Net Worthy: How Disney talent built 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' bit by bit
The long history of Walt Disney Animation Studios spans the better part of a century, beginning with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937 and continuing through more than 50 feature length animated films. Of that list, only three have been sequels: “The Rescuers Down Under,” “Fantasia 2000,” and “Winnie the Pooh”. Other films have had direct to video followups over the years, but Disney tends to avoid continuing animated stories on the big screen unless an idea comes along that’s really something special. Like, for instance, November’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet”.
Released in 2012, “Wreck-It Ralph” captured the hearts and minds of moviegoers around the world with the story of a video game bad guy, Ralph (John C. Reilly), who begins to wonder if he’s the hero or villain of his own story. Traversing an imaginative digital landscape populated by video game characters old and new, Ralph winds up the reluctant friend of a young girl, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who is also trying to prove her worth by winning a racing game called “Sugar Rush”.
“The idea came fairly soon after we had finished the first ‘Ralph’,” says Phil Johnston, producer on the first film and co-director of the sequel alongside Rich Moore. “We were talking about if we would want to do a sequel and, if so, why. The first movie wraps up pretty nicely with ‘If that kid likes me, how bad could I be?’ At the time, we made it feel like a very sweet sentiment. However, as we started poking around at that idea, it’s actually a little bit dysfunctional. Ralph is defining himself based on what other people feel about him.”
“So Ralph still has some work to do,” adds Moore. “And where is the worst place you can put someone who defines himself by what other people think about him?”
Welcome to the internet.
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” begins shortly after the events of the first film. Ralph and Vanellope are good friends, spending days in their own respective games and hanging out together whenever they can. Unfortunately, it’s not long before something goes wrong. The steering wheel that players use on “Sugar Rush” gets broken. Since the game is no longer being produced, the arcade owner, Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill), turns to eBay for a replacement. Unfortunately, he discovers that the expense of purchasing a new wheel is too great and decides that “Sugar Rush” will have to be sold for parts.
Even though Mr. Litwak has given up, Ralph and Vanellope decide to take matters into their own hands. Accessing the Wi-Fi router through the same power strip that lets them travel between games, the pair are soon transported into the internet, a vast ever-expanding metropolis of information populated by two distinct groups. Net Users represent digital avatars for real world characters like Mr. Litwak while Netizens are beings that live their lives as algorithm residents of the world wide web.
There is a history of Disney productions taking special research trips. On “Zootopia,” filmmakers traveled to Africa to watch real animals interact on the savannah. On “Moana,” the team traveled to Hawaii to soak in as much of the place as possible. For “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” they didn’t have quite so far to go, driving a few short miles to Downtown Los Angeles and One Wilshire, a data center containing tens of thousands of servers that house all the connections for all of the internet communication in North America.
After dropping by a search bar, Ralph and Vanellope decide to head to eBay to get the needed steering wheel. Unfortunately, they don’t quite understand the logistics of online auctions and wind up getting in some trouble in a sequence that features a voice cameo by real life livestock auctioneer Brian Curless. Initially released concept art suggested that “Ralph Breaks the Internet” would make use of parody names for popular websites, the final film will use names like eBay and Google.
“Through the course of making the film, we realized that we’re creating an internet that all of use every day,” explains producer Spencer Clark. “We should populate it with the actual websites we go to. Because of copyright, we can put them in the film without having to go the companies.”
Because they need money for the steering wheel, Ralph and Vanellope are approached by a incredibly stylish algorithm called Yess. Voice by Taraji P. Henson, Yess works for a website called BuzzzTube. It’s there that she suggests our heroes make money by producing viral content.
“Think of it like Buzzfeed meets YouTube,” says Moore. “If it’s cool, if it’s trendy, if it’s now, she has found it and shared it with the world. She’s going to be really important to Ralph and Vanellope on her journey through the internet.”
“Yesss has the ability to constantly change her hair, based on whatever is trending at the moment and her clothes change from scene to scene,” adds Johnston. “Because she lives in a digital world, her jacket is made up of hundreds of thousands of fiber optics. I think she’s one of the coolest Disney characters ever.”
Ralph and Vanellope have no problem raising the money, but Ralph makes a fateful mistake when he breaks the cardinal rule of the internet: Don’t read the comments.
“As we were thinking about how to portray the internet, we thought, ‘We don’t want to show just what’s good about the internet,'” says Moore. “We felt we had a responsibility to talk about those things that are complicated on the internet.”
“To some extent, we were emboldened by the work on ‘Zootopia,'” says Johnston. “Knowing that audiences are okay and actually eager for a more sophisticated approach in family films to tricky subject matter. In ‘Zootopia,’ it was racism. In this one, we’re dealing to an extent with online bullying and trolling. But with Ralph, it’s more about insecurity and self doubt. All those things that parents and kids can both relate to.”
“It would be bad on our part to say, ‘Well, Judy Hopps is going to solve racism,'” Moore continues. “That’s just not how the world works. But she can experience it and she can practice it and she can learn from it and rise above it. That was our goal with this movie. Ralph can encounter these things and embody them. He can fall prey to them. But, ultimately, what we want him is not to solve it. That would be disingenuous and the last thing we want to do is preach to the audience. But we can show a character who encounters what we encounter on the internet and show how he goes about rising above it.”
Incredibly, all of this is just the beginning of “Ralph Breaks the Internet”. A large portion of the film involves online gaming and introduces Gal Gadot‘s street racer, Shank. Fans of Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) won’t be disappointed, either, as they have a subplot all their own.
“When ‘Sugar Rush’ breaks, all of those candy racers are also left gameless,” teases Johnston. “They maybe need parental figures and those figures are maybe Calhoun and Felix. Because how hard can parenting be?”
There’s a lot more to explore from “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” including a great many talented artists with behind the scenes roles that you might not expect. Keep checking back with Moviebill between now and the film’s release on November 21, 2018 for more Ralph-related goodness.