Disney has in recent years made some strides toward inclusivity in its storytelling, populating its films and TV shows with characters from a number of different cultures and showcasing heroes of a broader array of ethnicities. The studio's latest animated feature, Ralph Breaks the Internet, has even earned plaudits for knowingly poking fun at its traditional portrayal of princesses and damsels in distress. Wittingly or not, the follow-up to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph also expands its representation in a very different way.
Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston's blockbuster sequel offers a searing look into the modern internet economy and portrays the digital desperation felt by a generation of would-be writers, vloggers, influencers, and filmmakers — and if you really want to read into it, just about everyone using the American healthcare system. Really.
A quick setup: The big '80s arcade game galoot Ralph (who lives in the digital world) has to find a way to buy a (real-world) steering wheel for his arcade's Sugar Rush racing game cabinet in just a few days, or his best friend, the adorable (digital) Vanellope von Schweetz, who lives inside the game, will be homeless. So the duo upload themselves to the internet via their arcade's new wifi modem and set out to win the steering wheel on eBay, which looks like a big box retailer in this cartoonish visualization of the web.
Their sweet naivete and vast misunderstanding of the mechanics of online auctions drive the price on the archaic plastic steering wheel to a comically absurd $27,000 (from about $300), which is especially steep for fictional characters whose only understanding of money comes from the quarters pumped into their arcade cabinets.
Ralph and Vanellope have 24 hours to make a fortune on the internet, and after striking out with some shady MMORPG fetch quests, Ralph turns to the get-rich-quick allure of producing viral videos. After all, when has trying to be an influencer ever gone awry?
Unaware of the daunting task ahead of him, Ralph catches some early luck with a quick video in which his face flaps back like he's sucking on a leaf blower, flying gums and everything. But the millions of views only net him about $65 because it's his first go-round on the video streaming service BuzzzTube.
(As an aside: YouTube does have a brief presence in the movie, but Moore and Johnston worked a fictional rival into the main storyline. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, does not feature at all in the movie — which does have a food site called BuzzFood — because, as the company's communications head tells me, Disney never asked them to participate.)
The head of BuzzzTube shows immediate and fervid interest in Ralph, then just as quickly tosses him aside when his first video falls off the crest of the almighty algorithmic wave. This is just the way things go, she says; cash in when you can, because the internet is ready to move on to the next tawdry thing at any given moment (though she isn't so directly fatalistic about it; this is still a Disney movie). Anyone who works at creating content for the internet knows this feeling — unless you have a huge following or work for a massive publication, the thrill of a big viral hit or widely read story can disappear almost immediately as the clicks start to dry up. One success doesn't mean that anyone actually cares about you or will look at your work next time.
I made a short film back in 2014 that looked like it was made on a shoestring budget but was socially relevant and clever enough to get on the front page of YouTube and earn some media coverage. Its 350,000 views made me a few hundred dollars and netted my new channel about 600 subscribers. Encouraged, I continued to put out short films as I could, but none ever came close to reaching the heights of that first effort. There were hundreds of hours of footage being uploaded per minute, billions of videos watched per day, and putting up my own films felt a bit like screaming into a void.
Ralph Breaks the Internet portrays the web as a giant high-tech shopping plaza, like Blade Runner run through Disney World plopped inside one of those massive multi-purpose commercial complexes that were given gross tax incentives to fail across the suburbs in the mid-aughts. We're supposed to be excited when Ralph and Vanellope make it onto the internet, and laugh with recognition as pop-up ads and memes materialize out of nowhere.
But it's darker than that. The internet might technically be an endless universe of unlimited opportunity, but actually trying to eke out a living online is increasingly difficult.
Corporate consolidation and monopolization have constricted earning potential in countless fields. Facebook and Google control a vast majority of the online advertising market, while YouTube has become less generous with its profit sharing; Spotify shills out pennies to artists; and for every paid Instagram influencer, there are 100 deeply upsetting accounts made by the friend you hardly recognize anymore. And don't even ask about being a freelance writer — rates continue to fall, even after everyone realized pivoting to video was a sham. Sites like Upwork and TaskRabbit were supposed to make work more democratic and available, but they've only driven down rates and made it harder to piece together a living.
It would have made a joyful movie far too bleak, but in the real world, Ralph probably would have ultimately turned to GoFundMe to try to raise the $27,000 needed to save his friend's life — after all, that's what so many of us are forced to do. A full third of the crowdfunding site's campaigns are now for medical costs, with donations for healthcare clocking in at $650 million. I haven't had to go that far for medical bills, but piecing together freelance work helps cover medication outside my coverage network. (As a writer, I'm lucky to have a coverage network at all.)
With his indomitable spirit and the Disney movie's need for a happy ending, Ralph winds up doubling down on viral videos, putting aside any sense of pride to rip through as many YouTube trends as possible. He fervidly produces spins on all of the classics — eating ghost peppers, unboxing items, making bee puns, spoofing Bob Ross, and reacting to other viral videos, amongst others. His unceasing video activity even gets him featured on one of those meta YouTube green-screen studio shows, here called "Up to the Mement," which only drives his subscriber count higher.
If he lived in our world, Ralph would probably wind up quitting his job and trying to make it full-time on BuzzzTube, adjusting his channel every time a new trend crops up and getting hammered by commenters for making sponsored content. Luckily for Ralph, he has an endgame in sight, so once he makes that $27,000, he's happy to sign off. The rest of us aren't so lucky.