Wreck-It Ralph convened a support group for video game villains, those misunderstood final bosses condemned to hurl barrels and stomp their feet, knowing no one will ever stop to consider their side of the story. But in its new sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, the villain is something we understand all too well: boredom. In the six years between the movies, life in Litwak’s Family Fun Center has continued as before, even if the steady stream of quarters may have ebbed a tad. But when the arcade gets wired, the video game characters, especially race car driver Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced once again by Sarah Silverman), start to wonder about the world outside their cabinets, and a lifetime of going in circles—or at best, irregularly shaped loops—no longer seems enough. How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Wi-Fi?
Wreck-It Ralph was steeped in nostalgia for a world most of its audience was too young to remember, but once Vanellope and Ralph (John C. Reilly) pass through a modem and into the World Wide Web—via an airplane-hangar-like interface that unexpectedly recalls Michael Mann’s Blackhat—Ralph Breaks the Internet comes crashing into the present day. Leaving their friends, and most of the first movie’s cast, behind, they whoosh into a sprawling metropolis that stretches as far as 4K can see, rivers of individualized transporters flowing between glowing skyscrapers draped in corporate logos. Here, a search engine is an information desk manned by an egg-shaped chatterbox with owlish glasses and a mortarboard, and pop-up ads are miniature billboards wielded by anxious panhandlers who shove them in your face until you click on them or muscle past.
On a technical level, this isn’t how the internet works, but it’s remarkably true to how it feels to use it (albeit, since this is a PG-rated movie, with parental controls on). Ralph and Vanellope enter the web with a singular goal in mind: retrieving a replacement steering wheel for Vanellope’s racing game, without which her broken arcade home will be sold off for parts. But snagging the spare part off eBay requires earning money, and as anyone who earns a living on the internet can tell you, that’s tougher than it looks. Their quest first leads them to another racing game, only instead of the candy-canes-and-gumdrops decor of Vanellope’s Sugar Rush, this one, as you’d expect from something called Slaughter Race, is a dystopian hellscape ruled by the hotshot Shank (Gal Gadot), whose virtual car is worth real-world cash. When that fails, they turn to BuzzzTube, where the sharp-looking algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) coaches them on how to go viral. Good luck monetizing those clicks, though.
As befits a movie set in a landscape composed entirely of brands, some invented but most of them real, Ralph Breaks the Internet is relentlessly self-referential, never moreso than when Vanellope stumbles into Oh My Disney, a nexus of its parent company’s sprawling subsidiaries. There’s something both giddy and gross about watching her sweep past Star Wars stormtroopers and Marvel’s Iron Man: It’s an inside joke that’s also a conglomerate’s victory lap. In Talladega Nights and Ready Player One, this kind of branded semi-satire often feels like an attempt to have one’s cake and sell the rights to it too. But Ralph isn’t just flexing its trademark muscle. When Vanellope takes shelter in a backstage dressing room full of off-duty Disney princesses, they treat her as an unwanted intruder, with Cinderella smashing her glass slipper as if it’s a whiskey bottle in a bar fight. But despite the fact that Vanellope has never been locked up in a castle or kissed by a prince, she has one quality that Disney’s retinue does recognize: People assume her problems were solved because “a big strong man showed up.”
The princess sequence is the height of Ralph Breaks the Internet’s achievements in having it both ways. It extends the critique of the Disney’s traditionally passive, abused heroines already incorporated into movies like Frozen, Moana, and Brave. (The latter’s heroine, a product of a Disney-Pixar collaboration, spews feisty but unintelligible Scots-flavored nonsense, and one of her fellow icons apologetically explains, “She’s from the other studio.”) But when Tangled’s Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast’s Belle chirpily ask Vanellope if she’s been “kidnapped or enslaved,” the critique bares just the slightest hint of teeth. The creepy subtext is quickly moved past, but it’s there for a reason, as it is when Vanellope and Ralph pay a visit to the “dark web,” a warren of dilapidated buildings and smashed pieces of web 1.0. It’s all too easy to find, just as it is for the movie’s child viewers to go from watching unboxing videos on YouTube to being algorithmically served white nationalist propaganda. The biggest threat in the movie comes not from any external threat but Ralph’s own insecurity, his fear that Vanellope will discover a world beyond the arcade’s walls and that he’ll lose his best friend. The tricks he plays to keep her by his side are a sanded-down version of toxic masculinity, but it’s as recognizable as the abuser’s language written into Tangled’s “Mother Knows Best.”
Ralph Breaks the Internet is crammed with Easter eggs and fine details, like the way an 8-bit bartender’s hand jerks as he washes out a root beer mug or the successful approximations of 80 years of evolving animation styles in the princess sequence. But you don’t need to be a Disney connoisseur or an ’80s buff to get it. The world it’s set in is entirely, and sometimes frighteningly, of the current moment.