When Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” opened six years ago, it definitely hooked us with its conceit of a humanized Donkey Kong stand-in who so lamented playing video-game baddie that he was even in a support group. Still, the movie had an “ish”-ness about it that felt like a tease: There were real-deal Pac-Man and Sonic sightings, but the references were more typically “Mario”-ish or “Call of Duty”-ish. The world shared by Ralph (John C. Reilly), cutie-pie fellow misfit Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), and friends was big-ish. The heavily window-dressed narrative was clever-ish.
The imaginative, touching, and dizzyingly animated “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is a sequel with a rich, broad vision that addresses all of these issues faster than you can say Fix-It Felix. (Jack McBrayer’s first-installment good doobie is back for quick set-up and wrap-up assistance, as is his odd-couple squeeze, Jane Lynch’s heat-packing Calhoun.)
When a new router is installed at Ralph’s and Vanellope’s arcade, they venture into the online unknown in search of an exotic place called — commence verisimilitude! — eBay, and a crucial part for Vanellope’s vintage racing game. Visually, the landscape they’re navigating couldn’t be more wildly populous, with its colorful virtual HQs for Snapchat and IMDb and Netgear and on and on. (Look, Boston — that’s where Amazon went!) Yet their quest also has an appealing narrative purity, as even Ralph’s amusing detour into the world of viral videos with Taraji P. Henson’s clip-site webmistress is all about getting that replacement part.
Until, surprisingly, the story becomes about something else entirely — erstwhile Sugar Rush racer Vanellope’s growing awareness of how at home she feels in a grim urban-racing game, and in the company of fast-and-furious race jefa Shank (Gal Gadot, wonder-womanly as ever). Reilly does nice work playing his big lug’s insecurity and struggle to let his friend go, but Silverman delivers a performance that’s downright moving in its expression of yearning — on a couple of different levels, interpretation depending.
We could quibble that Vanellope’s journey toward self-discovery comes in a venue that’s merely “Grand Theft Auto”-ish — but then we wouldn’t otherwise get to hear Silverman squeak a rhapsodic musical number titled “A Place Called Slaughter Race.” And the animators do willingly empty their own company toybox to heighten the mash-up effect, tossing in everyone from Marvel heroes and Imperial storm troopers to, hilariously, Disney’s whole gaggle of Vanellope-enthralled princesses — voiced by the original actresses, no less.
It’s a pop-culture confection on a par with Roger Rabbit’s Toontown or the Oasis from “Ready Player One,” maybe sweeter. “Sugar rush” is right — and yet, “Ralph” also contains an emotional ingredient that’s hardly just empty calories.
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston. Written by Johnston and Pamela Ribon, from a story by Moore, Johnston, Ribon, Jim Reardon, and Josie Trinidad. Starring John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson. Boston theaters, suburbs. 112 minutes. PG (some action, rude humor).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.