THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’

The one that proved Disney could do self-deprecation.

Sequels are a dime a dozen in the animated genre. From Shrek to Toy Story to The Lego Movie, if an animated feature film performs even remotely well at the box office, a follow-up is all but assured. But in their eight-decade history, Walt Disney Animation Studios had essentially ignored this practice, with 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under oddly standing as the only animated sequel in their canon (I don’t consider Fantasia 2000 and Winnie the Pooh to technically be sequels and neither should you).

When the studio announced in 2017 that Wreck-It Ralph would become only the second Disney film in history to receive a sequel, it seemed like a rather odd move for the studio, given films like Zootopia, Moana, and Big Hero 6 had all performed better at the worldwide box office. Still, the $471 million total Wreck-It Ralph had earned was nothing to sneeze at, and the expansive video game world Ralph, Vanellope and co. called home lent itself perfectly to more adventures.

Shortly after the release of Wreck-It Ralph in 2012, director Rich Moore was already crowing about the possibility of a sequel, with the filmmaker feeling they had barely scratched the surface of the video game world. After production of Zootopia wrapped in 2016, which Moore co-directed with Byron Howard, Disney officially announced a Wreck-It Ralph sequel had been greenlit, with a preliminary release date of March 2018. Moore had been signed to co-direct with screenwriter Phil Johnston, who had co-written the original film, while original voice actors John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, and Jane Lynch would all return to reprise their roles.

During the announcement, Moore also teased the plot of the sequel, which would find Ralph leaving the safety of the video game arcade for the chaotic world of the Internet, which, unsurprisingly, he would subsequently wreck. In late 2016, Moore, Johnston, and screenwriter Pamela Ribon began development of the sequel’s script, which was now known as Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2. However, the initial idea for the film’s concept was ultimately wildly different from the final film.

In the original working version of the script, Vanellope became a social media influencer/Internet celebrity, causing the playful princess to become self-absorbed and conceited. After Ralph finds himself stuck in jail for daring to challenge Vanellope’s overzealous fans, he would band together with a search engine entity named Knowsmore to help save Vanellope from the perils of fame. But the team felt the concept cast Vanellope in a negative light and the script was ultimately becoming overly negative and dour.

The entire concept was abandoned in favour of a narrative that focused on the friendship of Ralph and Vanellope, as the pair realise their paths are going in different directions. The sequel would find Vanellope frustrated at the monotony of the repetitive nature of her racing game Sugar Rush. When Ralph attempts to build a new track for Vanellope to race on, he inadvertently wrecks the game, leading to the duo heading into the unknown world of the Internet to find a replacement part on eBay before Sugar Rush is shut down indefinitely.

The character of Knowsmore was kept in the new script as an initial guide to assist Ralph and Vanellope on their quest. The concept of Internet fame was reworked, with Ralph now becoming a viral star on the video-sharing site BuzzzTube in a bid to earn enough money to pay for the eBay purchase. The pair would take a detour into the dangerous world of Slaughter Race, a Grand Theft Auto-style game, controlled by super-cool street racer Shank (voiced by Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot), who offers Venellope the adventure she’s been longing for.

During development, Ribon realised Vanellope perfectly fit the definition of a Disney Princess and should meet her fellow princess compatriots in the online world of Disney’s official website Oh My Disney. This would also allow the filmmakers the opportunity to fill the sequence with a smorgasbord of cameos from Disney’s expansive catalogue of animated characters, while also poking fun at the studio through some witty self-deprecation style humour.

The team were initially reluctant to pitch the idea to then-Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, fearing Disney would never approve a sequence that parodied the studio’s legacy. But Lasseter loved the idea and felt it was something Disney had never truly attempted before. With the green light to pursue the concept, the filmmakers enlisted veteran Disney animator Mark Henn to assist with redesigning the traditionally animated princesses to match their CGI animated counterparts. Henn was the original supervising animator of Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, and Tiana and suggested merely placing toy figurines of the princesses next to each other to help with the dimensions and details for the final design process.

In a major coup for the production, the filmmakers were able to secure all the original voice actresses of the Disney Princesses for the film, except for Adriana Caselotti as Snow White, Ilene Woods as Cinderella, and Mary Costa as Aurora, as Caselotti and Woods had both passed away and Costa had retired from acting in 2000. In their place, Jennifer Hale and Kate Higgins were enlisted for Cinderella and Aurora respectively, as the pair had been voicing the characters in various Disney media for over 15 years. Ribon performed the voice of Snow White for temporary reference recordings, but Moore and Johnston ultimately loved her performance and kept her voice in the final film.

For the design of the manifestation of the Internet, the animators based the world on wire-filled offices of Los Angeles’ One Wilshire, which is one of the world’s largest telecommunications centres and services one-third of Internet traffic from the U.S. to Asia. The location would be home to dozens of companies and websites from all over the world including Amazon, Google, PayPal, IMDB, and social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. The filmmakers did not need to approach any of the companies for approval, thanks to the free use under copyright law, nor did they receive any product placement payments for the use of their logos in the film. The filmmakers simply wanted authenticity to their Internet world by way of websites people actually go to.

