REVIEW – “Ralph Breaks the Internet” Wrecks Expectations to Deliver Year’s Best Sequel

by Joe Hammerschmidt

Six years ago, Disney’s supposed second renaissance (whether you, the reader, may consider it that) had slowly evolved into an unstoppable beast, no pun intended. 2010’s Tangled easily eclipsed expectations and won the hearts of many, but before Frozen took them over the top, there was a nine-foot-tall video game nemesis with abnormally large hands, who in retrospect wasn’t such a bad guy once you knew enough about where his heart was. Wreck-it Ralph was, in no small terms, an indelible masterpiece for the Mouse House. A pseudo-Toy Story for arcade characters where an existential crisis faced our eventual hero, voiced with spirit and sympathy by John C. Reilly, 30 years past the conception of his game, and just wondering his life’s purpose, whether there can be a smidgeon of good.

He did find that in a fellow misfit, the spry candy kart racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), where thankfully they stayed really good friends even if his actions can sometimes turn rather disastrous. With the original film minting a true hit worldwide, even if it was sorely robbed of an Oscar the following February, the likelihood of a sequel seemed inevitable. I was maybe a tad too confident that maybe ol’ Ralph didn’t need a second act; the studio’s poor track record with follow-up films, Pixar excluding, would be an indicator to advise against it. Heck, even after Reilly and co-director Rich Moore formally announced it was being put into production, I was naturally hesitant. And more still, after the first trailer. The natural aire of overwhelming excitement I’ll normally experience with any new Disney animated feature won out, big time. Ralph Breaks the Internet will finally arrive in theaters for the Thanksgiving crowds, and after leaving it, I am desperately hoping it’ll connect with audiences the same way the original did.

For lack of a better term, it is easily another classic to emerge within those studio walls, between the moments most prominently advertised, and those left hidden where likely the best reactions will emerge, at least in hearing the audience I viewed with. And of course, it all circles back to Ralph and Vanellope, still besties after six years. They have a decent routine where they put in their hours inside Litwak’s Arcade, then hop around every game they can until sunrise. The question did arise over whether they put aside any time to sleep, but maybe they don’t need any. One momentary lapse where Ralph tries to spice things up for Vanellope’s game, the excessively saccharine Sugar Rush, causes another near-demise for her home when the cabinet’s controller breaks in half. The part is available via eBay, but for loyal Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill), its cost simply isn’t feasible. Its residents facing homelessness, and Vanellope’s own life purpose under threat, the only option, as the two pals would see it, is to sneak into the internet, made easy through a newly plugged-in router.

Once they arrive, the internet is very much a vast, endless cityscape, where the usual higher-traffic websites are as large as skyscrapers, or as wide as fairgrounds. Mirroring that of heavy web users’ habits, it’s all too easy to get lost in a single site, or to wander about. But their goal is simple: buy the replacement part from eBay, represented as the world’s largest auction house, despite the two of them not having any idea how currency works. But of course, the clock is ticking to secure the bid, at an eventually exorbitant price point.

Moore, co-director Phil Johnston, and co-writer Pamela Ribon have populated this wonderfully rendered depiction of the WWW with quite a few unique characters, determined to shine a light, mostly, on just how much a deep, lasting friendship needs to evolve in order to stay vital. One end offers the trendsetting Yessss, a quick-thinking algorithm determined to make Ralph a viral star, voiced by Taraji P. Henson, to stunning effect. That’s most notably on a matter of word choice and timing, and even quicker costume changes. She’s a natural fit with the character, regardless of its accurate representation of a typical video-sharing site executive. On the other side, there’s Shank (Gal Gadot), the menacing poster face of online racing game Slaughter Race; think Sugar Rush meeting GTA Online, and dialed down to stay family-friendly. Gadot portrays her, accurately as the real head of a talented crew, with an older sibling approach to Vanellope, in turn putting her own loyalties under the microscope.

Both characters offer a dynamic viewpoint all their own, further amplifying the riddling relationship both Ralph and Vanellope share. It’s a special one, and they share a close bond, yet at the same time, sometimes one isn’t sure how much room there can be to let it breathe, grow beyond the normal limits, until after the steps are made to go into the wider world. And despite the film’s rather heartbreaking finish landing on a rather unsteady footing, its emotional wavelengths are bound to hit every heartstring loudly, and unapologetically.

Besides that aspect, Ralph Breaks the Internet is easily one of the funniest films this year, almost to the point where I did become self-conscious about my own laughter. General gags aside, Moore and Ribon, along with the rest of their top-notch story team fronted by fellow Simpsons alum Jim Reardon, take every opportunity to use multiple online platforms to their advantage for maximum comedic effect. And yes, as advertised, the big Oh My Disney segment fails to disappoint, shown as the film’s big centerpiece, with that princess sleepover party its crown jewel, headlined by the surviving actress and certain substitutes handling the others. And no surprise, all the cameos involved did get me a little too excited.

Much like the original, this follow-up really strives for keeping its universes special, while also fairly accurate to what it’s borrowing towards. And even then, it can still subvert those limitations handsomely. Net using avatars would best represent that of your usual Funko Pop figures, redirects like panhandlers (Bill Hader FTW!), viruses relative to rabid animals, search engines taking the manifestation of Truman Capote. Alan Tudyk’s Ratzenbergerian character fits this category with so much vibrant personality I’d lose my mind for a spinoff short in the near future.

And in the case of Slaughter Race, they’re still rather behind on the times, despite how far online gaming has advanced in ten years. And while they do stay limited to that point, as has Fix It Felix, Jr with its rather blocky movements, it makes time to break convention and show off a typical Disney showstopping want song, made special in the setting. One hopes it could be worthy of Alan Menken’s next Oscar; wishful thinking with still a few weeks left this calendar viewing year, but the man’s earned it. Do keep both ears open for one of Henry Jackman’s most varied, most uniques scores to date as well.

At its core, it is indeed a special, forsaken bond between friends, and how it is tested, by which Ralph Breaks the Internet runs its path to viewers’ minds and hearts. From beginning to end, bookend to bookend, there’s simply no denying the fun, the wit, the compassion it exudes. Laughter, sobbing, dread, annoyance, and a metric ton of meta references, which I’d take as the animators’ way of thanking viewers for sticking by them. All of that is there, and then some, and Reilly and Silverman’s genuine charm and camaraderie, added on by the rambunctiously well organized directorial style of Messrs. Moore and Johnston, promise a ride worth taking, if one is willing to handle some uncertainty at the end. The third act is where I find a small amount of fault; it is perfect, yet also imperfect on how to close out the emotional tone. But again, one very minor flaw that needn’t overwhelm how one will enjoy the film overall.

All told, a must see, and a major contender for my end-of-year top ten. You would be a fool to hide under a rock and attempt to avoid this crowd-pleaser, especially with kids, and kids-at-heart, who may wind up taking the trip more than once. And yes, like everyone else who’s already written about this film, you need to stay through the credits. Not one, but two promising credit scenes abound. And trust me, they will be worth it. (A)

Ralph Breaks the Internet opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG for some action and mild rude humor; 114 minutes.