When “Wreck-It Ralph” landed in 2012, the Disney animation felt like a valentine to a bygone era of arcade gaming. In it, an ’80s video-game villain tries to become popular among his fellow game characters, and the result was a film that felt both fresh and nostalgic, and in that surprising tension, funny. The sequel, “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” which just opened to a near-record Thanksgiving box office, returns John C. Reilly voicing the lummox Ralph and Sarah Silverman as his best friend, a candy-flecked racing game driver named Vanellope. It manages to strike many of the same keys — video games, digital culture, in-jokes for adolescents of any age — without hitting many of the same notes. Like an accidental Twitter binge, it’s a lot of clatter and color without much joy.
We begin in the old-school arcade where Ralph and Vanellope chill in a power strip each night before the arcade owner opens for business. Ralph, outwardly contented, loves his life: wake up for work inside his game, knock off for root beers, hang out with his friends, repeat. Vanellope needs a bit more action, and her saying so leads to Ralph trying to help, and womp-womp, a kid breaking her game. A broken steering wheel on an old arcade game turns out to be a broken leg on a race horse, and the two friends have to upload themselves to the internet to buy an IRL replacement before old man arcade owner melts down Vanellope’s game for scrap. To earn money, they first try breaking into a “Grand Theft Auto” homage called “Slaughter Race” to try and steal a car from a character voiced by Gal Gadot; they settle on making viral videos for a platform called BuzzzTube and converting those to actual human dollars.
The highlights of this romp are two: the detour into the outlandishly violent “Slaughter Race,” and a dip into a Disney site where a virtual sorority of princesses deconstruct Disney princess life. That directors Phil Johnston (“Zootopia”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph,” “Zootopia”) manage to tweak both made-for-tweens Disney culture and rated-M-for-mature gaming with equal deftness is actually a helluva feat.
But at some point your opinion of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” will come down to how you feel about that selfsame internet. When a character, early on, describes it to the old-school arcade characters, he begins his description as a place where people shop, and no matter what your online habits include, you have to feel a twinge of depression, hearing a line in a Disney movie define the internet as a consumer engine. Once Ralph and Vanellope actually bust into the glassy, glossy futureworld of the internet — it looks a bit like “The Fifth Element” in there — you see the landscape defined mostly by giant brands, like the intro to “Silicon Valley” cranked up to the size of a metropolis.
You do see some exchange of ideas in a rolling comments section (of course, they’re brief, and mostly nasty) and a nod to Twitter, but it’s chiefly a utopia (maybe?) of unfettered commerce, with the most recognized brands online (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Snapchat, eBay, Pinterest, on and on) occupying huge skyscrapers.
The meta jokes around gaming and online culture amount to virtually an entire movie’s worth of Easter eggs. You don’t have to have played “Street Fighter II” to get a kick out of a catty discussion of Zangief’s manscaping habits, but it doesn’t hurt. At one point Ralph plunges to the dingy underfloor of the internet and finds Y2K prep jokes and a massive nautical wheel straight from the Netscape logo. You can see in the fossilized internet some vision of a future we veered away from when we colonized our shared worldwide conversation with a galaxy of pop-up ads.
The depiction of how real-world human users interact with Ralph’s videos on BuzzzTube is depressingly droll: understimulated office workers looking through half-closed lids to give a heart in exchange for a li’l chuckle. Ralph’s videos themselves are the closest thing we get to real incisive satire. Ralph takes every suggestion that the algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) gives him and spins them all into videos — cooking vids, animal vids, weird punny meme vids, hot pepper eating vids. This is where you look at Ralph making a spectacle of himself and think, “Yeah, I probably clicked on that already. (Heart.)” And soon enough, nearby, there’s something else to watch.