In Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” best-friend video game characters Ralph and Vanellope need to raise money to save her game in the real world. In this animated sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph,” they attempt to do so by leaving the world of their arcade and entering — gasp — the internet to compete in online games and become viral sensations. That meant whole new environments for the characters to explore, including the filmmakers’ attempts to visually express the internet itself.
Co-directors Rich Moore (co-story writer) and Phil Johnston (co-story and co-screenplay writer) point out that Disney has a history of sending its filmmaking teams to exotic locations to soak in the essence of their films’ locales — think of Scandinavia standing in for “Frozen” and the tropical climes of “Moana.” For “Internet,” the pair enjoyed an all-expenses-paid trip to downtown Los Angeles.
“I never realized until working on this movie, and going to One Wilshire was a big part of it, how physical the internet is,” says Moore of visiting one of the key data hubs in America (whose actual address is on Grand Avenue, despite its name). “I guess I just thought it was this thing floating up in the air, in the clouds. It’s hardware. It’s people stretching cables across oceans and continents.”
One of their technical advisers explained that because the “original internet, the ARPANET, was never designed to grow and expand the way it did,” says Johnston, the internet has evolved like “a city that’s built on top of itself, like Rome or Istanbul, where you have the ancient city deep underground and you have the newer city on top of that and on top of that. So in conceiving our visual design, we built it with these older websites at the bottom, which we think of as the Oldernet. You might have Netscape Navigator, that kind of thing. Then as you go up more and more, you start to see a modern city like Tokyo or New York or whatever.”
They populated the movie’s world with anthropomorphic representations of web necessities — user avatars, hyperactive-brained search engines, even an algorithm predicting what’s next to be cool (Yesss, voiced by Taraji P. Henson) and a virus maker (Double Dan, voiced by Alfred Molina). Dan is described by Johnston as “a gigantic worm guy with a vestigial twin stuck in his neck. He’s just a grotesque, slimy character, and his skin is made of actual Spam — pimentos, hair.”
One of the November release’s most-discussed sequences is its self-referential visit to the company’s Oh My Disney site, where Vanellope meets beloved film princesses such as Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Cinderella — voiced by the original actresses when possible.
“When it came time to bring them in, it hit me: ‘We’re going to be meeting royalty,’ ” says Moore, noting how so many of the animators on their team had been inspired by those famed characters. He says the actresses “were hugely game to return and kind of poke at some of the tropes about these princesses. They were so on board.”
The film lacks a single antagonist; the main problems come from manifestations of Ralph’s insecurities, especially over possibly losing Vanellope’s friendship. All this is exacerbated by the online bullying Ralph suffers, which the filmmakers say was one of their goals to address. The best advice they got from experts: “Don’t engage. Ignore it. It’s not about you; it’s about whatever hurt these people are carrying,” says Moore.
Johnston says, “We really just want families to talk about these things. We can’t provide every solution. Perhaps a kid will say, ‘This happened to me’ and [someone will ask], ‘How did that make you feel?’ It’s about teaching empathy and learning to avoid that stuff because you can’t let anonymous people define who you are.”
At the heart of the movie is the friendship of Ralph and Vanellope — and, say the directors, the friendship of the actors playing them, John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman.
Johnston says almost “every single scene where John and Sarah are together, we record them together. Maybe 20, 30 sessions over a couple of years, they were together in the booth. So they’re looking each other in the eyes, they’re interacting with each other as friends both on- and off-mic. There’s improvisation, there’s rapport, there’s goofing around between takes.”
Moore says, “The reason we insist on them being together is that’s a big part of what the audience is there for. You have two, not just great actors, but hilarious actors too, and it’s the chemistry between them that is the heart of the film and the heart of the comedy.
“They are friends in real life and that’s a big part of the relationship that Ralph and Vanellope have.”