I’ve suspected for quite some time that I might be … old. If that conclusion were ever in any doubt, Ralph Breaks the Internet has officially confirmed it. This follow-up to Disney/Pixar’s generally well-received 2012 Wreck-it Ralph is so packed with memes and tropes that it will likely prove almost as indecipherable to future generations as it does to out-of-touch old fogies such as myself. Yes, it sports all of the sheen and polish one would expect from the mouse-eared money machine, but could it be considered required viewing? Only the ages of your presumptive children and your opinion on the contemporary relevance of Rickrolling can answer that question for you.
Picking up six years after the preceding film left off, Ralph Breaks the Internet finds the eponymous Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (voice of Sarah Silverman) on a quest to retrieve a replacement steering wheel for the latter’s racing game cabinet. This forces them to delve into the convoluted world of this newfangled thing called the internet — which, for some reason, the script never adequately explains, is novel to both our protagonists and the arcade owner who blithely controls their fate like a technophobic demiurge. What this amounts to, in effect, is a rudimentary story that exists for little purpose beyond providing a backdrop for co-directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore, working from a script by Johnston and Pamela Ribon, to insert as many of Disney’s intellectual properties as possible into a 114-minute running time.
If Ralph descends too often into pop-cultural pastiche, it’s not entirely without its redeeming points. The excessively kinetic set pieces function with the style and verve we’ve come to expect from Disney/Pixar, and some of the gags land reasonably well, most notably when it comes to a sequence of self-reflexive critiques aimed at Disney Princess culture’s highly questionable gender politic. Reilly and Silverman are every bit as good as they were last time around, and an all-star ensemble including Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Ed O’Neill, Alan Tudyk and Alfred Molina contribute enough vocal diversity to keep things interesting (most of the time, anyway).
That said, there’s just not enough going on with Ralph Breaks the Internet to fully justify its existence. Yes, it will most likely prove sufficiently entertaining to its target demographic. Those not counted among such happy few will find its saccharinity is surpassed only by its freneticism, the cinematic equivalent of an ill-timed sugar high — and as with such dietary missteps, the ensuing crash is both inevitable and unpleasant. But if Ralph Breaks the Internet seeks to appeal almost exclusively to internet-addled teens, it does so with a brazenness that’s almost respectable even as it deprives its audience of any real cinematic nourishment. The narrative stakes may be as high as possible for a pair of pixelated sprites, but it seems harder to genuinely care about Ralph and Vanellope here than it was the first time around. And maybe that’s the moral of Ralph Breaks the Internet — that our postmodern inundation of connectivity robs us of the ability to care deeply about anything beyond a fleeting first impression. If only Ralph could truly wreck the web, maybe the world would be a better place. But as I said, I’m old.