Confronting Fairy Tale Tropes, ‘Ralph Breaks The Internet’ Directors Examine A Friendship In Flux Within A Whole New World
After working for years on the socially conscious Zootopia and seeing it win the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature prize in 2016, Phil Johnston and Rich Moore had no time to rest on their laurels, returning to work on Ralph Breaks the Internet. A sequel to 2012 Disney hit Wreck-It Ralph—a beloved work centering on video game characters Ralph and Vanellope, and the friendship they share—this film would send its two heroes on a mission into the Internet, where they would confront new personal challenges and an astonishing new world.
Making his directorial debut alongside veteran Moore, from a script he co-wrote, Johnston explains that with the second Ralph installment—as is often the case—themes emerged first. “The first idea of sending them to the Internet was more about looking for a place where Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship could be tested. One of the themes we’re working with is the idea of change, that friendships change, and that good friendships can survive and actually get stronger because of change,” he explains. “The two things fed each other, both the world and whole feeling that comes with it. Obviously, the Internet is a world that has never been visualized, so we knew that there were going to be huge challenges and opportunities visually with this. But if they didn’t support the themes we were going for, the visuals didn’t mean much.”
Breaking down important developments in the friendship of Vanellope and Ralph, the pair would then take on the enormous challenge of visualizing the Internet, a space that has become inextricably embedded in modern life, but is also puzzlingly abstract. Certainly, these weren’t the only challenges the collaborators would face. Facing backlash (courtesy of the Internet) over their portrayal of one particular Disney princess, the pair would thoroughly examine prevalent ideas about representation on the animated screen, and in more ways than one.
To what extent did you intend a satire of the Internet and Internet culture with Ralph Breaks the Internet, apart from those themes that were most critical to this film?
Rich Moore: This film is as much a satire of the subject matter as the first one was. I grew up spending way too much time in arcades, and playing those little cabinet games…
Johnston: And now you spend way too much time on the Internet.
Moore: Yeah. [Laughs] I have a deep, deep love for that culture, and I don’t know if it’s so much taking potshots at it or satirizing it, or just representing what it is that I loved about it, warts and all. The good, the bad, what’s ridiculous about it, what I thought was great about it. Like everyone, I spend a lot of time on the Internet. In the early days, I used to love to peruse eBay, and it was almost ridiculous how, if you could think of it, you could find it there. I think of the movie as more celebrating the odd things about the Internet, the good things about it, [while] pointing out the not-so-great.
In recent years, there have been animated films that have taken on the Internet and the culture of the digital age, though Ralph seems to tackle it in a particularly success way. From your perspective, what made that possible?
Johnston: All the best relationships in my life are grounded with insults. The people I love the most, we speak to each other in a way where we goof on each other, and make fun of each other. I think we have an abiding love for this world, these characters, so whatever comments we’re making are mostly coming out of a deep understanding and respect of the characters. When we chose to make Ralph’s insecurity the villain of this film, it’s not because we think Ralph is a villain or a bad guy; it’s because he has flaws like all of us. The Internet is not all cat videos and double rainbows; the Internet is also these insidious, nasty things like trolls, online bullying. So we wanted to tackle the complexity of it, without judging it.
What was your approach in fleshing out the visual world we see within the Internet?
Moore: We wanted to take the same approach as we did with the first one, where we started to personify inanimate objects and turn them into locations and characters, beyond things. For instance, in the first movie, the power strip that all the games are plugged into, that becomes their train station that allows them to move around from game to game. We really took that same tack to the Internet, and we found it was way more daunting than we thought it was going to be. It’s one thing to say, “Let’s send these two arcade characters to the Internet”—and just that sentence alone got people excited at our studio. But then the next day, it’s like, “Well, what does the Internet look like? With this thing that’s rather abstract, how do we put them in places they can walk around, and it feels relatable to human beings?” We started coming up with metaphors that we thought might be good, and we found, talking to the IT people at our studio, that they really didn’t recognize the Internet that they knew [in these concepts]. So, we really dug down deep. We threw out ideas like, “What if it all takes place in a cloud? Or it’s up in the atmosphere, and it’s radio signals bouncing around, and they ride on rain drops?” and everyone who had a real working knowledge of the Internet pointed out that this was a bad metaphor for this world.
