The tempting thing with anyone considering a sequel to any successful film, animated or otherwise, is to stay with what worked the first time, build on it just enough to make it seem fresh and new(ish) but not deviate from it so much that it feels too new and too much of a departure from the property that wowed and charmed audiences the first time around.
As you might expect from a character who was prepared to do whatever it took to prove he was more than a trope-heavy arcade game bad guy, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) goes BIG, offering up in Ralph Breaks the Internet a captivatingly-imaginative romp through the internet that is as emotionally rich and resonant as it is colourfully, dazzlingly expansive.
Spurred on by a breakage to the Sugar Rush game, in which Ralph’s best friend and hangout buddy – they spent the nights when the arcade is closed drinking root beer, playing obvious “I, Spy” games and good-naturedly enjoying each other’s company in the way friends completely at ease with each other do – Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) is a princess and champion candy-car racing champion, and the recent connection of something mysteriously known as “WI-FI” (only Sonic the Hedgehog knows what this is), the two friends decide to brave the great, big world of cyberspace in order to procure the missing part.
It’s an easy enough task on the surface – find the part on Ebay, head out to bid on it, get it shipped to the arcade before the deadline that Mr Litwak (Ed O’Neill) has assigned for the broken Sugar Rush game to be permanently unplugged and continue on life as normal.
But of course, the internet is all new territory for the extravagantly-enthusiastic Vanellope and the more cautious but endlessly-loyal and determined to do what it takes Ralph and so all of Ralph’s best-laid plans – in one short delightful sequence, Vanellope expresses happy surprise that her best pal has a really detailed plan, her delight matched only by Ralph’s surprised pleasure at thinking ahead – come rather undone, rather quickly, unleashing a seat-of-your-pants narrative that has a great deal of fun racing, and yes that is literal much of the time, getting to the finish line.
Much of the delight, as in the first film Wreck-It Ralph, comes from the exquisitely-well executed interplay between Ralph and Vanellope.
They are friends to the core, and it’s evident time and again how much they care for each other and how far they are willing to go for each other, imbuing the film with such a substantial and affectingly-real sense of emotional connection that it is easily a match for the very best of Pixar’s artfully-constructed animated treasures. (Hilariously, the film, unafraid to go there, there and THERE in pursuit of a good laugh and some clever socially-observant humour, even has a sly dig at the differences between Disney and Pixar films.)
This emotional anchor point, which never wavers and come to a movingly-agonising crescendo in the final act when big decisions must be made, means that Ralph Breaks the Internet is never stupidly flippant or dumb even when it is at its most anarchic and silly.
Helping matters considerably in this regard is a whippet-smart script by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon, who adroitly balance burp jokes and visual humour, the better to keep the kids entranced and amused, with some deliciously-arch observations about the way the internet behaves and how it has fundamentally changed the way we behave as a species.
Everything from pop-up spam ads, one of whom, J. P. Spamley (Bill Hader) ends up as an unexpected ally (though he needs a less rusty, more reliable car) to the Dark Web (every bit as nightclub, gangsterland seedy as you might expect) to the frenetic noise and opportunity and superficiality of the web are given their moments in the 0s and 1s sun and the result is a brightly-cacophonous, colourfully-overwhelming world that feels like Coruscant, planet-consuming capital of the Republic in Star Wars.
(Speaking of which there is a wonderful sequence where stormtroopers pursue Ralph through the various parts of the ‘net in a scene gloriously and humourously reminscent of Star Wars: A New Hope, one of the many movie references which also include World War Z and to emotionally-transportive effect, King Kong.)
That sense we have that the internet is wild and limitless, lavishly-alive and madly-unseemly is brought to vivid life in Ralph Breaks the Internet, which touches on the Wild West cruelty of the “Comments” section – too late, Ralph’s algorithmic friend Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) from BuzzzTube warns not to go there with a easily-affected Ralph shaken by peoples’ opinions of him – the hilarity of “Likes” being given out like crack candy and suctioned up by algorithms holding giant heart-sucking vacuum cleaners and the propensity we all have to lose all good reason when so much is on display and on offer.
It’s brash and brilliantly, fantastically exuberant, and you can well understand why both the good and the bad of it confounds and delights, frees and complicates things for Ralph and Vanellope in equal measure.
In fact, so much is going on, that the narrative is never short of a propulsive mechanism, a next step, each of which is equal parts emotionally-affecting and wonderfully-amusing, infusing the storyline of Ralph Wrecks the Internet with a substantive glee that gushes out of the film like just about every giddy word out of Vanellope’s mouth.
In many ways, this strong and richly-wrought sequel is Vanellope’s story, propelled not simply by the need to fix Sugar Rush but by the need of the best Disney princess of them all – the scene where she meets Disney’s endless roster of princesses is inspired, a takedown of the male-centric culture that is the root of much storytelling that is damn near hilarious, and which leads to the best heroine wondering-what-to-do song you’ve ever seen – to find something new and challenging (perhaps in the grungy melee that is Slaughter Race, overseen by the tough but glamourous Slash, voiced by Gal Gadot).
It’s a counterpoint to Ralph’s contented bliss in things being perfect just the way they are, an emotional tug-of-war that means Ralph Wrecks the Internet is never simply going to be a find-the-mcguffin-and-fix-things kind of film.
It is a deeper and more impactful than that just about every step of the way, offering up knowing the-internet-be-crazy laughs aplenty for the adults, visually hilarious scenes for the kids, and emotional and socially-observant core that elevates the film above most other animated films, and which by dint of its conclusive and yet not conclusive ending, offers the prospects of a return to the world of Ralph and Vanellope which is every bit as delightful, funny and emotionally-resonant this time as it was the first time around.