In 2012 Disney gifted us with Wreck-It Ralph, a bright and funny homage to classic video arcade games that also also celebrated the warm, fuzzy virtues of friendship. It crammed in references to Pac-man, Super Mario Bros. and the rest, while creating original yet familiar-seeming games around its protagonists. Ralph was the secretly good-natured villain from Donkey Kong-inspired 'Fix-It Felix', while Vanellope von Schweetz aspired to compete regularly in her cutesy road-race game 'Sugar Rush', despite the 'glitch' that afflicted her. This was big-hearted stuff, achieving intimacy through the burgeoning friendship of its central pair, despite the film's epic scope. So has Ralph Breaks the Internet pulled off the same trick, while going even bigger? Well, it has and it hasn't...
In Ralph II our pixillated duo - now firmly-established best friends - are surprised by the installation of a Wifi connection, one that's off-limits to them all as arcade-game characters. When a part gets broken in Vanellope's vintage game, however, threatening to shut it down forever, Ralph discovers he can locate a replacement somewhere called eBay. Fired up by a sense of adventure, Vanellope accompanies Ralph on a forbidden expedition to purchase the part. It takes them into the vast and bewildering world known as The Internet - not so vast though that it's proof against the well-meaning Ralph and his brand of ham-fisted havoc.
There is much to love in Ralph and Vannelope's online escapades. The Disney animators' sky-high craftsmanship is matched by how imaginatively the internet is rendered as a physical place. True the film's product placement jars at points - Google and Amazon could surely have been parodied rather than directly represented - but the greater part of this is genuinely creative. Everyone's experience of search engines, spamming and online faddishness is represented with ingenuity and a real sense of fun, and there are nice sideswipes at the more destructive kinds of internet activity, like the malice of comments-section trolls. Clashing animation styles are put to terrific use as well, not least when our goofily sketched heroes investigate a grungy Grand Theft Auto-style race game. It's clever and inventive stuff throughout with plot twists miles beyond predicting.
The problem perhaps is that it's too smart, too sophisticated, too conceptually vast in what it ultimately attempts to portray, with the result that the warmth of the original film risks being lost. There's a lot of grown-up humour here - the clever variety of Pixar's Inside Out rather than anything seedy - and for all the younger audience's computer literacy much of it seems destined to go right over their heads. Equally there's a sense of being swamped along with Ralph and Vanellope in this movie-internet's visual hugeness, to the extent that leaving the screening-room might feel like the start of a major digital detox. There's a swell time to be had here for sure, but in the latter stages spectacle threatens to overwhelm the movie's more amiable aspects.
Happily our flawed but heroic pals (voiced with verve once again by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman) make it through the escalating mayhem with their lovable personalities intact. The actors' improvised bickering translates into a wonderfully developed animated relationship; Vanellope is especially funny and adorable this time around, while Ralph learns painful but necessary lessons about what it means to be a proper friend. It's this character bond that holds the experience together, while providing some welcome (and thankfully non-trite) life-lessons. For all the teeming electronic activity on display, it's relatable human interaction that grounds this sequel, providing it with some of the original film's soul.
Awestruck by technical achievement, occasionally heart-warmed and rocked with laughter at least three times. That'll do.
Where Are the Women?: As well as the splendid Silverman, there's Gal (Wonder Woman) Gadot as a bad-ass road-racer chick, Tajari P. Henson as a clued-in algorithm called Yesss and a gaggle of feminism-embracing Disney princesses. Despite the big dude in the title role, the girls own this one.
Ed's Verdict: 7/10. Ralph II's internet-ty aspects are almost too ambitious and knowingly clever for their own good. It takes Ralph and Vanellope's partnership to keep us rooted in our love of the franchise.