It’s nearly impossible to picture Ralph Breaks the Internet existing 10 years ago. Like an ever-expanding, amorphous blob, Disney has absorbed enough intellectual properties over the past decade as to render it unrecognizable. Cheery animated adventures are increasingly rare among the studio’s output, and massive extended universes and undying franchises have become cornerstones. So, it makes sense that these two ideologies would eventually converge into a series like Wreck-It-Ralph, to which this Ralph is a sequel. What is surprising, though, is how this installment manages to rise above the tepid original as a sweet-natured piece of pop-culture osmosis, even if it is almost entirely forgettable.
It’s been six years since the events of the original and the affable arcade-game villain Ralph (John C. Reilly, national treasure) and the pixie-like Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) are living out their virtual lives as best buds and characters within the games of Litwak’s Arcade. As one might expect, having to play through the same levels of the same arcade games every day sounds like a hellish existence indeed, and Vanellope is growing tired of racing the same course time after time. In an ill-fated gesture of good will, Ralph forges a sloppy shortcut for her during a race, which causes the arcade machine’s steering wheel to break, rendering it unplayable and leaving a drove of characters without a home.
The story’s most incisive touch is the way in which Ralph, as kind-hearted as he is, is consistently responsible for the conflicts that arise throughout the film. Whether he’s taking matters into his own hands to help a friend, or lashing out at others from his own insecurities, Ralph creates chaos wherever he goes. It doesn’t take long to catch on to the film’s pointed criticisms toward the kind of toxic masculinity and behaviors that turn certain corners of the Internet into utter cesspools.
To track down a new wheel for the Sugar Rush game, Ralph and Vanellope enter the arcade’s recently installed router and emerge into the film’s version of the Internet. Blame the success of 2014’s (inarguably superior) The LEGO Movie for the recent trend of animated features producing whole worlds out of stupid things like apps on our phones. (I dare you to try and endure The Emoji Movie.) Fortunately, Ralph moves along at a brisk pace and doesn’t spend too much time forcing us to gawk at things we recognize (“Look, it’s Amazon.com! You know this from real life!”).
The intellectual-property porn is thankfully sparse, save a dire detour at a website called “Oh My Disney!” Look, I have zero problem with Disney milking its properties for all they’re worth, but there’s something about the entire sequence that feels … smutty. I won’t spoil any cameos for those who aren’t curmudgeons, besides a heavily-advertised scene touting an array of Disney princesses. The lack of memorable jokes or compelling commentary here makes it all come off as a marketing ploy rather than anything essential.
Storywise, Ralph is nothing remarkable. Yes, the setting is mildly novel, but anyone who’s sat through a Disney flick before has seen this done to far better effect. Where the movie finds the most success is when it focuses on its two leads. Reilly’s casting is, per usual, note-perfect. His warm and expressive voice adds more characterization to Ralph than the script can. Silverman manages to tone it down a little compared to the last outing, and Vanellope and Ralph’s relationship is fleshed out enough to provide an affecting center that might have been lost with a different cast.
Ultimately, Ralph is a totally acceptable option for Thanksgiving entertainment. Its humor is aimed squarely at the kiddie crowd, and I couldn’t recall to you a single gag. Still, it’s charming and goes down smooth. Directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore could have just as easily hauled in a boatload of money making something half as earnest, and that they didn’t is in itself a comfort.