As sequels go, this follow-up to Rich Moore’s Wreck-It-Ralph isn’t bad but never feels necessary. The colours are bright and the jokes ample but, in plumbing a story in the vein of – whisper it – The Emoji Movie, co-writers Phil Johnson and Pamela Ribon have created a genial experience of the sort you’ll quickly forget.
Six years on from its predecessor, Ralph Breaks the Internet finds misunderstood arcade baddie Wreck-It-Ralph (John C. Reilly) content with the consistency of his life and friends. When not smashing things up at the whim of timeless gamers, Ralph chills out in Litwak’s Family Fun Centre, drinking virtual beer with best-mate Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman – still vocally scratchy). This time around, it’s the latter’s story that dominates and predominantly engages.
When Vanellope tells Ralph that she’s bored of racing around the not-so-stimulating world of Sugar Rush – ‘Like, doesn’t the very nature of existence make you wonder if there’s more to life than this?’ – his plan to restore her excitement for the game backfires, leaving it broken, unplugged and destined for the scrapheap. There’s a surprising depth to this, straight to the point, opening sequence that promises a film with the though-provoking power of Pixar. Vanellope’s existential crisis is compounded by the literal displacement of her fellow Sugar Rush residents, stirring unexpected allusion to very contemporary refugee crises across the globe. It doesn’t last.
Homes are quickly found for every last one of them and the tone shifts from inquisitorial to exploratory in the blink of an eye. The only way for Ralph and Vanellope to save Sugar Rush is to travel into the internet, via the arcade’s newly installed WiFi router, and find eBay, where a new wheel can be bought for $200. From hereon, the film’s means of self-continuation enters shakier realms, not least because it hinges on a twist that could never happen – eBay takes your highest necessary bill – but primarily by virtue of the increased feeling that the new adventure is all to dependent on in-jokes and pop references.
Rather like Steven Spielberg’s take on Ready Player One earlier this year, Ralph Breaks the Internet is chockablock referential and sails through iconic imagery with irony-free glee. Much of the film’s humour depends on audience recognition and those hoping for satire might find the skewering entirely superficial. Brands like Amazon, Google and Facebook are revered as high-rise palaces, whilst meaningful plot points rest on fake alternatives. The effect is a mishmash and lacks the spark of insight and originality. Only Vanellope’s encounter with Disney’s own princesses – largely voiced by the original actors – strikes near inspiration. Whilst there’s lovable nostalgia here, it’s the group’s take down of ‘princess’ clichés that provides satisfaction: ‘Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?’
By the film’s finale, things tie up with a sincerity that surprising in the wake of so much sprawling. Ralph’s ultimate message is one that will resonate with parents and also with anyone who has ever been separated from their closest friend. There are better ways to reach this conclusion but none more heartfelt.