"Ralph Breaks The Internet" Has A Mild Case Of Sequelitis

2012’s “Wreck-It Ralph” was splashy fun but barely scratched the surface of arcade gaming’s rich history. The room left for potential sequels was tantalizing, its titular Donkey Kong-inspired platformer and Disney’s expansive access to video game IP seeming ripe for further adventures. It’s a little heartbreaking then that sequel “Ralph Breaks The Internet” sends Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) not into different cabinets, but the internet, where never-ending references to search engines and social media take over.

There is a video game at the film’s center, but it’s a freemium racing app called Slaughter Race in the vein of Twisted Metal. All it’s good for is a few chase scenes and an admittedly droll Alan Menken-penned musical number.

The screenplay, credited to co-director Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon, is fairly basic but wields ton of moving parts, from nonstop pop culture references (never quite as overbearing as in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” but Instagram is depicted as an art gallery – blech) and an overwhelming infusion of Disney IP (more on that in a moment).

When an overeager child tears the steering wheel off of Vanellope’s cart racer Sugar Rush, arcade owner Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) finds the cost of a replacement part on ebay prohibitive. The game is unplugged, its inhabitants displaced, so Ralph and Vanellope resolve to travel through Mr. Litwak’s new wireless router into the World Wide Web to bid on the steering wheel on ebay.

What begins as a telling of the duo’s quest to raise the necessary funds via loot boxes and viral videos (Bill Hader’s sleazy anthropomorphized pop-up is a highlight) trails off into a tale of the two friends growing apart. Vanellope, who’s become bored with Sugar Rush, begins to idolize a Slaughter Race driver named Shank (Gal Gadot) and imagines the game’s breakneck pace and dangerous obstacles might be her calling. Ralph is understandably hurt, his insecurities ultimately manifesting themselves as a towering Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-like monster.

The lack of identifiable jokes in the last movie isn’t remedied here, the anguish inherent in Ralph and Vanellope’s crumbling friendship making the back half of the film a real bummer.

A mid-movie sequence featuring a cavalcade of Disney Princesses (most voiced by the original voice actors) is lively but a lot to process, juggling references to their respective films and rapid-fire commentary about their historical helplessness. Vanellope is technically a Disney Princess herself, making for a nice point of juxtaposition, but flanked by nods to Marvel and Star Wars movies the interlude nearly drowns in its own noise.

It remains a mystery why the writers haven’t been able to tap into John C. Reilly’s typical screen charisma. He still plays something of a second banana to Silverman (whose voice work is tremendous), an issue that comes to the forefront the more terribly their characters treat each other. Neither is sympathetic enough to counteract the script’s trip into some pretty dark places, especially a journey into the dark web – a questionable aside for a children’s film.

The picture does get by on the quality of its animation and a few moments of true inspiration, but it falls just short of justifying its existence – and well short in its storytelling choices. In its wake, a third “Wreck-It-Ralph” retains just as much potential to mine classic arcade games for characters and narrative angles. If only “Ralph Breaks The Internet” had taken that potential off the table.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 21, 2018
Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Directors: Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
Screenwriter: Phil Johnston, Pamela Ribon
Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Taraji P. Henson, Bill Hader, Ed O’Neill, Alan Tudyk
MPAA Rating: PG (for some action and rude humor)