perfect film.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is the first feature-length theatrical sequel from Walt Disney Animation Studios since Fantasia 2000, all the way back at the dawn of the decade. This is no small feat given the fact that Disney is practically sitting on a plethora of properties that are ostensibly begging for a follow-up (Tangled, Moana, even Frozen, which I'll be writing about one year from now). The fact that a story this visually unique and audacious — and not your conventional kids film in 2018 — could get a second film is a testament to the vast world in which our titular character inhabits. People lament the two additional Cars movies Pixar gave us, but when you have a universe this large and still full of untapped potential, it's almost a crime not to devote more time to showcasing it.
And that's precisely what Ralph Breaks the Internet does. It doubles down on clever, referential humor and awe-inspiring animation with endless creativity, and ties it all together with mature themes about letting friends evolve into their own person and avoiding the toxic, destructive path that's all too easy to take. Sure, some might not be ready for another Ready Player One-esque sensory overload, with characters, brands, and recognizable internet hallmarks popping up en masse, but if you are ready for another high-energy spectacle with big moments and strong humor, I don't know how you let this film pass you by.
As soon as the film begins, we are reintroduced to the lovable softy Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), who continues to enjoy his day-to-day existence as the villain in the arcade video-game "Fix it Felix Jr." His best friend is still Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), the pint-sized, sweet little girl from the racing video-game "Sugar Rush," who, on the other hand, is getting sick of the sameness of her routine. Fate eventually comes knocking after the steering wheel on the Sugar Rush arcade cabinet breaks off. A replacement costs $200 on eBay, and being that the item's pricetag is more than the game itself makes in one year, the owner decides to unplug the machine and lay it to rest — leaving Vanellope and her Sugar Rush companions "gameless." In a desperate effort to repair the machine, Ralph and Vanellope sneak into the new mystifying section of the arcade known as "WiFi" in an effort to purchase the steering wheel. They navigate the web — which is personified as a virtual Mall of America — despite being unfamiliar with the concept of money and eBay auctions, which leads them to grossly overbid on the part.
In a haste to get some money, the two friends fall for pop-up ads (which look like the kind of individuals at sporting events hawking you to try to sign up for raffles) that lead them to a gritty, violent racing game known as "Slaughter Race." While Vanellope takes a liking to the sandbox-style 180 from her candy-colored kiddie game, and is taken under the wing of the game's seasoned racer, voiced by Gal Gadot, Ralph becomes a viral video phenomenon in hopes he'll rake in enough money to purchase the steering wheel. In the process, Vanellope has a change of heart, which will ultimately test her friendship with the clingy, sensitive Ralph.
Once again, the world in which Ralph Breaks the Internet creates is nothing short of amazing. Where its predecessor brought life to the arcade games and their characters not too distant from the way Toy Story humanized toys, this sequel animates the world wide web in a similarly fascinating way. Writers Phil Johnston (Zootopia) and Pamela Ribon (Moana) re-imagine the various eccentricities of the internet by wonderfully painting its users as avatars and empires like Amazon, IMDb, and eBay as bustling stores amidst a commercial cityscape. Vanellope even spends time with Disney's litany of princesses in a glorious meta-bit thatnearly disguises the shameless self-promotion (until you yourself simply sigh as you're reminded that Disney owns everything).
Even as Ralph Breaks the Internet creates a rip-roarin' good time for all ages, it's careful to illustrate some pretty meaningful themes. The way it handles Vanellope's budding restlessness as she grows tired of her very confined role in "Sugar Rush" is as good of a lesson for kids about letting friends become their own person — even if that means potentially moving on or changing in a drastic way. Ralph's initial, malicious response is indicative of ego that responds to the disconnect with added anger and gives headway for catastrophic results, and it's illustrated in a communicable way that might remind older viewers how disappointingly commonplace that attitude is — especially on the internet.
Beyond being a mad-dash of familiar pop culture characters, Ralph Breaks the Internet hits a home-run as a visual feast and a reminder of a tough lesson in friendship that isn't discussed nearly as much given how frequently it occurs.