Six years ago, the animated feature “Wreck-It Ralph” gave us a little girl with a talent for racing cars and a giant man with a gift for smashing buildings. They met and formed a relationship built on mutual respect, admiration and a fondness for fart jokes. As the sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet” begins, not much has changed in this relationship. And therein lies the problem — at least for one of them.
The video game characters Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) spend their days doing their jobs at Litwak’s Arcade and their evenings hanging out at the bar from the game Root Beer Tapper or racing motorcycles in Tron. Ralph is perfectly happy with this arrangement; Vanellope is restless. Her game, a candy-saturated racing game titled Sugar Rush, has become a predictable slog. When Ralph attempts to spice things up, the game’s controller — a steering wheel — gets broken and the game is unplugged. That means that all of the sugar-based characters have to flee, like so many Red Dye 40-coated refugees. There’s only one replacement wheel left, and it’s on eBay. So Ralph and Vanellope use the arcade’s newly installed WiFi network to travel into the Internet to win the online auction.
Like in “Incredibles 2,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” illustrates just how far computer animation can advance between one movie and its sequel. (Admittedly, “Incredibles 2” had 14 years to improve its game). Now, you can make out the individual threads hanging from Ralph’s shirt sleeves and the fuzziness of Vanellope’s sweater. But it’s not just on the micro level that the images pack a punch. The “Metropolis”-style world of the Internet — which features mostly real-life companies, including Snapchat, Google and Pinterest — is a swirling, infinite city that combines a technological sheen with a frenetic pace. It also appears that Ralph and Vanellope have entered a version of the Internet where the parental filters are firmly on, as the more-adult elements of the Web are nowhere to be found.
Co-directed by Phil Johnson and Rich Moore, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” looks great. But it’s the script (co-written by Johnston and Pamela Ribon) that gives it its heart. Like many buddy movie series, the first “Ralph” was about getting the gang together; the second is about what happens when the buddies break apart. Vanellope finds what feels like a home in a gritty racing game presided over by a lanky driver named Shank (Gal Gadot, in the movie’s one voice performance that falls flat). Staying there, however, would mean leaving Ralph behind. Watching her try to balance her own happiness with that of her friend’s feels like a very heartfelt, very real dilemma, thanks to Silverman’s performance, which has only gotten more powerful since the first film. Ralph may get top billing here, but this new story belongs to Vanellope.
The movie is saturated with nods to current Internet culture: Cat videos are there as well as unboxing videos, videos of people falling down and the relentless presence of the game Fortnite and its dances. It also includes a few gags at the expense of the real world, including an effective jab at Disney, the studio behind the film. (Here, the Disney section of the Internet is a chaotic mess of characters from its various properties, including the Marvel and Star Wars universes.)
Ralph and Vanellope’s growth in the first film was what brought them together. Here, it’s what might force them apart. In “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” they’re attempting to hold on to one another while also trying to let go, and the film treats that struggle with sensitivity and care (along with some flatulence jokes). Both characters are so fully realized that, even in these often silly surroundings, the audience can feel what’s at stake. For Ralph and Vanellope, friendship is anything but a game.
PG. At area theaters. Contains Some action and rude humor. 112 minutes.