Have you ever imagined the internet as a booming metropolis where familiar e-logos adorn towering skyscrapers gleaming down on a bustling city center? Disney has, and the result is mind-blowing. It’s the most creative thing in animation since its Oscar-winning “Zootopia.” Perhaps that’s because that film’s co-writer and co-director have joined forces to craft it.
It’s called “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” the six-years-in-the-making follow-up to “Wreck-It Ralph.” And it’s been well worth the wait, delivering an absorbing combination of clever gags, dazzling visuals and subtle lessons we all should learn, young and old. Most of all, it has Sarah Silverman, magnificent in voicing sweet-as-sugar Vanellope, the tiny race-car driver with dreams extending far beyond Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade. But that’s where she’s stuck with her big lug of a best friend, Ralph (John C. Reilly), the fellow video-game character she came into the good graces of during the first film.
When we catch up with her, she’s bored driving the same old tracks over and over and over as part of her day job, and munching burgers with Ralph outside their gaming machines once the humans vamoose for the night. Like every emotion in this heartfelt treatise on friendship and the sacrifices it demands, Vanellope’s growing wanderlust hits its peak when the steering wheel on her Sugar Rush game snaps and Litwak opts to scrap the creaky contraption because it’s so old he can’t find replacement parts. So Ralph, determined to keep his best pal around, escorts Vanellope over to the emporium’s new Wi-Fi connection, where they leap into the online rabbit hole in search of a wheel on a website called “eBoy,” — err, eBay.
Now’s about the time you’ll want to ingest the hallucinogens, as co-directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore upload us into a binary world where you check in with a bookworm search engine named KnowsMore (the wonderful Alan Tudyk), who kindly directs you to wherever you seek to go. But, watch out, you don’t want to make a wrong turn on these superhighways and end up in a place like Slaughter Race, a haven for the Internet’s more unsavory characters. It’s so nefarious, you almost expect a Russian Bot in an ushanka to approach bearing fake news.
Nyet. Instead we get a sexy, leather-clad outlaw with the unfortunate name of Shank (seductively voiced by Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot). Like Vanellope, she’s a fast and furious driver whose pedal is always to the metal. How could you not be seduced? Vanellope certainly is. And once you’ve experienced the thrills to be had in this dark corner of the web, why would you ever want to go back to Litwak’s? But the place is far removed from Ralph’s love of the rote and routine. Something is going to have to give, and someone — likely Ralph — is going to end up unhappy and mad, maybe even mad enough to break the net.
Thus the stage is set for a wild ride in which Johnston and fellow writer Pamela Ribon have a blast turning the inner workings of the internet into their own little Oz, where viral worms really are worms and pop-up ads are hustlers trying to scam you with promises of riches, if not a sleeker, thinner body. Oh, and just wait until our heroes stumble into the Disney website, where Ralph and Vanellope encounter everything from Marvel and Star Wars characters to (in the film’s best gag) a clubhouse full of the Mouse’s most repressed princesses, sitting around waiting to be rescued by some strong, handsome man. I just can’t “Let It Go.”
It’s all hilariously Meta and an excellent chance for Disney to satirize itself, right up to and including its fetish for killing off its characters’ mothers. It’s very much in toon with the equally, cheeky and surreal “Inside Out.” And, like that Oscar-winner, “Ralph” deals with the challenge of facing up to insecurities and expanding your horizons well beyond the familiar. It’s also a lot of fun: Cute characters and pretty colors for the kids; and lots of punny laughs for dads and moms.
For everyone, though, there’s a profound message about accepting the fact that no matter how hard you resist change, you have to accept it. It leaves you just a little bit misty, especially for old friends who don’t share the same thirsts for new adventures as you. You grow apart, physically and emotionally. It hurts — bad! Damn that Disney! I keep saying to myself, “I’m not going to be manipulated,” but here I am in a puddle of tears again — this time, probably a little more than usual. Not only does “Ralph” literally break the internet via a great homage to “King Kong,” it also breaks your heart in the very best of ways. And all you have to do is log on and click.
— Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
“Ralph Breaks the Internet”
Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Hensen, Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer.
(PG for some action and rude humor.)