Released in 2012, Disney's smash hit "Wreck-It Ralph" took what could have been a one-joke premise — what if video game characters had their own interior lives a la the toys in "Toy Story"? — and turned it a simple, heartfelt story about remaining true to oneself. Now comes the sequel, "Ralph Breaks the Internet," about what happens when the video arcade where its characters reside finally gets a wifi router.
This development expands the universe of the first film, allowing its characters to break out of the self-contained world of the arcade and explore the vast reaches of the World Wide Web. In the process, the story delves into the complexities of long-term friendships and offers a surprisingly mature exploration of what our responsibilities are when navigating through cyberspace.
If your digital experiences are anything like mine, the internet (especially the social media side of things) can be an absolute horror show, suggesting that it might make a challenging subject for movie aimed at children. So it's perhaps understandable that the version of the internet depicted in the film by directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore scarcely resembles the one in real life.
Here, it's seen as a gleaming cityscape, offering endless possibilities and boundless information with the click of a button. Of course, the film still imparts some crucial guidelines to its young audience, including internet rule Number 1: never read the comments. So it's not entirely unrealistic.
"Ralph Breaks the Internet" picks up six years after the events of the first film to find Ralph (John C. Reilly) settled and quite happy with his comfortable routine. But his best friend, feisty racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), is feeling restless, hungry for more excitement than her game of Sugar Rush can provide.
When the Sugar Rush arcade cabinet is damaged, however, there's suddenly a real threat that the game will be permanently unplugged and salvaged, leaving Vanellope homeless. Seeking a solution, she and Ralph discover that the hardware necessary to fix the game is available only on eBay, and the pair to whisk themselves into the internet to track down the crucial replacement part.
Rendering as abstract a concept as the internet in a way that's understandable to children is a challenging undertaking, and Johnston and Moore find some imaginative methods, bringing a witty tone and visual inventiveness to the admittedly sometimes scattershot story.
As Ralph and Vanellope travel through the various reaches of the net, they meet up with a BuzzzTube algorithm named Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), who teaches them how to turn viewers' precious digital "hearts" into real money to buy what they need. ItÕs probably helpful not to dig too deeply into the message of the section, where Ralph happily commodifies himself by starring in a series of viral videos in the hopes of earning enough money to solve his problems.
In addition to the wonderfully textured work of Reilly and Silverman, the film boasts some excellent vocal performances that bring life to a cast of colorful new characters, including Alan Tudyk as an overzealous search engine called KnowsMore, and an uncredited Bill Hader as a pop-up ad named J.P. Spamley.
There's also a bit of corporate synergy when Vanellope finds herself in Oh My Disney, the company's official website, where she hangs with the company's famous princesses. It's an amusing sequence, and one that underlines how well Disney has mastered the art of poking just enough gentle fun at itself while still promoting its product.
Most critically, the pair also enter a gritty, violent Grand Theft Auto-esque multiplayer game called Slaughter Race. While it appears a terrifying deathtrap to Ralph, Vanellope sees all the adventure and excitement she's been missing. As she considers making Slaughter Race her permanent home, Ralph feels threatened when he sees his closest friend begin to have dreams that have nothing to do with him.
In an effort to keep Vanellope by his side, Ralph lashes out in destructive ways, and the film offers some stark assessments about how the scariest thing on the internet can be a wounded male ego. It suggests that those insecure, needy, and self-destructive individuals are whatÕs really destroying the internet.
Exploring a strange digital world that can equally be both wonderful and terrible, "Ralph Breaks the Internet" finds genuine emotion in this central conflict. Its bittersweet story imparts an important lesson to its young audience, about how friendships evolve over time, but we need to allow our loved ones the space to grow and change — even if that means letting go of our own ideas of who we want them to be.