Once you've walked out of Ralph Breaks the Internet, you’re probably going to be thinking about the various references the film throws in regarding the internet as a whole, video games, and of course, the House of Mouse itself. Ralph Breaks the Internet is as meta as Disney filmmaking can get, and proud of it. The flip side to all the winks and nods, of course, is that some of the humor is only surface-deep, with reliance on audience members pulling a Captain America and thinking, "I get that reference!" But there are references aplenty, at least.
Though much of the self-referential humor doesn’t kick in until lead characters Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope Von Schweetz have to travel to the internet, there’s at least one early nod to a cult Disney property, Tron, and its dated quality. (Our heroes decide to hang out in the arcade game, only until a virus gets to the game and renders it unplayable.) Ralph Breaks the Internet is the kind of movie that, like another game-heavy film from 2018, Ready Player One, is in part designed to be pored over frame by frame so you can spot every single reference included in the foreground and background.
This article couldn’t possibly begin to cover every meta-joke, reference and Easter egg in Ralph 2. But we can at least talk about some of the fun Disney-specific jokes. And there’s no better place to start than with the biggest scene specific to the Disney company.
The marketing for Ralph Breaks the Internet has leaned hard on one scene midway through the film, when Vanellope Von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman) stumbles into a big dressing room with all of the Disney Princess characters, from Snow White to Moana and everyone else in between. It’s the kind of crossover moment you might otherwise only see in fan art, but it’s here to see on the big screen. Most of the actresses who voiced these beloved characters also return — excepting the actresses who played Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora — which gives the scene a slightly bigger kick than it already might.
Even before Vanellope meets the princesses in person, there’s plenty of Disney references in the sequence, set in the world of the real-life website Oh My Disney. Some are in the form of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos: There’s an appearance from Buzz Lightyear, as well as some Stormtroopers, Grumpy the Dwarf (who grouchily shouts “Cast members only!” at Vanellope, a nice reference to the signage and phrasing within Disney that all its employees are “cast members”), and even baby Groot. (Fun side note: Groot is taking part in a Q&A, including one question asked by a character voiced by comedian Jason Mantzoukas. More on that tomorrow here at SYFY WIRE.)
There are also visual gags aplenty here, from a silent cameo from Nick Wilde of Zootopia (maybe Jason Bateman was too busy to hop into the recording booth?) to Vanellope running down a hallway marked A113, a classroom at the CalArts school of animation that’s often referenced specifically in Pixar’s films. (A113 has also shown up as a reference in movies like Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, only because it’s directed by Pixar stalwart Brad Bird.)
Once Vanellope encounters the princesses, there are some visual points of recognition for each of the princess characters at their various dressing areas; for example, if you look closely, you can see a stuffed-animal version of Pascal, the chameleon, in Rapunzel’s area.
When the princesses envy Vanellope’s dressed-down look, they change into non-dressy duds that tie into their specific characters and films. (This change of clothing is accompanied by a transition with a spinning Disney castle logo and bombastic theme a la the 1960s Batman TV series.) Look closely, and you’ll see that Moana’s shirt has a hashtag marked “shiny,” that Tiana’s shirt proudly states “NOLA” for New Orleans, Snow White’s has the word “poison," and so on. (If Disney doesn't end up selling these shirts in its stores, that's a baffling missed merchandising opportunity.)
The clothing isn’t the only meta-humor in the scene, though. Vanellope isn’t sure what to make of each of the Disney Princesses, especially when they each recount specific parts of their backstories that only make it clear that Disney characters are put through the wringer emotionally. (You could always wonder why none of the Disney Princesses recognize in Vanellope a fellow princess from the animation-feature canon, but that would make your head explode to think about it for too long.)
“Are you OK? Do we need to call the police?” Vanellope asks after hearing about Snow White nearly being poisoned, the various curses placed on the princesses, and so on. She’s even more baffled when she realizes that most of the other princesses are able to reflect and sing about their greatest desires, but primarily when looking at water —important water, as Ariel clarifies. Vanellope struggles to make this come true, only doing so when she returns to the online racing game Slaughter Race, which represents the ideal of what she wants to do with her racing desires. So we get a big, splashy, Busby Berkeley-styled song-and-dance number. Just... y’know, in a Grand Theft Auto-style game called Slaughter Race.
The princesses return for one more crucial moment in the climax. Earlier, they decried the fact that everyone thinks their problems have been solved because a "big, strong man" saved them. So here, they get to flip the script and save Ralph from plummeting to his death. They do so by rigging up a Snow White-style dress in between two very tall skyscrapers, with the help of some of Merida’s arrows, Mulan’s fighting prowess, and the sewing arts of Cinderella’s mice friends Jaq and Gus, before guiding the newly dressed Ralph onto a royal mattress very much like the ones we’ve seen in Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
This, at least, is one of the funnier and sillier images in the film, as Ralph struggles not to split apart the dress that, as he says, “wasn’t made for a big boy”.
To spot all of the meta-humor in Ralph Breaks the Internet, you’d likely have to watch the movie more than a few times, and keep careful watch on the backgrounds of many shots, a testament to the talented animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Of course, as is often the case with such visual humor, recognizing it is meant to be as much fun as appreciating or laughing at it. The core of the film is the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope, but the clever humor is, for better or worse, what you’ll think about long after it’s done.