There was legitimate reason to be concerned when Disney announced that the sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, an animated movie that flew high on its nostalgia for classic arcade games, would be all about the internet. After all, we all saw how The Emoji Movie turned out. Do we really need another cheesy comedy that just makes jokes about Facebook and Snapchat?
But the six years since we last saw Ralph have clearly provided some time to reflect, because Ralph Breaks the Internet is smart, charming and funny while also being pointed, effective and very timely. There's a Fortnite reference and jokes about online makeup tutorials, but these things land with the incredibly tricky balance of making the story feel very "now" while simultaneously not feeling like it will be outdated in six months.
As in the real world, it has been six years since the events of the first Wreck-It Ralph, during which not much has changed. The arcade is still running strong, so Ralph (John C. Reilly) performs his "job" as the villain in the game Fix-It Felix while his best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) spends her days racing in her own game, Sugar Rush. When the arcade closes for the night they drink root beer at Tapper, sneak into Tron, hang out with other video game characters and then do it all over again the next day.
This is perfect for Ralph. For Vanellope, not so much. She's getting tired of the same old routine, which Ralph can't understand. If this seemingly idyllic life isn't enough for his best friend, does that mean he is not enough for her?
While the original Ralph movie was all about a "bad guy" that wanted to be good, Ralph Breaks the Internet has a message that wonderfully flips the script. Sometimes a "nice guy" can actually be bad. Sometimes friends can be overbearing and even harmful. But most importantly, sometimes friendships just need to evolve.
In an effort to spice things up for Vanellope, Ralph leads them through a newly connected wifi network and onto the internet, where jokes about Google, eBay and pop-up ads reign. For a while, it feels like the filmmakers took the route of "more jokes" rather than "better jokes."
Once it finds its footing, though, Ralph Breaks the Internet hits a solid stride. This moment coincides with the introduction of Shank (voiced by Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot), a tough-as-nails racer who lives in a multiplayer online game called Slaughter Race. She's a great foil for Ralph, as someone who pulls Vanellope's attention away from him, despite his insistence that Shank is a bad influence on her.
The world of Slaughter Race is a great vehicle for jokes about online gaming (and it features some of the most accurate fake player animations ever seen on film). The video game references are a bit less frequent than they were in the first Ralph movie, and they're mostly jammed into the film's first 10 minutes, but what Ralph Breaks the Internet sacrifices in terms of gaming jokes, it gains in jabs at Disney.
A solid chunk of the film takes place in a representation of the website Oh My Disney, where you'll see hilarious moments involving Stormtroopers, a Marvel fan-favorite and the entire gamut of Disney princesses. The gang's all here -- Cinderella, Mulan, Moana, Elsa, et al. -- and in many cases, they're even voiced by their original actresses. Here, jokes are made about Ariel finally putting on a shirt, and the characters acknowledge the often problematic nature of their "my entire story revolves around being rescued by a strong man" existence. Beyond just being great commentary, this is also some of the best and funniest stuff in the movie.
Slightly less satisfying is the commentary on viral internet culture. With many of today's impressionable young minds dreaming about becoming YouTube stars, Ralph Breaks the Internet nudges a few lessons their way, but it doesn't quite go far enough. It would have been nice, in a movie about the internet, to spend more time on the dangers of spending your entire life chasing internet fame. Instead, it comes too close to celebrating that lifestyle.
Still, in its 112 minutes, Ralph Breaks the Internet manages to teach some important lessons. If Disney can keep things this fresh every time, I wouldn't mind putting more quarters into whatever machine Ralph movies come out of.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (B)
Rated PG (for some action and rude humor). 112 minutes. In wide release.