If you’ve ever had Amazon remove a book from your Kindle or Apple snatch music out of your iTunes library, you know that one of the evil agendas of the internet is to make you buy the same media over and over. Perhaps that’s the subtext of “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” a fairly listless sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” that recycles many of the previous film’s ideas and themes.
There are, to be sure, some worthwhile upgrades this time around — including one sequence that’s an instant classic — but it’s hard not to feel like you’ve already played this game once before.
We meet up with Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) still living their lives at, and behind the scenes of, an arcade, even though so many of these emporiums have gone the way of Blockbuster Video. Ralph loves the routine (playing in his game all day, knocking back root beers with Vanellope at night in the Tapper machine), but she’s getting restless with the day-in, day-out sameness of it all.
Fate steps in when the steering wheel breaks on Vanellope’s racing game; a replacement part costs $200 on eBay, and since that’s more than the game brings in in a year the arcade owner decides to ship it out in a week. To save the machine, Ralph and Vanellope jump into a mysterious new addition to the arcade — WiFi — to buy the wheel themselves, even though both the internet and money are foreign concepts to them.
Once inside the web, our heroes try to make money by any means necessary, from collecting loot (which brings them inside a gritty urban racing game called Slaughter Race) to turning Ralph into a viral video phenomenon with clips that feature him eating ghost peppers or imitating a screaming goat. But what will happen to their friendship if Vanellope decides that Slaughter Race is where destiny has led her to be?
The script by Phil Johnston (“Zootopia”) and Pamela Ribon (“Moana”) has a handful of interesting ideas: In the same way that child psychologists no doubt use the five emotions from “Inside Out” to help kids describe how they’re feeling, net neutrality activists will be pointing to “Ralph Breaks the Internet” as an object description of why towering monoliths like Amazon and Google shouldn’t completely dominate the online landscape. There’s also a sequence set in the Disney website where Vanellope gets to hang out with her fellow princesses that’s one of the funniest bits of movie meta-commentary since “Gremlins 2.”
For every fresh notion — Gal Gadot voices street-racer Shank in a manner that will bring closure to people who are still upset about what happened to Gadot’s character in “Fast & Furious 6” — there’s way too much of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” that feels like a retread. As Ralph and Vanellope make their way through various recognizable areas of the web, it feels more than a little like the characters in “The Emoji Movie” traveling from app to app, and that’s no good for anyone. “Wreck-It Ralph” was no masterpiece, but it never felt nearly as phoned-in as this chapter.
Taraji P. Henson gets a few fun moments as Yesss, the algorithm that runs the site that posts Ralph’s videos, but Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch are barely utilized, thrown into only a handful of scenes that don’t let them build much on their characters from the previous film. As for Reilly (who has given two of this year’s best performances in “The Sisters Brothers” and “Stan & Ollie”) and Silverman, they’re just fine, even though they’re mostly spinning their wheels.
And going back to Ralph’s videos for a moment: satirizing web memes seems like a losing battle for filmmakers, given how quickly personalities and jokes come and go online. (The screaming goat is also a running joke in “The Grinch,” but divorced from its YouTube moorings.) Within a few years, the specifics of the viral-video gags in “Ralph Breaks the Internet” will be as dated as a Tay Zonday joke.
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” delivers the ha-ha and the bang-zoom that will keep young audiences engaged, and by the standards of other studios, it would rate as a perfectly acceptable piece of work. But this is Disney, a studio that’s trained us to expect more than the merely-OK from their animated features.