The quintessential Disney film for cynics, Ralph Breaks the Internet lands in theaters this holiday weekend, with a film I’d alternately call, “Disney’s Death Race 2000: When Friends Collide.” Even those who saw and felt lukewarm about 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, will find the movie an often irreverent delight.  At one point, the lead character sings her version of “A Part of Your World”, but in this case it’s Venellope Von Schweetz singing a song called “A Place Called Slaughter Race”. Co-directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore, also wrote and directed the wonderful Zootopia, for which Moore won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. They have much to be proud of with this sequel, which offers the expected Disney flamboyance, a surprising level of self-deprecating humor, and a poignancy that may draw a tear or two from even the least sentimental viewer.

The story picks up after Venellope and Ralph have become best friends in the first film. They spend each day in exactly the same way. Ralph loves the predictability and any opportunity to do absolutely nothing, but Venellope is yearning for more. When Ralph creates a new track inside Venellope’s race game to add a little excitement to her day, it goes awry. The gamester playing Sugar Rush breaks the steering wheel trying to right the game. If Ralph and Venellope don’t go into the internet to find a replacement, the game is going to be shut down forever. They journey together into the web, completely ignorant to its ways. Venellope discovers she loves the unpredictability and discovers new adventures, while Ralph finds himself threatened by the potential loss of his closest friend.

What makes this film so enjoyable is the surprisingly freewheeling approach to storytelling. At every turn in which audiences might expect the sort of corporate self promotion one came to expect in the Eisner era, the film takes a more unexpected and less traveled road. They shift audiences from a suspicion Ralph Breaks the Internet ’s presentation of the web will be about endless product placement, to the dawning realization the story will actually include some of the darkest aspects of web surfing. It is spot on in how it shows the perils and cruelty often found online. It’s genius.

Two other elements, Slaughter Race, and the appearance of a parade of Disney princesses, seal their iron-clad control over balancing tones. The world of Slaughter Race is a sort of blend of Grand Theft Auto and Fallout. The central crew of expert, fearless drivers look scary, and drive like bats out of Hades, but have hearts of gold and mean the world to each other. It’s there that we meet Shank, their leader, voiced by Gal Gadot. She is as glamorous as this animated gang leader as she is in real life. Please enjoy the way the RBTI team create the slo-mo hair flips as only Gadot could do. Shanks’s crew includes Felony, voiced by the wonderful stand-up comedian Ali Wong. She plays one of a number of memorable secondary characters making up the world wide web.

It is the appearance of Disney princesses though, all voiced by the original actresses, that will make people become fast fans of the film. They send themselves up, and play a part in a major plot point that will have audiences grinning and nodding their heads in approval. You can read an interview with Johnston and Moore I did HERE.

Don’t believe, however, that this story doesn’t offer a deeper message. In this case, it is one of friendship and individuality, and of the importance of finding security and trust between besties, however divergent their paths or interests become. One of the best qualities of the movie is that this message is woven into the story in such a way that it blends into, rather than overcoming, the great fun and social commentary of this unusual, complex animated feature. Ralph won’t just be breaking the Internet, he and his pals will likely break some box office records as well.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars