The internet is a complicated place.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is almost out in theaters, which means the movie's review embargo has lifted. Check out our full review if you want to know what we thought, and keep reading to discover how the movie treats the internet's darker side.
As social media and other online spaces that we once naively hoped would provide a platform for real dialogue and make the world a better place continue to lose ground to spam bots, trolls, and clandestine fascist political operatives masquerading as spam bots and trolls, Ralph Breaks the Internet is preparing to send the two lovable, oddball heroes from Wreck-It Ralph to the least safe place in the world: the internet. Thankfully, the movie's creators at Disney Animation Studios aren't shy about discussing what role the internet's darker side will play in Wreck-It Ralph 2.
In Ralph Breaks the Internet, Ralph and Vanellope head online to find a new steering wheel for Vanellope's candy-coated kart racing game, Sugar Rush, before Mr. Litwack scraps her home for parts. The internet comes to life as a vibrant, bustling cityscape teeming with net users--real people represented by block-headed, app icon-inspired avatars--and "netizens," which are personified websites, companies, and algorithms that come in all shapes and sizes.
There's plenty of fodder for jokes here. In the trailers, an Ask Jeeves-like search engine called KnowsMore rudely interrupts Ralph's queries as its autofill turns "a touch aggressive." At the physical manifestation of eBay, brash auctioneers--including one voiced by real world reigning US auctioneering champion Brian Curless--tally digital votes cast by net users' avatars. But as has become excruciatingly clear in the last few years, the internet is not an inherently good place; it's a tool that can be used for good or evil. And whether in Ralph's trip to the dark web later in the movie or their willingness to talk about this potentially thorny subject, this movie's creators seem aware of that fact.
In one scene shown to press, Ralph happens on a place most people who spend any considerable amount of time online know intuitively to avoid: the comments section. It goes about as well as you'd expect; after reading some positive comments about himself, Ralph finds the dark heart that throbs in the comments all over the web. "Ralph's videos stink," he reads aloud. "So stupid. Ralph is the worst. I hate him. He's so fat and ugly. Just a worthless bum alone on a pile of bricks."
"First rule of the internet: Do not read the comments. I should have told you that," responds Yesss, a new character voiced by Taraji P. Henson.
Of course, no one's spewing racial or homophobic slurs at Ralph or trying to indoctrinate him with Nazi propaganda, but this scene is Disney's way of acknowledging the ugly elephant that's going to be present in every theater in which Ralph Breaks the Internet plays this November: The internet is not, as it first seems in this movie, a nice, friendly, or inherently good place.
"Our belief is that we're in a moment where the technology has outpaced our ability to understand it and to relate to it in a civil way," Ralph Breaks the Internet co-director Phil Johnston told GameSpot. "I think we're in a moment with social media and how rapidly information is transferred, and how little regard there is for civility...it's gross. There's a lot of stuff out there that's just hateful and not doing anything to make the world better."
During a presentation early in the day, Johnston's fellow co-director, Rich Moore, addressed the issue head on. "Over those four years [we've worked on the film], yes, the internet has become a more hostile place, and that's what really inspired that comments room scene that you [saw]. Because we felt like we can't do a movie about the internet and paint it as that it's all roses and sunshine, you know? We have to give due to the darker side of it," he said, comparing Ralph 2's approach to the internet to Zootopia's handling of racism.
"It would be bad on our part to say, 'Well, Judy Hopps is going to solve racism.' That's just not how the world works," he continued. "But she can experience it, and she can practice it, and she can learn from it, and she can rise above it. So that was our goal with this movie, that Ralph can encounter these things, and he can embody them, and he can fall prey to them, but ultimately what we want is him to--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. But we can show a character encounters what we encounter on the internet, and how he goes about rising above it."
"I believe that nothing is fully good or fully bad," Moore he told GameSpot later. "I know like, watching anything as a kid where something was depicted as, 'This is all great!' you know, that it felt not true to me."
Ralph and Vanellope venture to the internet out of necessity, but they respond to it in very different ways. "Ralph is a guy who sees things more in black and white," Johnston said. The internet embodies constant change, and Vanellope adapts to it much more naturally. Based on the most recent trailer, it seems she's going to get into online gaming through a gritty racer called Slaughter Race, and the directors teased that video games will play a big role in the movie: "[Gaming] is a huge part of Vanellope's kind of falling in love with the internet," Moore said.
But gaming is only a small part of online life, and unlike in the first movie, gaming takes a back seat to the internet as a whole in this sequel. And that might worry some fans, whether you're concerned about Wreck-it Ralph going too dark in tone, or that it will try to paint the internet with a nauseatingly cheery brush. The reality will hopefully be somewhere in between.
"I know what you're talking about, because we obviously live in the same world, and we had conversations about that stuff throughout the entire run of [production]," said story artist Jason Hand. "I think what we were trying to put out there is that the internet is what we put into it, what we make of it, and what our characters are going through in it--that you can be positive about things, you can be negative about things, but it's up to your interpretation of what you want to be out there."
"We played around with an idea that I think is still in the movie that's like, who you are online matters," story artist Natalie Nourigat added. "It's real. It's not like a video game. And you see the impact on Ralph in real time."
Ralph Breaks the Internet has been in the works for several years, and the way we perceive the internet has changed significantly in that time. The story team said it's been tough to see that happen.
"This movie has gone through so many iterations," Nourigat said.
"I like that we put out something that's relatively positive, but doesn't shy away from the parts that are the darker side of life or that are negative," Hand continued. "That's kind of why I like working here, personally, but I hear what you're saying."
While these creators acknowledge the muddiness of these waters, they seem to share the view that the internet isn't inherently bad--just like it isn't inherently good.
"As easy as it is to demonize the internet, I think the thing that Yesss says is true, which is that it's also a place where people can connect, they can find things," said producer Clark Spencer. "It's easy to just focus on the hard, negative, dark part of it, but at the end of the day it really is something that has connected people in a way that didn't exist before."
But there's a fallacy in Yesss's thinking. The character is a type of netizen that embodies an algorithm, in this case for a fake website called BuzzTube, a clear portmanteau of Buzzfeed and YouTube. "Look, this place can bring out the worst in some people," she tells Ralph as he reads the comments. "But you've gotta ignore all this. This isn't about you, Ralph, it's about them...it's not all bad."
Yesss is wrong. If we've learned nothing else over the last few years, it's that ignoring the trolls, criminals, nazis, and worse doesn't make them go away. If anything, that approach can make our online problems worse, as it allows the nastiest elements of society to fester unhindered in a place that should be used for good.
That's not to say things will never change.
"My hope--and I hope I'm not being naive--is that in the next, I don't know, let's hope 10 years, we figure out how to deal with each other better as the internet becomes part of the fabric of our life the way that television did, or the radio did before that," Johnston said.
For now, Ralph can break the internet all he wants, and some might consider it a public service. Ralph Breaks the Internet hits theaters November 21.