In the words of Robert Worshow, "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man," and in that spirit, I will lead with my bias: the 2012 Walt Disney Animation Studios release Wreck-It Ralph, 52nd entry in the company's official canon of animated features, is a cute enough, funny enough movie, though not a terribly memorable or well-conceived one. It is also very nearly the exact platonic ideal of a direction where I really don't want Disney animation to head ("very nearly" only because in 2014, Big Hero 6 taught me how much closer the studio could still get). So the news of a sequel to that film was absolute murder to my heart, and I confess that the absolute best of all possible scenarios was that I'd give Ralph Breaks the Internet an extraordinarily begrudging 3-star review over the course of which I wouldn't actually have anything nice to say.

It is definitely not the best of all possible scenarios.

In fact, I will go ahead for the hottest part of the take right now: Ralph Breaks the Internet is the film to finally dethrone 2005's repulsive Chicken Little as the worst of Disney's now-57 feature films. It is a movie with practically nothing to recommend it besides the impressive shamelessness of the whole endeavor. Whatever separates this film from Sony's utterly craven The Emoji Movie is down mostly to Disney's substantially larger budget for computers and actors; the core of the thing is the same utterly relentless series of "the internet has this brand and this brand and this brand, and there is vaguely a story in there" pop culture jokes that will be dated faster than any Disney film has ever been dated. Shit, at least Wreck-It Ralph based its rather pointedly un-Disney pop culture jokes in nostalgia for quarter-century-old arcade games. Ralph Breaks the Internet, from its title on down, is fixated on a specific incarnation of online culture that already feels mildly embarrassing, like someone's dear sweet old grandma saying "Yas Queen" over Christmas dinner. For that matter, there is a character in the film named "Yesss". Not even "Yasss". "Yesss".

The film picks up in real time,  six years after Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the villain of a 1980s arcade game called Fix-It Felix, made his first-ever friend, in the form of the glitchy Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), one of the player characters available in the confection-themed racing game Sugar Rush. Pray to God you remember all of that, because the Ralph Breaks the Internet filmmakers (directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore, and their squadron of co-writers) spend exactly no minutes recapping anything. These six years have been the happiest of Ralph's life, but Vanellope has started to yearn for more than the life available to a video game sprite in Litwak's Family Fun Center. And she'll be getting her chance soon: Mr. Litwak (Ed O'Neill) installs a wi-fi router the same week that the steering wheel controller Sugar Rush game cabinet is broken thanks to Vanllope's refusal to abide by the player's attempts to control her. Which opens up questions about the nature of free will and spirituality in the video game universe that Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn't even seem to realise it just asked, let alone demonstrate any interest in exploring their ramifications. But a jaw-dropping avoidance of actually grappling with the rules of the universe it's depicting was one of Wreck-It Ralph's biggest problems, and it will prove to be even worse in the sequel.

Anyway, Litwak can't afford the one replacement controller, available on eBay, so Ralph and Vanellope sneak into the router and onto the wide internet through a plot contrivance that actually doesn't even seem like arbitrary bullshit in the moment you're watching it. In hardly any time, Ralph has managed to win the auction for the controller by inadvertently bidding $27,000, and must raise the money within 24 hours or lose the item. He does this by teaming up with the aforementioned Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), the main algorithm for the popular video sharing site BuzzzTube in order to become a viral video star. I want to drink bleach. The eager Vanellope tries to help by carrying pop-up ads, and the over-protective Ralph manages to send her to the safe, harmless confines of a Disney website, where she meets the members of the Disney Princesses marketing line. From them, she learns about "I Want" songs, discovering in the process that she does have a want, and it involves staying out in the wilds of online.

There are bits and pieces within all of this that are good. Heck, maybe even great. The best part of the film is its central friendship between Ralph and Vanellope, presented with an extraordinary amount of sophistication for a kids' movie. It's an impressive depiction of a desperately unhealthy friendship, where both people involved like each other very much and have wildly incompatible notions of how much together time is necessary. Ralph's arc in the film is learning that it's okay to let Vanellope go, that they'll still be good friends no matter what, and though this results in some stiff over-literalisation in the film's logically dubious climax, it's a surprising theme for any movie, let alone a comic adventure cartoon. It's also a theme that doesn't need the framework of "Ralph becomes a viral star, while many branded properties pass by the camera to say hi", and this is where we get into trouble. Anything that is cute and sweet and good in Ralph Breaks the Internet gets buried under massive mountains of the most insipid bullshit, which comes in two flavors. The one of these about which I have less to say is the "boy, memes, huh?" flavor, in which the film rewards us for being aware of all internet traditions. It's lazy, hacky au courant pop culture humor of the sort that has rendered something like two-thirds of all animated movies in the 21st Century painfully outdated within months of their release. It's simply asking the viewer to laugh at the thing your recognise because it is familiar, and it is a form of humor I hold in absolute contempt; Disney has till now been good about avoiding it, and I am suitably saddened to see it overrun so much of this film.

The other flavor, much more compact but infinitely more annoying, is the "Disney owns everything you love" jokes that start when Vanellope goes to that Disney site. She doesn't have to. Nothing here has to happen. The character arcs absolutely do not require leaving the arcade: most of what happens is predicated on Vanellope finding her way into an MMO racing game called Slaughter Race, with an awesome, friendly villain named Shank (Gal Gadot) and that could just as easily be re-written as a new machine being brought into Litwak's, and with the added benefit that the film wouldn't present us with such an insanely unpersuasive look at the magical internet world. But the Disney material gives the game away: the point is to drown us in references for the sake of it. They're nonsensical references: apparently the Princesses are the actual Princesses (some of them hideously redesigned for CGI - Cinderella looks like absolute hell, while Ariel turned out pretty damn great), but C-3PO and the stormtroopers from Star Wars apparently aren't. Probably sense could be made of this, but I'm not sufficiently motivated to do it. All I see are a bunch of smug, self-indulgent jokes (including the latest examples of the studio's increasingly shticky faux-feminism regarding its princess tradition) in which Disney simply affirms that it owns many properties, and you are currently watching one of them. There are compensations: Vanellope gets her own "I Want" song, co-written by Disney Princess expert Alan Menken, and it's far and away the funniest part of the movie. But that doesn't change the fact that Vanellope having an "I Want" song in the first place is almost entirely irrelevant to the plot or characters.

So anyway, the script is a flaming shitpile of half-formed concepts, maddening narcissism, and wildly inefficient development of the characters and themes. All that leaves us with is the animation itself, which is neither here nor there. The world-building, the one great shining strength of Wreck-It Ralph, is almost completely gone: the internet is rendered as a generic high-tech non-space full of sleek white shiny things, and various areas like the Dark Web or eBay are minimally imaginative (would you believe: a seedy alleyway and a cross between a flea market and Apple store, respectively?). Only Slaughter Race is particularly interesting, and wouldn't you just know, it's the one place where the movie remembers that these are video game characters and can be dropped into worlds running on video game logic. Aside from the design, the character animation is somewhat unpleasantly rubbery and faces have a slackness to them I didn't care for, especially Ralph's, but I'll confess that at a certain point, I was just looking for things to complain about, and I'm probably being uncharitable. At any rate, the main villain-if-that's-what-we-call-it is a pretty nifty piece of animation involving a lot of moving parts all jumbled up in a coherent way, and that forgives a lot of sins.

All in all, then, a miserable extension of the Disney brand masquerading as the latest in an 81-year tradition, and the only compensation is my virtual certainty that this film can't possibly live on as a classic even if the original Wreck-It Ralph very well might. It's just too of the moment for that. And unfortunately, that moment was three years ago, and all of these things were terrible then.