You haven’t known true fear until you’ve heard your child say the word YouTube. Let alone squeal it with delight. “YOUTUBE!” my youngest blurted out after catching a glimpse of the familiar taboo red logo during the new blockbuster Disney movie Ralph Breaks the Internet. I say taboo because my two sons, 7 and 5, used to occasionally watch Peppa Pig episodes, Mickey Mouse shorts, and Mario Party boss compilations there. But then Daddy read 20 percent of a terrifying Medium article titled “Something is wrong on the internet” about how sadists, Russian bots, or the like were sneaking violent and disturbing imagery past YouTube’s filters, whereupon Daddy informed the kids that the site had shut down, immediately, forever.
The details of that Medium post escape me now; I more or less stopped reading and started hyperventilating after, “Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.” (The phrase “some combination of people and things” was especially harrowing.) My kids didn’t exactly buy the YouTube shutdown story, but they know enough to leave it alone, mostly. Which made it a huge relief when the action in Ralph Breaks the Internet shifted to some sort of Disney theme park and my 5-year-old was at least blurting out less controversial brand names: “TSUM TSUMS! ELSA!” Tsum Tsums are cute little toy replicas of Disney characters. My kids found out about them on—ah, shit—YouTube.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is a B+ kids movie and an A+ parental nightmare. It is the sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, in which John C. Reilly voices the titular Donkey Kong–esque bad guy in an ’80s arcade game. Ralph is a burly sweetheart who longs to be a good guy, and so he sets off on a series of arcade-roiling misadventures and is eventually joined by his improbable best friend Vanellope von Schweetz, a candy-flecked race car driver voiced by Sarah Silverman. It’s a typical 21st-century kids movie in that it relies on parent-baiting nostalgia for things that actual 21st-century kids have very little experience with: namely, video arcades. “The gamers say we’re ‘retro,’” Ralph says near the end, “which I think means ‘old, but cool.’” Try explaining Q*bert to a 7-year-old sometime.
The movie made nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. For the inevitable sequel, there was really only one place Ralph could go: hell. Ralph Breaks the Internet, from its winking title on down, is yet another shiny object for kids that doubles as a distress beacon for adults. Plot: The arcade gets Wi-Fi, and when the steering wheel to Vanellope’s racing game breaks, she and Ralph try to buy a replacement off eBay without understanding how eBay (or buying things) works. Thus, they spend most of the movie in a physical depiction of the internet, a cartoon city with loopy skyscrapers for Google, Snapchat, Fandango, and such. Vanellope falls in love with a grimy, Grand Theft Auto–esque online game called Slaughter Race; Ralph becomes a celebrity on BuzzzTube, a disturbing and also awfully familiar social network led by a sentient algorithm named Yesss who is voiced by Taraji P. Henson. This is a whole lot to deal with, even before we get to the comments section.
Basically, Ralph earns enough money to buy the steering wheel by starring in viral videos eerily reminiscent of the benign-turned-evil shit described in that Medium article: unboxing sessions, makeup tutorials, hot-pepper-eating goofs, Joy of Painting parodies, or mere closeups of his face as he smacks his lips. The cartoon people on the internet respond by chanting “heart, heart, heart, heart, heart” and flinging hearts at him, which are sucked up by vacuum cleaners and converted into cash. Vanellope, meanwhile, winds up on a Disney site, hunted by Star Wars stormtroopers for trafficking in “unauthorized clickbait” and taking refuge in a dressing room full of cooing Disney princesses in pajamas. This was also quite disturbing, but at least it jarred the “heart, heart, heart” chant out of Daddy’s head.
This movie understands that kids are fascinated by the internet, and those kids’ parents are terrified of that fascination. There is no Bad Guy, per se, save a ghostly virus that destroys websites by finding a weak point in the code and then duplicating it, which is to say it goes from blaring “COPYING THE INSECURITY! COPYING THE INSECURITY!” to blaring “DISTRIBUTING THE INSECURITY! DISTRIBUTING THE INSECURITY!” Not subtle, but not wrong. It’a device for “cloning all your needy and clingy and self-destructive behavior,” someone explains as millions of copies of Ralph at his neediest and clingiest start tearing all the skyscrapers down. (Ralph fights back by swinging a Pinterest pin like a giant club.) There are no bad guys on the internet, you see—just good guys ruined by it, but eventually redeemed by it. The credits roll to an Imagine Dragons song, which is also frankly a little too accurate.
“This place can bring out the worst in some people,” Taraji P. Henson’s character concedes as Ralph wanders into the physical manifestation of a comments section and starts reading off insults from the giant scrolling blocks of text. “I hate him.” “He’s so fat and ugly.” “Just a worthless bum alone on a pile of bricks.” That text keeps scrolling as Ralph silently broods; I caught the phrase, “Watching Ralph in anguish fuels me,” as it whooshed by, which is a hell of a concept to lay on a 5-year-old, even subliminally. But that, too, is not wrong.
It is the central challenge of parenting in 2018: How do I prepare my kids for the 90-percent-terrible place where they’ll apparently spend 90 percent of their lives? On one end of the spectrum, you can try, and fail, to convince your children that YouTube no longer exists; at the other end, you can be like that wayward Instagram mommy blogger and celebrate your son’s birthday on Instagram by fretting about his statistical unpopularity. There is little concrete advice in Ralph Breaks the Internet beyond “never read the comments,” and, from a 7-year-old’s perspective, the takeaway seems to be that the internet is an incredibly cool place that just also happens to be incredibly dangerous.
But maybe even that didn’t quite register. When my oldest was 4, I took him to see Inside Out. I cried through the whole thing, whereas his takeaway was that Anger was funny. (So I bought him a stuffed Anger as a present.) In the Pixar era, at least part of most kids’ movies is pitched completely over most kids’ heads, in terms of both the humor and the attempts at morality. So even though my sons are inevitably absorbing way more of this than I imagine, in terms of immediate takeaway, all my 7-year-old had to say about Ralph Breaks the Internet on the ride home was that the first one was better. Spoken like a kid who’d be right at home in a comments section, if all the comments sections hadn’t been shut down, immediately, forever.