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For an animated film, five years is average; in internet years, it’s a whole generation.

Filmmakers Rich Moore and Phil Johnston faced down the exponential growth of cyberspace as they found themselves carving out a little slice of the web into which to send redeemed video game villain Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his royal racing sidekick Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) in Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2, the follow-up to Disney’s 2012 smash about the not-so-little game engine that could.

With memes and trends coming and going at lightspeed, the directors had to decide just which URLs they wanted to address. “It was a huge challenge and something we talked about from the very beginning — what on the internet is going to be relevant when this movie comes out in 2018?” says Johnston, who co-wrote the first film and now co-directs with the original’s helmer, Moore. “There are early iterations of this movie where there are jokes and gags based on memes and videos that were popular then which, I’m sure if I said now, you wouldn’t even remember.” One such victim? “There was a point when we thought, ‘We’ve got to get Ken Bone into this movie,’” laughs Moore. “The next week, we were like, ‘Nope, Ken Bone isn’t going to be in this movie.’”

Disney's D23 EXPO 2017
Credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images

Keeping up with the internet’s constant evolution also involved figuring out exactly what path through the web would prove most interesting for Ralph and Vanellope to browse as they travel the Ethernet ether in search of a replacement part for Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush. (Broken…yet again!) The directors equate the endless narrative opportunity to the way ambitious auteur filmmakers fancy Manhattan. “It’s like if you said, ‘I want to make a movie about New York. We’re going to tell a New York story.’ That can go a million different ways,” says Moore. “But what type of story do you want to tell in New York? So we really started with our two main characters’ friendship and the difference in their approach.”

Wreck-It Ralph 2 finds the pair leaving behind one technological world (Litwak’s Arcade and the game machines that populate it) and entering another, where they encounter clickbait, e-commerce, viral games and videos, a hip algorithm named Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), and even the reaches of Disney’s online presence (one particularly anticipated moment screened for fans in the summer of 2017 involves Vanellope discovering her place as a princess in Disney’s famed line-up).

As Moore puts it, “Ralph and Vanellope are two people from this little town, this arcade world, who seem to everyone else that they’re exactly the same in their point of view, but upon going to a bigger place, we start to see what cracks develop between these two. We very quickly come to realize they don’t have the same point of view. Ralph likes the comfort of his small town. And Vanellope, upon going to the Internet, starts to think, ‘Just being here is expanding my horizons.’ We bounce the story off that dynamic between the old and the new.”

The discrepancy between generations will likely wash away, though, when audiences uncover the bigger themes in Wreck-It Ralph 2: universal messages about anxiety and self-esteem that promise to be equally meaningful across age lines. Moore and Johnston agree that their time spent on the Oscar-winning flick Zootopia, which they both worked on between Ralph films, unlocked certain thematic possibilities. “For me, working on the first Ralph and Zootopia, they both dealt with heady themes that could be complicated for kids,” says Johnston. “My experience on Zootopia was taking a complicated theme and trying to boil it down in a way that allowed for families to talk about racism and bias, and while Ralph 2 is not doing that, there are themes about self-esteem and insecurity that I think maybe aren’t that common in kids’ movies. We’re trying to deal with ideas that we can all relate to but maybe don’t talk about as much. Depression and anxiety and stuff like that. And Zootopia was a good reminder that you can do seemingly tough adult themes but make sense of it for kids and families.”

“It just reinforced to me that people are hungry for these films to be more than just entertainment,” echoes Moore. “They’re hungry for discussions that they have in their car as they’re driving home from the movie theater. They don’t want to just go to laugh or to cry. They want them to mean something.”

Check out the new trailer for Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2, which will hit theaters Nov. 21, 2018, above.

Ralph Breaks the Internet
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