Pixar’s Toy Story franchise has a charmingly simple and timeless conceit: that our old-fashioned dolls and action figures come to life when we’re not playing with them. Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph films extend that conceit to the characters in our video games. Works of children’s fiction often aggressively strive for up-to-the-moment topicality, but the original Wreck-It Ralph smartly balanced screen time between properties with proven staying power, from Q*Bert to Street Fighter, and more modern-seeming, kid-friendly ones, such as a racing game through a kind of candy land.
While vintage characters such as Zangief appear in Ralph Breaks the Internet, the sequel deals mostly with the here and now. At the start, characters from various games in an arcade gather inside a power strip—their public square, like a train station—and see that a new game will be plugged in. It turns out, though, not to be a new console but a WiFi port, which allows Ralph (John C. Reilly), a well-meaning, loveable, Donkey Kong-sized dimwit, and his best friend, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a fierce and sassy racecar driver, access to the internet through a series of tubes. (Ted Stevens was right!)
The internet itself is imagined in the film as an infinite physical landscape, a 21st-century update of Orbit City from The Jetsons. At the bottom is the dark web, where characters in trenchcoats sell social security numbers, and up in the sky are futuristic skyscrapers housing all the familiar corporate brands, such as Amazon (naturally), Google (of course), and Fandango (groan). eBay functions as a central plot device, as Ralph and Vanellope try to procure a replacement steering wheel for her game’s arcade console before it’s stripped for parts and she’s rendered homeless. And the action climaxes at Pinterest, mostly to supply Ralph with a giant, weaponizable pushpin.
But before that, Ralph and Vanellope take an episodic journey through this spatialized web, first by driving fast cars in a more darkly adult racing game, where Vanellope befriends a tough but kind racing role model, Shank (Gal Gadot), then by becoming BuzzzTube superstars with short videos that parody real viral ones on YouTube. Some of the details of this world are inspired: Popup ads are depicted as pushy people who suddenly appear and badger random denizens to click on the sign they’re holding, and Ralph spends one softly scored, surprisingly touching moment reading mean comments on his BuzzzTube channel. But mostly the film’s internet feels cynically synergistic. For one, Vanellope makes a long visit to the physicalized Disney website, where a “Let It Go” dance remix shamelessly pumps as characters from corporate properties make cameos, from Star Wars to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (There’s even a poignant silent cameo by a Stan Lee avatar.)
Then, every Disney princess shows up on the scene. Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s gender politics are in the right place, as Vanellope inspires the princesses to remove their gowns and put on comfortable sweats, and the film mocks its parent company’s princess-movie conventions—the way these young women are always motherless and in need of a strong man to save them. But the sequence still feels like product placement, as though it were a snarky response to a corporate note about working in less off-brand Nintendo characters and more on-brand Disney ones. It’s not as if it’s so subversive that it’s going to hurt the company’s toy sales.
What remains appealing about the film, however, is the core relationship between Ralph and Vanellope. The first film got its pathos by plugging them into a father–daughter dynamic; in this sequel, she’s more grown up, like a graduating senior, and you could read him as her provincial dad, or even her unambitious high school boyfriend. Ralph is comfortable with their domesticated lives, thriving on the simple pleasures of their routine: work the games till the arcade closes, pound root beers at Tapper’s, then talk all night before doing it all again. But Vanellope yearns for new experiences; the Internet for her is like college and moving to New York all wrapped up in one.
The film explores the difficulties experienced by two people who love each other but have conflicting life goals. Vanellope is a female character with refreshingly complicated desires. Ralph is a flawed person who recognizes his failings—neediness, clinginess—and experiences personal growth by trial and effort. They’re both unusually deep characters for a children’s movie, and thus the emotional payoff of their resolved conflict is especially high. When Ralph Breaks the Internet ignores the glittering marvels of the internet and focuses on the rapport between its two leads, it’s deeply moving.