"Life's complicated." Those words of wisdom sum up the best parts of "Ralph Breaks the Internet," a satisfying sequel to 2012's animated Disney feature "Wreck-It Ralph." When the new film opens, life seems pretty simple for video-game characters and best friends Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz. But Vanellope's yearning for something different sends the two on an adventure that puts their friendship to the ultimate test.
Six years after the events of the first film, Litwak's Family Fun Center Arcade gets an upgrade: Wi-Fi. Its possibilities become too tempting to ignore when Vanellope becomes homeless following accidental damage to her racing game, Sugar Rush. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) plunge into the internet on a quest to repair her game, but in the process Vanellope stumbles onto her dream game, Slaughter Race. This wider, vastly more unpredictable digital space -- a "Grand Theft Auto" pastiche -- amusingly appeals to Vanellope, whose smiley little-girl appearance has always belied an edge, while terrifying her hulking but more sensitive buddy Ralph.
But what truly scares Ralph -- more than Slaughter Race's smoggy air and dangerous thugs (including Gal Gadot's personable hot-rodder Shank) -- is the possibility of losing his best friend to a whole new world. And so "Ralph Breaks the Internet" spins from being a simple quest to restore the status quo into something far more interesting: an exploration of insecurities (symbolized by the cyberspace vulnerabilities that allow viruses to spread) and an earnest examination of the meaning of true friendship. Ralph must confront his "needy, clingy, self-destructive behavior" and become profoundly selfless in his love to be the best friend that he can be.
In exploring the internet, directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston up the ante from the previously established universe of Game Central Station (the surge-protector backstage of Litwak's arcade). Where the first film played with a coterie of real and knockoff video-game characters (who return for the sequel), the new installment does the same for the much bigger world of the World Wide Web. This means the appearance of many brand-name internet destinations (such as eBay, on which a major plot point hinges) and a few invented ones (Alan Tudyk, who voiced King Candy last time, now plays KnowsMore, the Jeeves-y embodiment of a search engine). The filmmakers also serve up funny variations on click bait and pop-up windows, such as the somehow endearingly slimy JP Spamley (an uncredited Bill Hader).
The adventure also allows for a snake-eating-its-tale synergy when Vanellope, established last time as a princess, meets her Disney kin on the corporation's much-ballyhooed destination website. Disney fanatics will love the cameos by all the Disney princesses, satirically teased about their pre-feminist tendencies and largely played by the original actresses who voiced them; the sequence also tees up Vanellope's own "I Wish" anthem, "A Place Called Slaughter Race" (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Phil Johnston and Tom MacDougall).
If a plot thread involving the YouTube stand-in BuzzzTube (presided over by Taraji P. Henson's Hollywood agent-like algorithm Yesss) makes mastering the internet too easy, its shallowness -- and side trips to the Dark Net and the hurtful cyber bullying of comments areas -- productively acknowledges real-life dangers, with stellar animation and designs shoring up the storytelling of Johnston and Pamela Ribon's witty script. Add the relatable message of curbing one's own smothering instincts when it comes to the important people in one's life, and you get a useful all-ages fable for our time.