The title character in Disney’s upcoming Ralph Breaks The Internet may get overshadowed in his own sequel by a royal gathering 80 years in the making. As teased in the trailer for the movie, a whopping 14 Disney Princesses come together in the Wreck-It Ralph sequel for the meta cameo to end all meta cameos.
Set to open in November, Ralph Breaks The Internet, follows Vanellope and Ralph as they take a ride on a newly-installed Wi-Fi router at Mr. Litwak’s arcade to find a replacement part they need to fix Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush, before it gets permanently unplugged. Their adventures take them into the wild, candy-colored chaos of the internet.
At a recent press day at the Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California, SYFY WIRE became immersed in Ralph’s wonderfully wacky virtual world. The walls of the iconic building were lined with concept art from the movie, and a giant statue of the two main characters filled the lobby. Those in attendance were able to view several scenes from the film and talk with the sequel’s creative team.
One of the scenes we screened finds Vanellope, wandering through the film's depiction of the Internet, and encountering the Disney princesses lounging in a backstage dressing room of OhMy.Disney.com (a real website, BTW). What follows is a peek behind the curtain at what these characters do when they’re not in the spotlight. While making a wrong turn at the Magic Kingdom might lead to discovering that, say, Minnie Mouse kills time by downing protein bars, this is a laugh-out-loud burst of self-referential humor unlike anything you’ve seen in a Disney picture.
It was a chance to take the central conceit of Wreck-It-Ralph – what do video game characters do when the game is over? – and apply it to some of the most iconic characters in the Disney canon. “The idea was, why not have fun at our own expense? Other people do it, and we can do it better,” said producer Clark Spencer.
Poor Ariel, possibly Disney’s most earnest princess, was the target of more than a few jokes. So were Merida and her hilariously overdone Scottish brogue. There are so many playful jabs taken at Disney’s expense (“Do people assume all your problems were solved because a big, strong man showed up?”), it was surprising to learn that Team Ralph received very few notes from studio executives asking them to lay off.
What wasn't surprising was learning that most everyone who worked on the scene is a Disney diehard. That includes Co-Head of Animation, Kira Lehtomaki, who backed up her Disney devotion with actual proof: a drawing made when she was five detailing what her dream job was (photo below).
Count Pamela Ribon, who wrote the film with co-director Phil Johnston, as another devotee. She was the one with the initial idea to have a meta scene where Vanellope meets the princesses. It sprung from a question Ribon had back when she was working on Moana.
“Why isn’t Vanellope canon?” Ribon asked. “I talked with my friend Elise Aliberti, who was production manager on Moana, and she asked me to do her a favor and never let [Vanellope] have a love interest, and can her mother live? Would that be possible?”
Other classic Disney tropes, like whether a princess talked to animals or was ever poisoned or kidnapped, also found their way into the script. According to Ribon, the script didn’t quite write itself, but it came together fast. Perhaps a bit too fast.
“So I wrote the scene, and I read it, and then I had a panic attack,” she said. “I laid down on the floor and thought, I am going to get fired.” Ribon took that first draft to co-director Rich Moore, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Do you think we can get away with this?”
Johnston and Moore then convinced nearly all the original voices of the Disney princesses to take part. That proved infinitely useful to the creative process. “Each one would suggest things, like how their character would never say something in this manner,” Moore noted. “We realized that so much of the personality of these characters comes from the actresses. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Many of these actresses have lived with these roles for most of their careers, so they know them inside out. Jennifer Hale, who’s been the modern voice of Cinderella since 2001, for instance, made a suggestion early on to the filmmakers that her princess would not use a contraction in conversation.
“They bring so much of who they are to their characters. And it’s funny, but Paige O’Hara and Ariel Benson – Belle and Ariel – have known each other for years, because they’ve done this Disney thing for so long,” Lehtomaki said. “They actually have great insight into how the princesses would relate to each other, and we were really fortunate to have them involved.”
The original voice of Snow White, Adriana Caselotti, passed away in 1997. Ribon, who is also an actress and comic, often does scratch tracks for early storyboards of scenes. Moore and Johnston were so happy with her fill-in work as the First Disney Princess, it’s her voice you hear in the finished scene.
Ami Thompson was the film’s Art Director and oversaw the particular challenge of translating the traditionally 2D-drawn princesses to three-dimensional animation. She also was thrilled to get to do a Disney first – to put the princesses in casual wear.
“We were all curious about they would be wearing, because we usually only see them in dresses,” said Thompson. At one point, the animators designed pajamas for the princesses, but that was a bit too extreme of a makeover. They settled on a more casual look similar to what Venellope would wear, like a hoodie, leggings, and Converse sneakers. This was part of the larger goal to modernize the Disney princesses and make them more relatable and not quite so... perfect.
Just about every member of the production team chipped in with suggestions for clever t-shirts that played on each character's history, like Elsa's "Just Let It Go" '80s-style tee. “Unfortunately, we could only choose one design for each of the 14 princesses, so it was hard to narrow it down,” Thompson said.
Once they figured out what they would be wearing, the animation team had a Princess-palooza lab with modelers, riggers, and simulation artists to figure out the movements for each princess. A group even took a field trip to Disneyland to talk to the princess castmembers. Part of the research also involved re-watching the classic films. One thing that stood out upon rewatching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was that the title character’s ears are hidden the entire time. So the animation team did something that had never been done before in Disney history. “We decided to show [Snow White’s] ears for the first time,” Thompson said.
The entire sequence is packed with sly Easter eggs for dedicated Disney-ites, like the opening scene, where Ariel is brushing her hair with the fork in a nod to The Little Mermaid. It just so happens that Ralph Breaks The Internet's 2D Animation Supervisor, Mark Henn, actually animated that scene 30 years ago. So if you're worried that they might get something wrong, you can rest easy. They've got it covered.
“We just hope that when you watch the movie and this scene, you really feel that these are the characters you’ve known and loved all these years.”