behind the scenes

How Ralph Breaks the Internet Brought the Internet to Animated Life

Photo: Disney

Disney’s 2012 animated movie Wreck-It Ralph turned the story of a vintage-video-game villain who decides he wants more out of life into a strangely moving story of existential yearning. Six years after getting Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) to the other side of his identity crisis via his unexpected friendship with a chirpy, glitching racer named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), Ralph’s co-writers Phil Johnston and Rich Moore — now co-directing from a script by Johnston and Pamela Ribon — have returned to the video-game world with Ralph Breaks the Internet, which, as its title promises, brings the protagonists of the first film to the online world.

There, Vanellope becomes enamored with the Grand Theft Auto–like world of Slaughter Race, Ralph becomes a viral sensation on the video platform BuzzTube with some help from an algorithm named Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) — all while visiting such familiar internet destinations like eBay and Oh My Disney (which, in the film, doubles as a kind of home and workplace for many characters under the Disney IP banner). Recently, Johnston and Moore walked Vulture through how they conceptualized each online element — and why they regret they couldn’t quite find a way to squeeze The Golden Girls into the movie.

The Internet
Rich Moore: We talked to a bunch of people that were kind of experts in the internet, and one of the first people that we talked to was Ed Catmull, who was just retiring at our studio as president of Disney Animation. And Ed was really forthcoming about the flaws of the internet, like the infrastructure that it was built on. Ed kept saying if they had known in the beginning that billions of people were going to be using this system that it would have been designed totally different than how it was laid out when it was just three or four universities sharing information. Instead of kind of starting over at a certain point, it just kept building strata after strata of patches and other links to it, and he would describe it as kind of like Rome or Constantinople. It felt like it was this city that had strata of other cities just built on top of it, with the newest kind of being on the very top level.

We thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting metaphor.” So we imagined it as this ball with the original connections at its core, and then on top of it — not really actual strata, but they just kind of built out with these websites that are hovering above the ground. That they just kept building out on this thing. We imagined it as this sphere that keeps growing, that has the potential to keep growing and growing and growing exponentially, with the surface being all the new stuff. We have that scene when Ralph is looking for the cookie medal when Vanellope throws it over the edge of that building. Down there you see stuff like public chat rooms and Friendster and Netscape Navigator.

KnowsMore, the Search Engine
Phil Johnston: An early iteration of KnowsMore was a much bigger character who was going to be traveling with Ralph on an old dial-up express train. He was going to be Ralph’s guide and he was this search engine kind of akin to Ask Jeeves or something …

Moore: A really old one …

Johnston: … that was broken and had a virus and so every fourth answer he gave was wrong, so he kept getting Ralph into these terrible situations because of his wrong answers. But as the story evolved and the core of the story became more about Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship, we just used KnowsMore kind of for information, kind of like a tour guide, someone that has knowledge of everything. It was a great way of getting out exposition, I’ll tell ya that, when you have a character that knows everything.

Moore: His website used to be more than just the little kiosk. It was a huge, collegiate-looking Ivy League hall of academia that was going to be this dusty, old library on the inside, but again it just didn’t fit with the story anymore.

Johnston: But we had these great little setpieces with him getting answers wrong and how Ralph finally figured out a way to test him.

Johnston: I think for a while it was just one auction, but it just didn’t make any sense. Then it became this idea that it’s just hundreds of thousands of paddocks, these stalls. That was one of the very first things that we came up with. Matthias Lechner is our art director of environments, and that was one of the easier ones to imagine and to realize.

Pop-up Ads
Johnston: We thought of them as kind of aggressive, in-your-face, con/ huckster types. Of course we chose one of them to be Ralph’s guys. [Laughs.] The idea of pop-ups being annoying and omnipresent was another of the early ideas, and then just a pop-up blocker literally being a big bulky dude who just knocks pop-ups on their butts made us laugh right away.

Moore: It was fun to come up with all those different sites that they were hocking.

