Disney goes viral with an ambitious, overstuffed Wreck-It Ralph sequel

Image: Walt Disney Pictures
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There have been relatively few sequels produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation—that is, the flagship Disney cartoon brand, not Pixar or any of their TV divisions—and it’s easy to see why. Disney specializes in happy-ending family entertainment, and producing a follow-up to a beloved all-ages cartoon places the young audience’s desire for more up against the security and stability that comes when a story ends. Ralph Breaks The Internet, the first Disney-proper sequel of its latest golden age, doesn’t exactly untie a classic fairy-tale bow. But it does have to follow the particularly sweet and satisfying end of 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, a Disney cartoon that felt informed by Pixar and even Futurama as much as Disney’s older classics.

The first Wreck-It Ralph explored the inner lives of sentient video game characters, depicted as workers punching the clock at their local arcade who, like the toys in Toy Story, express their own perspectives and feelings when kids’ backs are turned. The new film picks up with lovable lunk Ralph (John C. Reilly) having fully reconciled his desire for heroism with his job as an arcade-game baddie. Now he spends his time off from work hanging out with his diminutive best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), the casual-dress princess hero of racing game Sugar Rush. Ralph enjoys life as a working stiff, though Vanellope is growing bored with her racing-world domination. Their comfortable routine is disrupted by their arcade’s introduction of wifi, which Ralph initially deduces must be a video game about either Wiffle ball or arranged marriage.

But it is indeed a wireless internet connection, from which Ralph and Vanellope realize they might procure a badly needed replacement part for the recently mangled Sugar Rush. They head to the internet to save Vanellope’s game, and their jump to the wild world of social media, e-commerce, and pop-up ads includes a trip to Slaughter Race, an immensely more violent racing game dominated by Shank (Gal Gadot, reaching back to her Fast & Furious experience). Vanellope is smitten with this more intense, challenging new world; Ralph is intimidated, both by the game’s extreme environment and his friend’s newfound independence.

Though Ralph Breaks The Internet obviously springs from confidence in the first movie, it also (intentionally or not) addresses some criticisms leveled at its predecessor. Those disappointed that a movie about a vast subculture situated itself in a single fictional game for most of its running time may be pleased by the frequent location-hopping; only about five minutes take place in Sugar Rush. There’s also a thematic shift for anyone who read the first film’s ending as a reinforcement of the status quo: This story draws a contrast between Ralph, who is content (and change-averse) in his old job now that he has a best friend, and Vanellope, who yearns for a life outside of her designated game.

These developments help Ralph Breaks The Internet justify its existence and generate some emotional tension—while also illustrating how “correcting” a predecessor doesn’t always result in a better film. Wreck-It Ralph took time to dig into its oddball characters and the world of Sugar Rush. Breaks The Internet is, appropriately enough for a movie about a flood of information and content, overstuffed with incident; it’s long for a cartoon, and feels cut down from something even longer. The visualizations of interconnected online culture are often clever, but few of them pack the silly surprise of great gags (which the original film had in abundance), and sometimes feel more dutiful than truly inspired.

Still, the movie manages to locate some gentle satire in our culture’s love-hate relationship with the internet. At one point, Ralph must attain a certain level of viral popularity, assisted by the BuzzFeed-esque content guru Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), and the movie is savvy about how accidental spikes in fame can turn into cynical algorithm manipulation. That sense of neediness and desperation eventually has a more destructive outlet in the form of a computer virus that attacks “insecurities” in its targets.

Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, both veterans of the original Wreck-It Ralph team, also pull off some inventive, enlivening left turns that bring to mind the first film. These include a brief but showstopping (and trailer-revealed) scene where Vanellope crashes a Disney Princess reunion, packed with gags and references that should send both young and old fans into paroxysms of glee. The princess confab also leads into a scene featuring Vanellope and the cast of Slaughter Race that probably shouldn’t be spoiled. Neither sequence has much to do with internet culture, and that’s fine—if gaming was a big milieu for the first film, the internet provides a canvas with near-impossible vastness.

The movie eventually links its various clickpaths skillfully—but at nearly two hours, it takes a while, like a cruise through Wikipedia that keeps opening new tabs. In particular, Ralph Breaks The Internet riffs a lot on its enormous parent company, from that princess bit to the Sterling Holloway tone that new good-luck charm Alan Tudyk brings to his vocal performance to a goof on the de facto parenting advice that’s at the heart of so many Pixar movies. Intentionally or not, the movie makes Disney feel as enormous as the internet itself, containing a series of micro-targeted idiosyncrasies and in-jokes that are nonetheless controlled by a cultural monolith (whether that’s Disney or whatever massive corporation owns your local ISP). It’s a playful game, but also a rigged one. And like a lot of memes, Ralph Breaks The Internet appears proud both of its clear place within a system and its ability to stand outside and poke fun at that system.

If the movie never falls into a feedback loop, credit should probably go to Reilly and especially Silverman, who bring human vulnerability to little bits of ultra-branded ones and zeroes. (This may well become Silverman’s defining film role.) Twice now Reilly and Silverman have helped to give a cartoon’s happy ending real emotional depth. And twice now, they’ve made their characters so endearing that some fans may feel oddly conflicted about the prospect of undoing those endings just to see them again.