World Wide Wreck: Fighting the Trolls in Disney’s ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’
It’s always hard to nail down the perfect ending. It’s especially frustrating when you feel the ending you chose didn’t get your characters where they needed to be. At the risk of overstating matters, that’s the feeling that lingered among the production team of Wreck-It Ralph in the months following the film’s release. The film’s protagonist, Ralph, the misanthropic antagonist of arcade game Fix-It Felix, had just found his first true friend in Vanellope, a candy-race-car driver from the game Sugar Rush. But somehow, that ending didn’t feel completely right.
“The idea came fairly early, right after we finished work on the first movie. We were talking if we would ever want to do a sequel, and if so, why? Because the first movie wrapped up pretty nicely with Ralph’s line, ‘If that kid likes me, how bad can I be?’” says director Rich Moore. “At the time, it felt like a very sweet sentiment. However, as we started poking around at that idea, it’s actually a little bit dysfunctional that Ralph is defining himself based on how another person feels about him. We realized Ralph still has some work to do—and the internet is the worst place that you could put a person who defines themselves by how other people think.”
The sequel, appropriately titled Ralph Breaks the Internet, picks up at Litwack’s Family Fun Center & Arcade, which houses all the games and characters from Ralph and Vanellope’s universe. After the steering wheel for the Sugar Rush console breaks, the arcade’s proprietor is forced to unplug the machine—putting Vanellope’s future at risk. The only way to recover Sugar Rush is by purchasing a replacement steering wheel … on eBay, an expensive task for the cash-strapped arcade. That’s when Ralph and Vanellope venture into a mysterious new world they’ve never explored—the internet—to purchase that steering wheel and get it delivered to Litwack’s.
The story introduces a completely new challenge for the filmmakers. As in Toy Story, nostalgia for childhood play is a major theme in the original Wreck-It Ralph. Much like looking at toys’ lives when they’re back in the chest, the movie builds a world around arcade characters’ personalities after the arcade lights go down. Nostalgia roots the viewer in a specific place, with references that serve as anchors to that era. The internet, however, is a completely different beast. There are few specifics one can latch on to when talking about the internet; it’s an ephemeral place, with trends and memes that come and go in an instant. “We knew the first movie was a love letter to video games and arcades and that if we were going to make a second one, it had to be different,” says Moore. “You can only traffic in this nostalgia so much.”
One of the earliest glimpses of Ralph Breaks the Internet took place at Disney’s annual fan convention, the D23 Expo. One particular scene stood out as the filmmakers offered fans an advance look at portions of the film. “We were kicking around ideas on what these characters could do on the internet,” recalls Moore. “The ‘Oh My Disney’ scene started with us thinking how funny it would be if Ralph took one of those online quizzes, ‘Are you an Ana or an Elsa?’ Then we thought, it would be funny if somehow Ana and Elsa are there …” That scene evolved into a show-stopping satirical sequence featuring a room full of Disney princesses, a room that Vanellope accidentally stumbles into. “Why not have fun at our own expense?” says Moore, laughing. “Have fun with these characters and their foibles, what makes them weird and what’s kind of crazy about them. Even within the Disney pantheon, Ralph and Vanellope feel like misfits. It was fun putting Vanellope in that world and what she would think of it, how she’d react.”
That scene brings together the original voice talent of most of characters featured onscreen, arguably a bigger feat than getting the cast of the Avengers together. “We did the scene first with temp voices, so we knew what the scene was all about when we went to them,” says Moore. “We just hoped everyone was game to do something that’s part irreverent but also respectful of their characters. They loved the idea, and when they came in they helped elevate the comedy—as an actor does—and would point out details, like how the characters would say certain things. It added that extra layer of authenticity to the princesses because as we got to work with each one of them, it became really apparent to us that they really embody those characters. Beyond the voice they provided, so much of these characters are embodied by their personalities.”
With a surefire scene locked in, the filmmakers still had to work to determine what other elements of the internet would be evergreen enough to connect with audiences. “We knew when we started working on the movie that the tropes of the internet wouldn’t be the same when it was released,” explains Moore. “We kept our vision pretty broad.”
Part of that broad vision came through the setting itself, the internet, which not only provided the filmmakers with a bigger canvas, but also energized the production team as it reconvened for the sequel. “If we’re going to do this,” co-director and writer Phil Johnston remembers thinking, “it should be bigger and crazier than the arcade—and that’s the internet.” But what exactly does the internet look like? Web browsers have evolved throughout the years, and with the exception of icons or emojis, there are very few visual references one can take when designing a new world out of an existing, intangible concept like the internet.
“In the very beginning, you do all the different designs and creative visions of this and you do wonder if we’re ever really going to be able to focus. There are so many different directions you could go in. There’s not a true north, a place you’re familiar with that you can build around.” says producer Clark Spencer. “You start with nothing—there is no model for what the internet looks like. It’s not like Zootopia where you could go to a big city and imagine a version made by animals,” agrees Moore. “It is so daunting, but this job, I’ve realized, is about being uncomfortable. Putting yourself in an impossible situation, sitting in it, and allowing the answers to come.”
In Ralph Breaks the Internet, those answers came through the characters themselves. “Once you find the characters and fall in love with them, you let them tell you what the next story needs to be,” says Johnston. The filmmakers felt Ralph still had a lot of work left to do in order to find confidence within himself rather than in how others view him. His co-star, Vanellope, barely had enough time in the first film to go through a proper character arc—having been introduced halfway through that movie. Ralph’s journey might have been halfway realized, but Vanellope’s had just begun. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a maturation story for two characters who find themselves in a place with endless possibilities—and deep pitfalls.
“It’s a tricky balance to strike because the internet gives us everything we want, but there’s also a lot of dark stuff out there. To some extent, we were emboldened by the work on Zootopia, knowing that audiences are eager for a more sophisticated approach to tricky subject matter in family films,” says Johnston. “In Zootopia it was racism, and in this one we’re dealing with online bullying and trolling on an emotional level with Ralph; the self-doubt and insecurity that I think both parents and kids can relate to.”
In the same way the filmmakers tackled prejudice in Zootopia, the team behind Ralph Breaks the Internet wanted to avoid making a movie that would offer facile solutions to a complex social issue like online bullying. Rather than have their characters solve a problem of that magnitude, they decided to let Ralph and Vanellope go through the emotional journey of experiencing, and overcoming, the torrents of anonymous scorn that emanate from the internet. “The last thing we want to do is lecture the audience and preach to them,” says Moore. “But we can show characters who encounter these things on the internet and show how they are able to rise above it.”