“Sequel that’s better than the original” is an elusive club, limited until now, in this critic’s opinion, to Toy Story 2, The Godfather 2, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Well, it’s time to welcome a new member to the gang. Ambitious, beautifully animated, and clever to a fault, Ralph Breaks the Internet breaks free of the pitfalls of most sequels by never forgoing heart for the sake of bigger franchise pyrotechnics.
We join Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) six years after the original film ended, now best friends living in the comfortable monotony of Litwak’s Arcade. But, like any self-respecting Disney princess, Vanellope wants more (although she won’t sing about it until later). When a broken steering wheel threatens to keep Sugar Rush unplugged forever, Ralph and Vanellope plunge through the WiFi router, into the endless city of the Internet, in order to procure a new one from eBay. But real-world items cost real-world money, which sends Ralph and Vanellope on a journey that introduces them to a shady pop-up ad (a mysteriously uncredited but charming-as-ever Bill Hader), the fast-talking head YouTube algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), and a car-racing family (voiced by Fast and Furious franchise alum Gal Gadot).
Meta jokes — and a sophisticated theme about insecurity and co-dependence — might resonate more with parents than younger kids, although both will be equally delighted too-brief moments with the squad of Disney Princesses who are so fun you won’t even mind that they’re shoehorned in (what internet site are they representing again?). That scene, a highlight of the movie, embodies the clunkiness of the plot at points. There’s no real reason these Disney Princesses are there; they’re not thematically resonant nor does the plot organically introduce them.
But it’s still somehow perfectly within the spirit of Wreck-It-Ralph. The first movie operated on a meta-textual premise: what if a video-game villain was aware of the fact that he was a video-game villain? It only seems reasonable that the sequel extends that meta-textual lens to the movie as a whole: what if an Easter-egg filled movie with delightful pop culture references was aware that its appeal was being an Easter-egg filled movie filled with delightful pop culture references?
At times, the movie suffers from a few cringe-y moments of self-proud internet awareness. (Imagine your mom telling you about the latest meme she saw. That’s the feeling.) But it never steps over the line of merely cute and it never detracts from a fundamentally good movie.
Cover your small kids’ eyes during a genuinely unsettling climax, and then cover your own later so no one sees how much you’re crying. B+