We’re six years removed from Wreck-it Ralph, Disney’s modern princess story/video game mashup that took an entire generation of gamers by storm. The feature directorial debut of Rich Moore (who cut his teeth directing episodes of Futurama, among other projects) was a breezy and fun romp through the world where classic and modern video games intertwined, backed up by a rather affecting tale of a villain who doesn’t believe that his lot in life is determined by the role he happens to play in an arcade game. It was well-received at its time, and part of the revitalization of the Disney Animated Studios brand as a competitor to the gold standard of the medium, Pixar. It seemed inevitable that we would return to the world of Fix-it Felix and Sugar Rush; Disney doesn’t leave sequel money on the table. As is always the case, a second film demands a larger scope, so the announcement that the cast would leave the confines of the arcade and explore the internet at large. Ralph’s only really good at one thing, wrecking stuff, so Ralph Breaks the Internet was born.
For the sequel, Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) have been living cozy if somewhat unexciting lives, playing through their games during the day and bonding over root beers at the local watering hole (aka classic arcade game Tapper). Ralph enjoys the repetition and comfort of a predictable life, but Vanellope yearns for something new to experience. Soon, a Wifi router is plugged into the arcade’s surge protector, and after a mishap with Vanellope’s game puts them on the brink of destruction unless they manage to procure a replacement steering wheel from the internet, a place they have no knowledge or understanding of. A trip through the router connects them to the Wild West of the net, forcing them to navigate a jungle of pop-up ads, omnipresent social media and product placement as far as the eye can see. An attempt to get some quick cash to pay for the eBay auction they won leads them to Slaughter Race, a post-apocalyptic racing game starring Shank (Gal Gadot). Vanellope takes to the new game immediately, giving her the adrenaline she’s been missing. Ralph, meanwhile, works against the clock to make enough money to save her game. But does she even want to go back?
The first Wreck-it Ralph managed to gain some interest by positioning itself as a sort of Who Framed Roger Rabbit of the video game world. Seeing the various game characters (Q*bert, Sonic the Hedgehog, Zangief from Street Fighter, Pac-Man, etc etc) interact was certainly a novelty (one that I’ve found suffers from diminishing returns on repeat viewings), but it had a decent enough story of a villain who overcomes stereotypes to become a hero. The second time around, director Rich Moore returns (joined by Phil Johnston), and for the most part, he’s perfectly happy giving us more of the same. The addition of the internet gives the crew an entire new playground to wield their mighty reference hammer in, this time not limited to the realm of video games. Despite this, video games definitely remain in the forefront, and plenty of the famous characters from the first game return here. Much like Wreck-it Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet focuses on a made up racing game as the majority of its real estate. Slaughter Race is essentially a mashup of The Fast and the Furious (with the requisite family joke) and Mad Max: Fury Road set in a dingy, run-down city. It’s less visually interesting than the hyper-colorful Sugar Rush, which in turn makes the overall color palette of Ralph Breaks the Internet far more drab than its predecessor.
From a story perspective, the concept underlying this reference-a-thon seems solid on paper. Ralph becomes the overly clingy friend, with his desire to spend time with Vanellope superseding her desire for her own agency and will to challenge herself. This ends up coming to a head in a way that turns Ralph into potentially the villain of the whole piece. There are some decent twists and turns, and generally the plot moves at a good clip. But it doesn’t feel as good or as fresh as the first time out. The script (from Johnston and Pamela Ribon, with five additional story credits including Moore) seems to have reached about the ceiling of what can be done with Wreck-it Ralph as a character while sanding off all the edges that made him more interesting in his debut. That feeling of safety is the prevailing experience coming out of Ralph Breaks the Internet. It’s happy enough just referencing everything under the sun (especially if it’s some cross-functional Disney IP) and putting in just enough effort into the storyline to make it motor along from point A to point Z.
In practice, Ralph Breaks the Internet is pretty much what you would expect from its promotional material, a series of referential jokes heavier on reference than joke that serve to prop up another fish out of water story between Ralph and Vanellope. There are definitely moments of brilliance (the Disney princesses section, which seemed capable of inducing the most groans, is actually a ton of fun), but there are just as many moments that fail to move the needle. The product placement, with brands ranging from Snapchat to Fortnite (you’d better believe there’s flossing, because of course there is) to Amazon to eBay to Twitter, is often so overbearing that Ralph Breaks the Internet threatens to turn into a full-throated paean for our benevolent corporate overlords. Disney is slowly becoming the kings of wearing their franchises down to a nub, whether it’s the painfully unnecessary Solo: A Star Wars Story or the unending glut of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Classic Disney isn’t immune to this trend either, as they continue pump out live action remakes of their beloved animated films with reckless zeal. In its second iteration, it seems Wreck-it Ralph has already reached nub stage, incessantly crashing against the shore until it erodes to nothing. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a watchable film, but it’s quite a bit below the quality of other recent Disney Animated features like Frozen, Moana or Zootopia.