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When Princesses Collide: How Disney pulled off the impossible in Ralph Breaks the Internet

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Nov 15, 2018, 5:00 PM EST (Updated)

It's unclear how much of this story is bulls***, but former Disney Consumer Products chairman Andy Mooney loved telling it anyway.

Back in 2000, a month into his tenure at the company, he was attending a Disney on Ice show in Phoenix when he saw a bunch of young girls dressed up like various princesses from Disney animated films. Their gowns were homemade, embellished versions of standard Halloween costumes. According to an interview he gave with The New York Times in 2006, "The light bulb went off." Soon, the official Disney Princess product line was established, combining classic characters with more modern heroines (and — soon enough — a princess from Pixar).

But, with formality came guidelines (or guardrails): the Princesses were each given a signature color and couldn't look at each other or appear to exist in the same physical space. Instead, when grouped, they're all looking slightly past one another. (If you ask a Princess at a Disney Park what one of the other Princesses is up to, that Princess feigns ignorance.) In the years since the initiative began, the product line has gone on to sell billions of dollars globally each and every year.

Disney Princesses

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All of this makes the Disney Princess sequence in Ralph Breaks the Internet seem downright revolutionary.

In the sequence Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), looking for clicks for viral videos, travels to Oh My Disney, a website that is essentially BuzzFeed for Disney junkies. It's here where you can take countless personality quizzes, many of which match you up to your correlating Disney Princess. Vanellope finds her way backstage, where she runs into the Disney Princesses, most of who are, incredibly, all voiced by their original voice actors (including, but not limited to, Jodie Benson as Ariel, Paige O'Hara as Belle, Ming-Na Wen as Mulan, Anika Noni Rose as Tiana and Auli'I Cravalho as Moana).

There's a catch: these Princesses are more biting and self-aware than the ones you might remember from their original movies, and soon enough Vanellope has shown them that they don't have to wear their stuffy royal attire, but can kick back in what the company is calling their "comfy clothes" (more on that in a minute).

When the footage was first debuted at last year's D23 Expo, the response was overwhelming. Some of the jokes were lost because you just couldn't hear them over the thunderous laughter and equally thunderous applause. And what's more, these Princesses were behaving in ways that were strictly forbidden in previous incarnations — they were acknowledging one another, cracking jokes, making fun of their shared character attributes ("Have you been poisoned or enslaved?" they ask Vanellope raptly) and changing out of their corporately-approved attire. For Disney, this was pretty punk rock.

According to director and co-writer Phil Johnston, it first appeared in the second draft of the script that he wrote with Pamela Ribon and completed in June 2016. According to Ribon, who spoke about the film earlier this year, the idea was to "just board it and see what happens." Director Rich Moore elaborated on the dice-roll of an idea: "We thought it was funny. So we thought, Let's give it a shot. We didn't know that our bosses might not like it. So why second-guess ourselves?" As it happens, there was surprisingly little pushback by the corporate Powers That Be.

Johnston said that they went around to different segments of the company, getting the OK from their executives (the sequence also includes appearances from Iron Man, Groot, R2D2, C-3PO a, d Buzz Lightyear).

"No one minds if you poke fun or satirize things if they know you're coming from a place of loving those characters and honoring them," Johnston said. "I think that's always been our thing. The line we walk pretty well is making fun of things but it's with love. We'd never want to hurt any of our characters because we love them."

Designing the characters was another aspect of the sequence entirely; this is a moment that includes 14 Disney Princesses, many of whom are being rendered in 3D for the very first time. Much of that fell to Ami Thompson and Cory Loftis, brilliant designers whose stamp can be felt in much of Ralph Breaks the Internet. (Moore describes them as "superstars.")

"We had to give the Oh My Disney sequence an aesthetic that was across the board. Because putting all of these characters together, there were so many art styles… It feels disjointed. So we had to give one aesthetic to the whole thing," Moore said. "Corey and Ami kept it in the Wreck-It Ralph style. It's a little more cartoon-y." He went on: "We looked at it as like if Oh My Disney went in and did an art pass on their site, that this would be the aesthetic that they chose."

Assisting Loftis and Thompson were incredible designers like Brittney Lee, Lorelay Bove (both of whom are hard at work on Frozen 2) and a genuine Disney Animation titan in Mark Henn. Henn animated Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine in Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan and Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. Former Disney bigwig Jeffrey Katzenberg once described him as "the Julia Roberts of animation." (It was Henn that Anika Noni Rose met with after some fans voiced displeasure at Tiana's computerized re-design.) During our chat, Moore called him "legendary."

Johnston said that Henn was in "every animation daily," where the animators and filmmakers go over the day's work. Henn would draw over the animation and hand thumbnails to the animators. "He did lots of 2D tests as reference for the Princesses … it was his approach to how the Princesses in this style would move."

He also contributed actual 2D animation to the sequence, most notably the Sorcerer Mickey atop the Disney Animation building and background characters like Humphrey the Bear (a character that debuted in a 1950 short about Goofy becoming a park ranger).

There were a number of iterations that the sequence went through, too, before it got to where it is in the final film. The version showed last year at the D23 Expo featured Yesss (Taraji P. Henson's algorithm character) and laugh-out-loud funny jokes about Snow White being "legally blind" and Jasmine being allergic to cats (she takes a puff of an inhaler as Rajah looks on, slighted). Another version had Vanellope jumping on the back of Dumbo, which soon turned into a Star Wars-style dogfight as TIE Fighters chased her off.

Moore volunteered, "There was a version where Ralph was with her." The sequence now, though, which is buttoned-up with a full-on musical sequence co-written by Johnston and Tom MacGougall with music by Disney legend Alan Menken, serves the movie best on both a thematically and narrative level. It might have started with the funny idea of the characters taking a personality quiz but became so much more.

"The idea of the scene was that it was always going to be a fulcrum in Vanellope's story," Johnston said. "That meeting them would send her the other way, to pursuing her dream, this idea she has, or overcoming some of the difficulties she and Ralph were having and understanding friendship a little more. And in this case, the song moment is them saying, 'You'll know in the moment – you'll sing and you'll know what you really want'" And that was the final thing that really earned its way into the movie. But the idea was that it would always be this midpoint moment where, if she hadn't gone there, she'd have probably gone right back …" Moore then chimed in: "And never realized her potential."

In a way, it's a perfect metaphor for the sequence itself. If the filmmakers or animators had gotten too skittish they would have backed away from the sequence; shortened it or softened it. Instead, they pushed on, away from their comfort zone and into territory that feels like a triumph of pop art that Andy Warhol would have probably loved.

It's a sequence filled with hidden baubles (I noticed everything from the Disneyland's Peter Pan ride vehicles to Arlo from The Good Dinosaur to Mary Blair's "it's a small world" façade from the 1964-65 World's Fair) that will reward keen-eyed and –eared viewers (composer Michael Giacchino reprises his Stormtrooper role from The Force Awakens) but a sequence that doesn't merely exist as a bit of spot-the-reference eye candy. It means something, and will mean something for generation of fans who love those Disney Princesses and will appreciate them growing and maturing and passing along their lessons. It's unlike anything you've ever seen. In fact, it's positively inspiring.