ralphbreakstheinternet**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG

(for some action and rude humor)
Released: November 22, 2018
Runtime: 112 minutes
Directed by: Phil Johnston, Rich Moore
Starring (the voices of): John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill

I have a genuine soft-spot for Wreck-It Ralph, not to mention admiration for its eye-popping visuals and exhilarating sequences.

Ralph was like George Bailey discovering a wonderful life, not by way of any changes to his daily humdrum circumstances but rather by the people he met within his small, humble existence. His life didn’t change but he did, because of the friends he made and the sacrifices he made for them.

The message for its sequel, Ralph Breaks The Internet, isn’t as singular or focused. As a result, neither is the adventure.

There’s still quite a bit of fun to be had here, possibly a few sentimental tears, and even a clear point by the end of it all, but Ralph Breaks The Internet is more a loose assembly of ideas and concepts than it is a strong, cohesive story.

Things are hunky-dory at Litwak’s Arcade where Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his pal Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) continue to thrill kids by day in their respective video games. Then by night after closing time, they hang out and have fun in the electricity network’s communal hub.

But after a part breaks on Vanellope’s “Sugar Rush” racing game, it sparks her repressed, unspoken desire to want something more from life. It’s an angst that her contented bestie Ralph doesn’t share.

When the chance arises for Ralph and Vanellope to enter the internet in search of a part to fix “Sugar Rush”, it opens up a world wide web of opportunities.

Trading in video game IPs for titans of Silicon Valley, this Ralph sequel gets a bit Shrek-ified as it doubles down on pop culture references (not to mention lucrative advertising; eBay alone deserves its own producer credit). Disney also takes digs at its own franchises, using self-effacing humor to further promote its brands.

The most clever, witty, and rewarding jabs are aimed at its crown jewel: The Disney Princesses. Of the film’s many tangents (indeed, the structure itself is tangential), this is the highlight, capped by the playfully satirical Vanellope ballad “A Place Called Slaughter Race”. For good measure it’s written by Alan Menken, the multi-Oscar winning Disney songwriter from the studio’s 1990s glory days.

Even so, the Princess sendup is ultimately just the centerpiece of a hodgepodge.

The script jumps from one idea to the next, both narratively and thematically, as it largely plays out as an action comedy in a high tech world. In terms of story, it feels like a collection of favorite ideas gathered from the Disney story group sessions, but packaged in a way that doesn’t always progress or connect organically.

The themes also jump around, starting with the old standby of “change”, then an identity crisis, then the dangers of social media (from the dopamine rush of instant affirmation to the toxicity of online discourse). All are valid, but each only examined at the perfunctory surface.

Transitions aren’t smooth because these themes aren’t explored or unpacked through the characters; they’re merely catalysts to shift to the next plot beat or elaborate sequence.

The story finally lands on one message down the final stretch – a.k.a. what happens when best friends have different dreams – but even then it gets overwhelmed by a high concept finale involving a hoard of zombie-ish clones.

Escalating tensions between Ralph and Vanellope are also forced, and lacking in equity. Blame is too lopsided toward Ralph’s insecurities and not enough about Vanellope’s lack of candor. Indeed, balance in all things is missed because, as a whole, the film surfs through its story as randomly as one does on the internet.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is decent enough as a “get your money’s worth” entertainment, but it only resonates in moments, not as a piece. Yes, this sequel has its requisite tear-jerks and heart-tugs, but it doesn’t earn them like the original did. Wreck-It Ralph was special. It still is, because it came from the heart. This isn’t, because it doesn’t.

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