I absolutely love Wreck-It Ralph. That Disney animated feature dove into video-game culture with an original and inventive adventure full of fun, Easter Eggs, and heart. It still wrecks me every time because of the brilliant and heartbreaking bond formed between its lovable misfits, Ralph and Vanellope. So I was giddy with anticipation over Ralph Breaks the Internet, despite a premise that promises to feel dated right out the gate. I mean, with the speed at which memes and internet trends shift IRL, how could the Wreck-It Ralph capture this culture as vividly as its predecessor did video games? The short answer is it doesn’t. Still, there’s plenty to “heart” in this spirited sequel.
Set six years after the events of Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet begins with Ralph and Vanellope enjoying a cozy routine of working all day in their games, then hanging out all night with rootbeers at Tapper’s, racing in Tron, then watching the sun come up through the lone unplugged socket of their power strip hub. As pleasant as this existence is, Vanellope is beginning to itch for more. When a WIFI modem is plugged into the open socket, she and Ralph have the chance to explore the world wide web! And once Sugar Rush’s steering wheel controller breaks, this daffy duo must venture into this great unknown to find a replacement, or else her game will be gone for good!
In 2012, Wreck-It Ralph carefully laid out its world and rules, from dying outside your game to the danger of “going Turbo.” Suspense brewed because you understood rules were being broken and could anticipate the terrible consequences! But the rules of the web are far more nebulous, and its world-building within Ralph Breaks the Internet far less intriguing. The movie imagines the internet as a sprawling urban landscape where every website is a building. Big-name sites like Google and Pinterest are towering skyscrapers. E-bay is a shopping mall, while sketchier sites are found down Dark Web alleys and nested in bug-infested hovels. Every corner is peopled by square-headed avatars of internet users. And transport is as easy as clicking a pop-up window and being jettisoned via hover cab to your destination. It’s cute, but not all that interesting.
Also gone is the video game element of the Big Bad. In the first film, Ralph had a quest (get a gold medal) and then got stuck in the side-quest (help Vanellope win her race), before having to defeat the Boss Level Bad Guy. But there’s no antagonist in Ralph Breaks the Internet, and its quest is sloppily scuttled in the second act, which cripples anticipation and suspense. Without giving too much away, Ralph and Vanellope realize they need to earn real-world money to buy the replacement part. So they try a couple of different “get rich quick” internet schemes. But there’s little sense of progression or stakes, especially as all the Sugar Rush residents have already found refuge in other video games. And a detour into Buzztube, a Youtube-like site where Ralph goes viral, feels like a ploy for cheap laughs with references to Chewbacca Mom and screaming goats.
It was in the mire of this desperate crowd-pleasing ploy that I began to wish Disney had left well enough alone. Wreck-It Ralph was so deeply in love with video games, and you could feel that in every 8-bit. But Ralph Breaks the Internet only scratches the surface of a culture that’s far too complex to properly explore in a kids’ movie. So they don’t really try. Twitter is only referenced in a cute visual gag. Comments sections are a regretable corner that’s far tamer than its real-life inspiration but still full of nastiness. And computer viruses are a ham-fisted plot device. To be frank, the structure and world-building sucks. But the character arcs make up for it.
What keeps me rewatching Wreck-It Ralph aren’t gamer-aimed Easter Eggs or its precise plotting. It’s the poignant story of a kind-hearted but reckless outcast realizing that being a good guy is so much more than Hero’s Duty or gold medals. The team behind Ralph Breaks the Internet make a lot of missteps with a plot that’s more cute and capricious than clever or captivating. (One retcon via a throwaway line is particularly galling.) But directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore do right by the big-hearted core of the original. What still works beautifully in this sequel is the bond between Ralph and Vanellope.
They are best friends. All Ralph wants from his life is to get to hang with Vanellope at the end of every workday. He can’t imagine a world without her in it. However, Vanellope dreams of a life beyond her candy-colored racing game, which is good, but predictable. So when her head is turned by the bonkers online game Slaughter Race and its super-cool hellion Shank (Gal Gadot), Ralph feels threatened and possessive, which leads to disaster. Amidst a bevy of visual gags and family-friendly silliness (including a detour to meet a slew of Disney Princesses), there’s an emotionally intelligent thread about how friendships must adapt or die. This is the true focus of the film, which makes all that led up to it feel more like fluffy filler. This thread is brilliant, offering a lesson from which players of all ages can benefit.
Too often Hollywood movies suggest that “happily ever after” means a couple is together forever in a constant/stagnant bliss. But Ralph Breaks the Internet knowingly punctures that fantasy. To be clear, Ralph and Vanellope are strictly platonic and are in no way coded as romantic. But her story is linked to that of other Disney princesses in a sequence where they compare notes and ask, “Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?” “Yes!” Vanelope shouts in response, “What is up with that!?” This movie is Disney upending this sexist trope for an audience tired of that limiting narrative. People grow and change; relationships should too! Or as Shank puts it, “There’s no law saying best friends have to have the same dream.”
Ultimately, Ralph Breaks the Internet offers the worst and best you could hope for in a sequel. The worst: its plot feels like a crass pandering to a generation of kids raised on the internet. The movie has no real interest in understanding internet culture, which makes the adventure feel like little more than a lazy plug-and-play. But the best bits are that this sequel dares to challenge and change our established heroes in a character-based conflict that digs into the tender and treacherous terrain of a threatened happy ending. That feels fresh, exciting, and worthwhile. Though sometimes a bit heavy-handed (it is a kids movie after all), the character development here is thoughtful, surprising, and heart-rattling. It will make you smile. It may make you weep. So bring tissues. And be sure to stay all the way through the credits for a bonus bit of fun.