Making the internet come alive is tricky business.
A movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet is bound to be in production for a number of years. When The Emoji Movie hit theaters in 2017, Ralph 2 was well underway at Disney Animation Studios. That turned out to be really bad timing.
The Emoji Movie was universally panned by critics and audiences alike. When the first trailers for Wreck-It Ralph 2 arrived, the comparisons between the two movies were all too clear. The similarities are inevitable: When Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) travel to the internet, they reach a world populated by familiar websites, internet in-jokes, and memes. When The Emoji Movie did it, this felt like a crass commercial cash-in devised to sell tie-ins with various apps. At Disney, the filmmakers behind Ralph Breaks the Internet are working hard to avoid that and other pitfalls.
For one thing, Disney didn't actually partner with real world companies, websites, or apps for Ralph Breaks the Internet. In fact, they didn't even approach those companies to ask permission to use their names and logos.
"I don't know how we're getting away with the stuff that we're doing," Ralph 2 co-director Rich Moore joked to GameSpot during a recent interview.
According to producer Clark Spencer, it has to do with the differences between copyright and trademark. He said since they're only using company names and logos--not, say, mascots or associated characters--there was no need to reach out for permission. And besides, he explained, most of the places where Ralph and Vanellope spend significant story time are made up, like BuzzTube, an amalgam of Buzzfeed and YouTube that combines elements of both sites.
"Honestly, eBay is really the only big part [that's a real company]," said co-director Phil Johnston. Ralph and Vanellope travel to eBay in search of a part Vanellope needs to repair her arcade game, Sugar Rush. "The reason we decided to use the actual eBay as the backdrop is because it felt like exactly what we needed for the story," Johnston continued. "Like, where else would you go to find that part? We could make up 'eBuy' or 'OhBoy' or whatever, but why? In that case, that's so clearly where we need to be going."
That's far from the only way the movies differ. "It would be great to get that out of the way, and just say [Ralph 2] is in no way, shape, or form anything like [The Emoji Movie]," Moore said. He, Johnston, and Spencer all insisted that The Emoji Movie's reception had no effect whatsoever on Ralph 2's story, world, or overall direction.
That doesn't mean creating the internet as a living, breathing, recognizable place was easy, as the movie's story team elaborated. "The internet is very difficult to portray," story artist Natalie Nourigat told us. "A lot of people have done it, and we tried to do our due diligence and our research and see what has worked in the past in other movies."
Her fellow story artist, Jason Hand, said they were "hyper aware" of the comparisons that would inevitably be made. "I think there's funny stuff in the Emoji movie," he conceded.
Head of Story Josie Trinidad added that the way the movie portrayed the internet visually "was pretty cool." She said for Ralph 2, they tried their best to stay true to the characters, which she believes sets Ralph Breaks the Internet apart. "It's not a movie about the internet, it's a movie about Ralph and Vanellope," she said. "Two friends from a small town--a small arcade--who go to the big city--the internet--and how their friendship is changed by that journey."
As we described in a separate piece, Ralph 2's filmmakers went to painstaking lengths to make the internet a believable place with its own logic, relatable characters, and visual design language. They even represented the dark web and the internet's less friendly side, where Ralph is sure to get into trouble.
The internet today seems like a pretty dark place, even more so than a couple of years ago when production on Ralph Breaks the Internet began. But it's clear that Disney has done its best to make it a compelling setting for Ralph and Vanellope's new adventure.
Ralphs Breaks the Internet hits theaters November 21. Don't forget to check out our condensed list of everything we learned about the movie on our trip to Disney Animation.