The sequence inside Oh My Disney became a cornucopia of iconic Disney characters from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation, Marvel Studios, and LucasFilm, all currently owned by The Walt Disney Company. Anthony Daniels was recruited to perform new dialogue as C-3PO from Star Wars, while existing recordings of Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear and Vin Diesel as Groot were recycled from Toy Story and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 respectively. A replica of the Disney Animation Building in Burbank was created for use in the scene, including its famous sorcerer’s hat, while Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee would also appear in a silent cameo.

While Ralph Breaks the Internet (Wreck-It Ralph 2 was dropped from the title four months before the film’s release) would not be an animated musical, the script included a moment where the Disney Princesses would encourage Vanellope to find her purpose in life through song, thus discovering her own unique “I Want” song. Moore and Johnston turned to legendary Disney composer Alan Menken to create an original song for the scene. The lyrics of the resulting song “A Place Called Slaughter Race” were written by music producer Tom MacDougall and Johnston, with an accompanying animated sequence more akin to Disney’s traditional extravagant animated musicals.

Ralph Breaks the Internet was released on November 21, 2018, to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The New York Times noted the film “might look like just another adorable, funny animated family film, but it also connects to our current reality in ways that are downright bone-chilling,” the Chicago Sun-Times called the film “a sweet-natured, candy-coloured, family-friendly animated adventure,” while Variety hailed the film as “a poignant buddy movie that’s sincere in all the right places, but knows better than to take itself too seriously.”

By the end of its theatrical run, Ralph Breaks the Internet had managed to best the total gross of its predecessor by almost $60 million. The film grossed $201.1 million in the U.S. and a further $328.2 million internationally for an impressive worldwide total of $529.3 million, making the sequel the seventh-highest-grossing Disney animated film of all time. At the 91st Academy Awards, Ralph Breaks the Internet was nominated for Best Animated Feature, but lost the award to Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is every bit as narratively enjoyable, visually ambitious, and gorgeously animated as its predecessor, proving Disney can (and should) make exceptional non-Pixar animated sequels. With a whole host of meta-aware humour and, yes, a stack of cameos from the expansive Disney universe, the film never forgets the key ingredient often lacking from other nostalgic-heavy nonsense – its heart.

As entertaining and joyful as all this Easter egg wonderland of pop culture references may be, they’re only part of the magic of the film. What sets Ralph Breaks the Internet apart is its gorgeous beating heart with a narrative that will surely tug at your heartstrings. As Ralph and Venellope’s friendship is tested, there’s a strong message conveyed of the consequences of trying to control your friends and the dangers of suffocating them when you refuse to accept change is sometimes inevitable. This leads to a conclusion that’s emotionally powerful, as the best Disney animated films often are. Bring the tissues. You’ll need them.

The film’s biggest highlight (especially for Disney fans) is a visit to the Magic Kingdom of Oh My Disney, where everyone from Dumbo to Eeyore, stormtroopers to the Millennium Falcon, Iron Man to Baby Groot (who holds a hilarious Q&A session with overzealous fans), and every single Disney Princess can be found. Is this a moment of self-aggrandising, where Disney is simply showing off how ridiculously vast their catalogue of pop culture icons has become? Well, maybe. Just a little. But can you really blame them?

But what makes this sequence so glorious is how pointedly and sharply Disney is able to poke some good-natured fun at itself. It’s self-deprecation we haven’t seen since the likes of Shrek. The self-awareness of each Princess to acknowledge the flaws found in their narratives (“Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?”) and cliche characteristics they each share (a commonality of a lack of a mother) creates the film’s brilliant satirical showpiece that proves Disney can indeed let down its hair and not take itself so damn seriously. There’s even a cheeky stab at Merida, aka Pixar’s one and only Princess, who none of the other characters can understand because “she’s from the other studio.”

Given the target audience here is children, Ralph Breaks the Internet sadly fails to stretch too deeply into the truly dark and damaging nature of the internet. Outside of a warning to “never read the comments,” and a finale featuring an out-of-control computer virus that threatens to destroy everything around it, the internet is perhaps presented a little too sanitised and positive. Sure, it’s a kid’s movie that decides to keep things relatively light, and that’s entirely fine. But teaching an audience of children about the dangers of the online world could have been a valuable moment you have to assume a studio like Pixar would have been brave enough to explore.

With eye-popping animation, a terrific voice cast, a touching and entertaining narrative, some brilliant self-deprecating humour, and a treasure trove of delightful cameos, Ralph Breaks the Internet is everything a sequel should be and then some. It’s heartwarming and hilarious, dazzling and impressive, and a wonderful piece of cinema for the whole family to enjoy. And be sure to remain for the entirety of the credits for a sublime piece of playful internet trolling that delivers plenty of LOLs.

Is Ralph Breaks the Internet a Disney Classic? While Ralph Breaks the Internet is supremely entertaining surprising moving, and one of the best animated sequels ever produced, we’re not quite in Disney Classic territory just yet. It’s hard to know if a video game-centric film will truly stand the test of time like other Disney Classics, but Ralph and Vanellope certainly make a strong case for their legacy to live on for decades to come.