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‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ really connects

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In a cinematic landscape featuring more animated offerings than ever before, it’s tough to find ways to stand out. But even in a crowded field, Disney stands ears-and-shoulders above the competition.

Even leaving aside the fact that Pixar is a Disney concern, Walt Disney Animation has had a heck of a run over the past half-decade or so. Yes, things were a little underwhelming in the earlier part of the 21st century, but there’s no arguing the quality of the studio’s recent run – “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), “Frozen” (2013), “Big Hero 6” (2014), “Zootopia” (2016) and “Moana” (2016) were all hugely successful both commercially and critically; “Frozen” and “Zootopia” even won Oscars.

The latest offering – the first sequel in this new wave – is “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” A sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph,” it melds the retro charm of the original’s characters with an updated, more modern setting. The combination of old and new is an undeniable success; not only are there some delightful jokes and clever pop culture nods, there’s a surprising depth to the emotions explored. Funny gags AND genuine connection – we’re talking top-tier animated fare.

In the years since the original film, the friendship between Ralph (John C. Reilly, “The Sisters Brothers”) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman, “Battle of the Sexes”) has grown and blossomed. The two spend all their time together whenever the arcade is closed, hanging out with the now-married Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer, “Dude”) and Calhoun (Jane Lynch, TV’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”).

But things are about to get complicated.

Arcade owner Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill, TV’s “Modern Family”) decides to get WiFi, opening a path into the internet for the various video game characters. And when a well-meaning Ralph inadvertently causes Vanellope’s “Sugar Rush” machine to get damaged, the game’s many characters are left without a home. Their only hope is to find their way online and track down a broken part available in just one place – eBay.

And so Ralph and Vanellope venture forth into the expanse of the internet. They meet all manner of folks as they undertake their quest – search engine operator KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk, “Deadpool 2”) and pop-up ad impresario J.P. Spamley (an uncredited Bill Hader), for instance. However, it is when the pair make their way into the popular online game “Slaughter Race” in an effort to score (and sell) a tough-to-get game item that things really start humming.

Vanellope falls in love with the ever-changing danger of “Slaughter Race,” preferring it to the ho-hum sameness of her old home. And when she meets the game’s protagonist Shank (Gal Gadot, “Wonder Woman”) and her surprisingly intelligent, empathetic gang of toughs (keep your ears open for Maine’s own Timothy Simons as TED talk-watching thug Butcher Boy), she finds herself considering a longer stay.

Of course, Ralph wants nothing more than to return to the status quo, and with the help of Shank’s good friend (and head algorithm at video sharing site BuzzzTube) Yesss (Taraji P. Henson, “Proud Mary”), he starts making and monetizing viral videos in an effort to raise the necessary funds. When he discovers Vanellope’s desire to stay, his insecurity leads him to make some ill-advised decisions – decisions that put not just Vanellope, but the entire internet at risk.

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” is an absolute delight. The jokes are rapid-fire, aimed high and low alike. There are plenty for the kids, a few for the grown-ups … and a surprising number for both. There are some solid running gags and a couple of moments where the movie takes full advantage of the breadth of Disney’s pop culture holdings in a wonderful way – Vanellope’s encounter with all of the Disney Princesses (and yes, I mean ALL OF THEM) alone is worth the price of admission.

What takes this movie from good to excellent, however, is the care taken with the relationship at its center. The friendship between Ralph and Vanellope serves as the emotional core of this movie – a core that is sweet without ever feeling cloying and is far more impactful than any dynamic between animated characters has any right to be. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” takes friendship seriously and treats it with importance; it’s a meaningful lesson well-executed.

The voice cast is stellar, obviously. Reilly’s unique cadences give Ralph a lovable dopiness that is impossible to dislike. Silverman’s mischievous twinkle is heard in every Vanellope line. And the wonderful comedic timing between the two of them is present throughout. The supporting cast is star-studded. McBrayer and Lynch are great together. Gadot is charming as all get out as Shank. Hader is a delight whenever he turns up. Henson is clearly having a ball. And not only is Simons here, but there are cameos from notables like Alfred Molina, who’s awesome in his single scene.

This movie is another quality offering in the extended string of successes from Walt Disney Animation. And considering the critical plaudits and the massive opening weekend at the box office, it looks like it will fit in nicely with the films that went before it. It is smart and quick-witted, engaging with kids in a condescension-free manner while also tipping a few winks to Mom and Dad.

All in all, you’ll have no problem connecting with “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”

[5 out of 5]

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