Movies and online culture have always had a testy relationship. For a long time, most films about the internet were cautionary tales or used the tech as a metaphor for something else. The message was generally some version of "Stay offline! Make real human connections!"
With Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney's sequel to the 2012 hit animated comedy Wreck-It Ralph, we've arrived at a new phase where the internet is simply part of the audience's daily life. Familiarity with YouTube, spam and "likes" is assumed, not judged. The moral lessons aren't blanket ("Unplug!") but specific and practical: "Never read the comments!" Ralph is told, after his videos on a YouTube clone go viral. Naturally, he does read the comments and sinks into a special circle of hell that has no offline equivalent.
The built-in irony of the movie is that its protagonists, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his platonic best friend, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), are fully digital beings who have never experienced the internet. They're characters in classic video games, bound to consoles and wires in an arcade that has defied the passage of time.
The first movie was about defying one's game-scripted destiny: Programmed as a villain, the gruff-but-sweet Ralph discovered his heroic side. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, his attempts to be Vanellope's hero go awry, unleashing an existential threat — the unplugging of her game. When the two learn they can save her home only with a part for bid on eBay, they have no choice but to enter the mysterious domain of "Wi-Fi."
Codirected and cowritten by Phil Johnston (who cowrote Zootopia) and Rich Moore (who codirected Zootopia), the movie unsurprisingly loses much of its focus when the characters go online. There's a vast world here to anthropomorphize and satirize: aggressive pop-ups, streetwise spam-bots (Bill Hader), imperious algorithms (Taraji P. Henson), stuffy search engines (Alan Tudyk). At one point, in a wink-wink act of brand synergy, the full roster of Disney princesses shows up to bond with Vanellope and poke fun at their own gauzy images.
This is all a lot of fun, with plenty of jokes for both grown-ups and kids, but it's also all over the place. Luckily, new stakes emerge when speed-freak Vanellope becomes BFFs with the glam star of a Grand Theft Auto-type game (Gal Gadot): Will her eight-bit friendship with Ralph survive the internet?
The answer is never in much doubt, but the filmmakers find a surprisingly apt way to explore and embody the insecurities exacerbated by Ralph's online quest. If the movie is a diverting comedy — Vanellope's attempt at her own warbling Disney princess ballad is a high point — it's also a cautionary fable about how a lovable oaf can go online and become a troll.
And that's serious stuff. The movie's visualization of the internet as a hologram- and brand-littered cityscape is busy, crass, dizzying and, frankly, a little scary — to adults, anyway. In a darkly funny piece for the Ringer, Rob Harvilla summed up his reaction to the film as the "terrified dad" of two small children: "How do I prepare my kids for the 90-percent-terrible place where they'll apparently spend 90 percent of their lives?"
Ralph Breaks the Internet takes it for granted that, for most people, simply avoiding that "place" is not an option. But it finds time for the message that the bonds of friendship we hold in our hearts far outweigh the little red hearts we collect from strangers.