It’s often said that the best animated movies play equally well with adults and children, while bad ones prove an ordeal for kid-squiring parents. If anything, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” bends in the opposite direction: The colorful action should delight tykes, but the smart, media-savvy asides make it especially appealing to grownups.
Six years removed from the original “Wreck-It Ralph,” the sequel reloads with an inspired premise, as the video-game character of its title (voiced by John C. Reilly) — always eager to help, but prone to make a mess of things — inadvertently breaks the game that houses his pal Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). So the pair embark on a journey into the Internet, hoping to acquire the part that can fix the machine and get Sugar Rush back up and running again.
The plan, not surprisingly, yields a host of unintended consequences, one that exposes the vagaries of the web in an amusing variety of ways. Those include, but aren’t limited to, the annoying nature of pop-up ads, the “like”-driven calculus of social media, and another reminder that you should never read the comments, especially if you’re an unusually sensitive 1980s-era videogame villain.
Drawing heavily from real websites while creating a few new ones, Ralph and Vanellope’s adventures are endlessly inventive, none more so than a self-referential dive into Disney’s Internet site, where they’re exposed to wide range of studio properties, including an animated version of the late Stan Lee and a room filled with Disney princesses. Even with the sequence having been extensively teased, the princesses’ admissions about what they have in common — from waiting for princes to staring at water — are utterly riotous, an instant classic that will be replayed for years to come.
For all its pop-culture passions, though, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” also incorporates very astute lessons about friendship, and the issue of harboring different passions or growing apart. While modern Disney films have been especially good in presenting messages of empowerment and self-esteem, few have been better in communicating the need to accept others without being heavy-handed about it.
In this case, Vanellope finds a home away from home in a perilous first-person game called Slaughter Race, bonding with its seemingly dangerous leader, Shank (“Wonder Woman’s” Gal Gadot). Confused and jealous, Ralph just wants his friend back, which paves the way for the cascading threat that he naively unleashes and must try to fix.
In most every way “Ralph” improves on its previous outing, in some respects owing a stronger debt to sibling Pixar’s “Inside Out” in its approach to childhood insecurities through a lens to which adults can easily relate. (Even Vanellope’s glitching when she becomes agitated says something with a genuine sweetness to it.)
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” leads off a pair of family-friendly sequels that Disney will release this holiday season, the other being the eagerly anticipated follow-up “Mary Poppins Returns.” If the latter is anywhere near this satisfying, the studio might not break the Internet, but it has a fair shot at breaking the bank.