The end of the 2012 Disney hit “Wreck-It Ralph” reveals that sarcastic Sugar Rush racer Vanellope von Schweetz is the game’s long-lost princess-turned-president, marking it as one of Disney’s more offbeat princess origin stories. Vanellope isn’t Ariel or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, but she’s got some serious Disney Princess DNA, and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” turns its attentions to her (again voiced by Sarah Silverman) as she continues her path to candy-colored maturity. It’s a familiar journey from the Disney canon, but this one is bolstered by a loving relationship with her dedicated best pal Ralph (John C. Reilly), the introduction of an inventive new world, and good-natured digs at the kind of princess-centric stories that came before.
While the first “Ralph” film centered on Ralph’s own liberation from video game villain to legitimate hero, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” turns its attentions to Vanellope’s next big step. The same creative spirit that so vividly imagined the world inside various arcade games now expands to embrace the whole of the big bad Internet. Returning director Rich Moore is joined by “Wreck-It Ralph” co-writer Phil Johnston, and the pair’s partnership breeds one of the year’s more ambitious features, at least when it comes to contextualizing something as wild, weird, and wacky as the worldwide web.
Picking up soon after the events of the first film, we find Ralph enjoying life, particularly because the former bad guy now gets to do it alongside his best friend. Yet Vanellope hankers for more, and when a broken arcade game again threatens their pre-programmed lives, the pair must travel to the internet (imagine if the internet was an actual destination, chilling as that might be) to purchase a steering wheel for a smashed-up Sugar Rush game. There, Vanellope’s desire to grow and change comes to obvious ends (who hasn’t discovered something new about themselves while trawling the web?), throwing Ralph’s complacent life into total disarray.
It’s a fitting extension of Moore’s first film, which visualized what a world filled with arcade characters would look like, from their daily grind smashing bricks or zooming around candy racetracks, to the bonds that form during their off-hours. Moore and Johnston imagine the web as a sprawling, colorful metropolis where individual icons (or odd interlopers like Vanellope and Ralph) trundle around visiting skyscrapers that contain their destinations. eBay is rendered as a massive auction floor, while videosharing service BuzzTube (run by a vivacious Taraji P. Henson) is a crowded hall filled with people begging for likes (in the film, literal hearts).
It’s funny and absorbing, and Moore and Johnston unload some real zingers for the internet age (their interpretation of a comments section will speak to anyone who works on the ‘net, chilling to the bone). There’s always somewhere new to look and something new to like, as Vanellope soon learns. While she and Ralph set out with a clear goal, she’s distracted by the riches of the web. Mostly, she’s captivated by the terrifyingly-named racing game Slaughter Race (which later breed one of Disney’s catchiest, and weirdest theme songs ever) and its best racer, the Gal Gadot-voiced Shank, who offers the plucky young princess a new kind of role model. That’s the place Ralph has long occupied in Vanellope’s life, and as she rushes to embrace Shank’s (surprisingly friendly) world, the big ol’ lunk fears he might be out of fashion.
That’s the odd switcheroo at the heart of the film, which moves from whiz-bang adventure tale to an honest exploration of how friendships function. It’s classic Disney, but Moore and Johnston, along with co-writer Pamela Ribon, bring such depth of feeling that it’s easy to forgive the film’s convoluted path (it feels like it has two second acts before the story kicks into gear). Younger audiences will surely benefit from its messaging, but with such vivid characters it’s entertaining and emotional for all ages.
It’s also got one heck of a sense of humor. In a nifty bit of cross-promotion, Vanellope is sent to a super-charged Disney fansite where she runs into other Disney princesses who are just as bored as she is. As they teach her the ways of being a princess (the weird clothes, the animal companions, the singing), the young racer zooms towards her own inevitable maturation. It’s a big, funny step for Vanellope, but more than that, it’s one for the brand.
Walt Disney Pictures will release “Ralph Breaks the Internet” on Wednesday, November 21.