Don‘t let the bright colors and peppy music fool you: Ralph Breaks the Internet knows damn well the the world wide web isn‘t all “roses and sunshine,” as co-director Phil Johnston puts it.
“We have to give due to the darker side of it,” he told an assembled group of journalists at a recent press day in Los Angeles.
To be sure, this is still a Disney sequel we‘re talking about. There‘s a limit to how twisted things are going to get. Though Ralph does venture at one point into the “dark net” (which in the world of this film looks like an especially shady alleyway in a very sketchy neighborhood), he isn‘t about to get radicalized by a fascist website or anything like that.
But he is going to have to deal with some of the smaller horrors we all encounter on social media every day.
“What is the worst place that you could put a person who defines himself by how other people think of him?”
Ralph Breaks the Internet sees Ralph purposely “going viral” in an effort to make enough money to save Sugar Rush – his BFF Vanellope‘s game, without which she‘ll be jobless and homeless. He teams up with Yesss (voiced by Taraji P. Henson), the head algorithm of a super-cool site called BuzzTube.
In one scene we saw, Ralph, giddy off the success of his recent video, stumbles into a strange room filled with giant glowing screens. It‘s the comments section, and everyone is talking about him.
As he reads note after note about how “stupid” and “fat” and “ugly” he is, he starts to get teary, and Yessss comes in to comfort him and teach him a lesson: “First rule of the internet: Do not read the comments.”
(As sad as Ralph looks, he may actually be getting off easy – as revealed by one of the animators, an earlier attempt to deal with the dark side of the internet had an animated troll coming in to yell at Ralph.)
To the filmmakers, Ralph‘s introduction to the internet was an obvious next step in his emotional arc across both films. Wreck-It Ralph chronicled the character as he tried to figure out how to be a bad guy without being a “bad guy,” and ended with him making a true friend in Vanellope. “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” he asks.
It‘s a nice moment – but it‘s not exactly a healthy approach to life, Johnston pointed out. “It‘s actually a little dysfunctional that Ralph is defining himself based on how another person feels about him,” he said.
And, well: “What is the worst place that you could put a person who defines himself by how other people think of him?” asked co-director Rich Moore. “The internet!”
It‘s a complicated idea for a broadly appealing family film, but Moore and the Disney Animation team have already proven that they‘re better than most at grappling with heavy themes in appealing ways.
“To some extent, we were emboldened by the work on Zootopia, knowing that audiences are okay and actually eager for a more sophisticated approach in family films to tricky subject matter,” he said.
Just as Zootopia dealt with racism without pretending to “fix” racism, Ralph will take on the hostility of the internet from the perspective of one befuddled video game villain.
“Ultimately what we want is for Ralph not to solve it, because I think that would be disingenuous of us, and the last thing we want to do is lecture the audience and preach to them,” continued Moore. “But we can show a character who encounters what we encounter on the internet and how he goes about rising above.”