Johnston: We had “These 10 child stars went to prison. Number six will amaze you!” But I think that one was originally “Are no longer alive.” It was a little grim. [Laughs.] Pop-ups can be seemingly innocent, but actually lead you to some dark places, so we had to walk that line pretty close to keep it in the family.

Moore: You know what I just remembered about the pop-ups is that we wanted to test, like, what happens if you click on it and nobody wanted to do it. I don’t want to click on this! I don’t want to get a virus or have spam coming to me all the time! I think we ended up using a Disney account, but it wouldn’t go to the site because the software wouldn’t allow the computer to open it. I think we did have to. I think I did it on my phone. And that’s why my phone doesn’t work anymore.

Johnston: We tried so hard to come up with a brand-new idea of what a viral video could be, and we must’ve made 50 …

Moore: … reimagined viral videos.

Johnston: Like, Ralph had come up with a formula for virality, and in our minds it made sense, and there was a moment where BuzzTube had what’s called the Meme Factory. “If You Can Dream It, We Can Meme It!” They have, like, a behind-the-scenes back lot where they were making viral videos, so the idea that the algorithm is God is in the machine pumping out viral videos.

Moore: Right, that was going to be the secret to BuzzTube, that human beings were not making the videos. You had a crew who were in this back room that had cracked this code of what makes a viral video, and humans weren’t doing it, but it was algorithms that were just producing these things. Again, it was a huge thinker that just was so confusing to people and we realized, you know, if the whole movie were about this, it would be great, but for the amount of real estate it takes up in the story, it was a lot to expect the audience to wrap their head around it. And not think that Yesss was the villain of the thing, because she seemed very duplicitous about how she was doing this.

Johnston: We figured it would make more sense for Ralph to come up with the idea of “I’ll just copy whatever is popular!” and that will be the key to his success. A complete lack of originality and sort of silliness is always the best way to go for Ralph.

Moore: For some reason, it worked. After, again, like 18 months of trying different things to reinvent the idea of a viral video, just going with the source turned out to be what everyone responded to.

Johnston: There was one where he slid down a slide full of Sriracha sauce and it was called “Srir-ow-cha!”

Slaughter Race
Johnston: That was a blast. I mean, we obviously weren’t going to make anything with the level of violence of Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row, but we wanted a gritty, realistic city where the racing was legitimately dangerous and very realistic. Some of that world was based on the studio where we made Zootopia, which was a studio in North Hollywood on Tujunga, which is in a part of town that looks a little bit like Slaughter Race that we all loved so much, and we’re like, “Let’s set this game on Tujunga.” It’s a very oddly personal homage.

Oh My Disney
Moore: That was a really hard one to crack. We didn’t know exactly where the princess scene was going to take place. We liked the concept of it. So, okay, well what are our options? We could go to, but that was more of a corporate website, and we wanted it to be something around the characters. Pam Ribon, Phil’s co-writer on the screenplay, she was the one who said, “Okay, there is a fan site and it’s called Oh My Disney, and it kind of covers everything we’re thinking of here.” It’s nuts. It does have the feeling of Comic Con, in-your-face listicles and quizzes.

We tried to use a lot of what they offer. One thing that we tried to work in that they have a lot of coverage on is The Golden Girls, for some reason. Right alongside Star Wars and Pixar, they would have all these lists about The Golden Girls, and we’re like, “What? Why?” It turns out that it’s from Touchstone Television. We talked to someone from Oh My Disney that said, “Oh yeah, it’s huge. People love Golden Girls.” We tried to put it into our version of Oh My Disney and it just confused everyone. The explanation that, “Well, the real site has it!” just did not sell it.

Johnston: Research did not save the day in that moment. I mean, the balancing act of honoring all the characters, while making fun, while not feeling like shilling for the Disney brand was probably the trickiest line that we walked in this movie.

Moore: Phil often says, “You know what, we should’ve stuck to our guns on The Golden Girls.” An animated Bea Arthur.

Johnston: Bea Arthur and Chewbacca kind of hanging out. That’s a movie that I’m going to watch.

How Ralph Breaks the Internet Animated the Online World