In true Disney fashion, Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 aims to capture the attention of a wide audience by invoking wonder through wonderful characters. But like the clumsy, overstuffed title implies, the continued adventures of Ralph and Vanellope take a detour into unwieldy territory.
It’s been six years since the events of Wreck-It Ralph, and in all that time, Ralph and Vanellope (John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman) have fallen into a routine. They hang about the arcade after hours chatting about the monotony of their lives before clocking in to “work” for their respective games. Vanellope has dreams of breaking this rut, however, when her own game is in danger of shutting down for good and thus rendering her “gameless.” Ralph decides this is as good an excuse as any for the two of them to leave the confines of their power outlet and explore the internet.
From there is a deep dive into Disney’s own imagining of the online world circa 2018, give or take a few meme cycles during production. The reveal is less a jaw-dropping experience reminiscent of Jurassic Park and more an elongated replica of several other online “shopping malls, but with internet references” we’ve seen portrayed in everything from Pixel Perfect and The Emoji Movie to Futurama and The Fairly Oddparents.
Any one mind’s version of the internet will be a tough expectation to tame, so the film relies too heavily on the power of its gags to make this colorfully familiar world come together. The internet according to Disney is a mess of either being too literal or not quite literal enough, putting older viewers in the uncomfortable position of having to demand answers to basic logical questions they’d rather not think about during the experience.
Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston’s vision is clear, focusing on how Wreck-It Ralph 2 might surpass its predecessor by inserting a universal message about our insecurities manifesting themselves online, coupled with the painful realities of friends drifting apart. Vanellope is attracted to the “big city” that the internet represents, while Ralph struggles with his own issues of co-dependence. Unfortunately, these themes feel more tacked on to the margins, rather than expertly weaved into the narrative as we’ve seen in Disney’s other high-concept animated films, notably Zootopia.
It’s been a long time since Disney released a direct theatrical sequel for one of its animated theatrical films, though Frozen 2 is not too far in the future (stick around after the credits for one of this film’s few inspired gags to that effect). Wreck-It Ralph 2 is the first computer-animated sequel under Walt Disney Animation Studios, making Toy Story 2 a suitable comparison as Pixar Animation’s first attempt at doubling the box office—and critical ratings—with a follow-up five years after the fact, a comparison the company clearly had in mind. Similar to the Pixar sequel, the film finds its existing world expanding while also begging new existential questions for our heroes to ponder in between action set pieces and pop culture meet-cutes. It’s no surprise, then, to see Pixar’s “brain trust” members John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton show up in the end credits (Lasseter as an Executive Producer and Stanton as “Narrative Guru”).
The film works best when dealing with its own original creations, including an open world death racer named Shank (Gal Gadot), a know-it-all search engine sprite (Alan Tudyk), a pop-up ad salesman (Bill Hader), and the manifestation of YouTube’s “trending” algorithm (Taraji P. Henson). They succeed for the same reason Wreck-It Ralph transcended its own gimmicks by wrapping its heart around two platonic friends trying to understand their world a little better with each other’s help.
With these characters in mind, Wreck-It Ralph 2 comes across as a movie that began in the writer’s room with high-minded commentary as a priority with an end product resembling an internet comments section, where the positive messages feel over-explained and artificially curated to the top. While everything else feels instantly dated and inconsequential , especially when Ralph decides to make popular videos on “BuzzTube” to earn money as quickly as possible.
Films in the last decade or so have suffered greatly at the hands of the “going viral” trope, and Wreck-It Ralph 2 has arrived at the tail end of that deus exhaustion, where solutions to every problem strive from gaining attention without earning it. Though the film sticks its toe into the harsher fare of dark webs and social media apathy, it never remembers to relate this form of unpleasantness with the plight of its manic main characters, who dart and dash between a world that feels as impossible as it is unremarkable.
Fortunately, the sheer volume of jokes and references means that enough viewers will find something to latch onto in the first and second acts to drive them through the surprisingly strong and somewhat redemptive third arc of the film. A trip to Disney itself is so awash in fan service, it almost feels like momentary permission to accept the film as something completely different for a few minutes and perhaps even enjoyable in its own shameless, inter-textual mania. If the legacy of Wreck-It Ralph 2 amounts to Disney’s soft launch of a Disney princess crossover spin-off, it was certainly time and money well-spent based on just a handful of these scenes alone.