Ralph Breaks the Internet and conventions of children’s animation

Published November 17, 2018

In the action-packed finale of Ralph Breaks the Internet, a virus, represented by a small-insect like creature, begins to spread throughout the Internet. As it takes over, it repeats the phrase, “distributing insecurity.” But this insecurity infecting the web, and the film’s characters, isn’t some ad or spam—it’s Ralph’s own insecurity about his friendships. The movie’s climax encapsulates precisely what makes Ralph Breaks the Internet such a breath of fresh air for children’s animation: its moral complexity.

Set six years after the academy award nominated first film, Wreck it Ralph (2012), Ralph Breaks the Internet picks up with best friends and videogame characters Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) living their day-to-day lives in the arcade. While Ralph thrives within the repetitive cycle of life in the arcade, Vanellope yearns for something more. After her racing game, Sugar Rush, is unplugged because it’s steering wheel is broken, Ralph and Vanellope set off into the Internet, a place they’ve never been, to find a new wheel.

The majority of this sequel is set inside the Internet and outside of the arcade that audiences came to love in the first film. During the development process, co-directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore received feedback from their colleagues when the film was too similar or too drastically different from the first. “[It] helped us kind of find a sweet spot somewhere in the middle where it still felt like these are the characters we know and they’re doing something new and surprising that you could never predict from the first movie,” Johnston said in an interview with the Voice.

Exploring the Internet is not a new idea. After the recent critical failure of The Emoji Movie (2017), a children’s animated film that also tackled technology and the latest trends, Ralph Breaks the Internet had to find a way to explore similar topics without it feeling like a gimmick—and it is largely successful. The complex world that Johnston and Rich Moore create within the film is as fun as it is innovative. Users take the form of tiny avatars, search engines are endearing little creatures, intrusive ads become street peddlers with adblock serving as bodyguards that protect the users from their wrath. There is no corner of the Internet that goes untouched, and it is a delight to witness on screen.

The excitement of this world is only bolstered by the smooth animation style that remains as clean and creative as the film’s predecessor. Viewers will meet new characters from new games, one in particular being a Grand Theft Auto-like game called Slaughter Race. The characters in Slaughter Race have their own distinctive animation style, much like everything in this world.

Despite all the beauty of the setting, the film doesn’t let audiences forget how brutal the Internet can be. There’s a scene in which Ralph, after going viral, reads the brutal comments, some about his appearance, that people have written about his videos. It is a heartbreaking scene, as Ralph’s high from the bliss of going viral comes crashing down with the realization that this level of exposure lends itself to criticism and hate.  

“I think we wanted more than anything just to communicate that visceral feeling of getting punched in the gut by that kind of information,” Moore said. “We wanted our Internet world to reflect the real one, and that it isn’t just all black and white, that there’s a lot of gray and a lot of complicated pieces to it.

All of this exploration comes to a head in the highly anticipated Disney princess scene that went viral in the trailers leading up to the film’s release. The scene is as charming as expected and a wonderful call-back to Disney’s greatest films, but, most importantly, it serves a narrative purpose, providing a starting point for Vanellope to begin to fully realize her dream—to get out of the arcade and stay in the Internet.

In talking about Vanellope’s interaction with the princesses, Moore explained that the idea started with Ralph meeting them, until they realized that Vanellope’s identity as a princess in her arcade game would make her a better fit for the scene. “What if they met and found that they had more in common than they thought, and they actually give her a direction to the next step in unlocking who she is?” Moore said.

The success of this film can certainly be attributed partly to it’s wonderfully realized embodiment of the web. But what truly sets it apart from other children’s films is it’s exploration of the two main characters and their friendship. Vanellope, after experiencing the high stakes of the Slaughter Race game, finds that she wants to stay there. Ralph can’t understand why his best friend would want to leave him and becomes needy and irrational. His insecurities surpass all logical thought, leading him to take actions that actively hurt Vanellope, setting up the climax of the film in which he has to confront a physical embodiment of these insecurities—the aforementioned virus. Ralph’s fragility is effectively the main villain of the story.

“I think all relationships have bumps. And sometimes they grow toxic particularly when you have the Internet involved. And we, Rich and I, worked on Zootopia (2016), and we were kind of emboldened by some of the heavier themes of that movie—that we could tell a story, in that case, about racism and bias without hopefully preaching to the audience. And we felt like we could do the same thing here about friendship with Ralph and Vanellope,” Johnston said.

It’s a bold move to make the protagonist the bad guy, particularly in a children’s film. However, this move is a complete success. Johnston and Moore handle the downfall of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship with a beautiful delicacy that provides insight into their mental states. Ralph remains sympathetic even when his behavior is frustrating, and the chemistry between voice-actors Reilly and Silverman makes their eventual separation that much more gut-wrenching. The full range and complexity of human emotion is explored, making characters that were already known and loved that much more intricate and developed.

The new characters introduced in the film, Shank (Gal Gadot), a racer from the Slaughter Race game and Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm for trending videos, lack the memorability and charm of the supporting characters from the first film, whose roles are significantly reduced. It was disappointing to see a parenting subplot for fan-favorites Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Calhoun (Jane Lynch) be introduced in the beginning, only to remain ignored until the very end of the film. Yet Ralph and Vanellope’s touching story of a struggling friendship manages to make up for the characters that were missed.

“I think a family film or one that kids watch should be a simple story but not a simplistic story,” Johnston said. “So you don’t want to make it reductive to where you go, ‘It’s good to be nice.’ Yeah, no shit. We want real stories that people can relate to.”  

Ralph Breaks the Internet is an incredibly ambitious film that sets out to not just entertain it’s target audience of children with it’s colorful embodiment of the Internet but to teach them about relationships as well. Ralph’s insecurity shows how good intentions matter less than the impact your actions can have on those you love. It teaches accountability, an overlooked yet important message to send.

Dajour Evans
is a senior in the College and former leisure editor for The Georgetown Voice. She is an English major and a film and media studies minor who actually knows nothing about film and media.

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