So, we started to take tours and do research trips to big server farms that service the Internet. There’s a huge one in LA on Wilshire Boulevard, that’s in a skyscraper; it’s pretty much the hub of the West Coast of North America to Asia for all Internet connections in the United States, and just seeing how packed and dense and loud it was, with these fans trying to keep all these computers cool, it was like, “Okay, the Internet is very tactile.” It’s built on an infrastructure that a lot of experts would say never intended to service everyone in the world. It’s like an ancient city with different civilizations built on top of each other. Our whole concept of it was, at the core of the city are the original connections of the Internet, and then it just continues to expand out as a globe, with all the newest and most contemporary sites up on the surface. That was our first big creative break.
Bearing in mind that Disney is an empire with seemingly boundless resources, was it difficult to secure the participation of companies like Snapchat, Amazon and Fandango, with permission to use their logos in your metropolis?
Johnston: The simple fact of copyright law is at play here, so we didn’t actually have to get permission from these brands. We were able to use them by fair use. But like in the first film, where you had Pac-Man and Tapper and Street Fighter, we wanted that to feel authentic along with the games we made up, like Sugar Rush and Fix-It Felix Jr. We did the same thing with the Internet, where it should feel like the real Internet, in that you see Google and Amazon and stuff, but then we also spend time with KnowsMore, the search engine we made up, and BuzzTube, and Slaughter Race. Just in keeping with that tradition from the first Wreck-It Ralph.
Was it exciting to be able to bring in characters from across the Disney and Marvel pantheon—Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot and more?
Moore: It was really exciting and it felt like a tremendous challenge to be allowed to work with all these great characters and properties. Again, we wanted it to feel that we were having some fun with our characters, especially with the Disney princesses. We said, “So many people have a good time taking the air out of the princesses. Why can’t we have some fun at our own expense?” Knowing what we do about the characters and the legacy behind them, we [knew we] could do the best satire of these characters ever.
While this choice works with the tone of the film and is very entertaining, in its meta dissection of Disney princess mythologies, it also feels like you’re making an important statement, rewriting a narrative about women that has been enshrined in much of the canon, from the beginning. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, women don’t need to be saved by any man. They cansave themselves.
Johnston: That was definitely the subtext of our goal, for sure.
Moore: These characters are weird. [Laughs] They’re not just pretty women in dresses. There are some strange background stories to them that people forget, because how many people really dive into the story of Snow White or Cinderella anymore? It felt good to bring them up to date, or usher some of the older ones into 2018, and really shine a light on [the truth of their circumstances]. It was nice to both remind people of those, and then have some fun on our end with the tropes of those stories.
Johnston: As much as anything though, their stories are what helped Vanellope in our film really come to this moment of empowerment, where she’s deciding who it is she wants to be in her life. It’s a fulcrum in the movie, really, where if that scene hadn’t happened, Vanellope wouldn’t end up where she does at the end of the film. So, beyond being a self-referential moment, and a funny set piece, it’s also instrumental to the story, to her emotional arc.
How did the studio take to this whole conceit? While you’re presumably doing something constructive, introducing new generations of viewers to more contemporary ideas about gender roles, you’re also critiquing, in some way, the foundations of an entire brand.
Moore: I can’t really speak to their way of thinking, but we knew from the beginning when we conceived of the scene that we would rather show our colleagues what we had in mind, rather than going with this abstract idea and trying to get permission to do it. So we spent time, especially with the princess scene, working out a pretty detailed animatic. It was just storyboard panels, it was all black and white at that time, and it was scratch dialogue—none of the original actresses performing their parts. We built the scene—and it’s very similar to the one you see today—as a way to take it across the street from our studio over to the main lot, and say, “Here’s what we’re thinking. Here is the scene that’s really important to us, and the movie. What do you think?” And it was refreshing. The immediate reaction was, “Oh my God, this is great. This is so funny, it’s satirical, yet respectful of the characters. Why not?” They gave their blessing very early on in our process. We get asked a lot, “Was there ever pushback from the company?” and there was none of that. I was always waiting for another shoe to fall, and it never did. We were encouraged to do what we were doing, and even push it a little further.
With regard to questions of representation, another pivotal moment came following the release of your first trailer, which saw an Internet audience react poorly to the design of Princess Tiana, a woman of African-American heritage. Seemingly, you took that input in immediately and ran with it.
Johnston: The Tiana stuff came about in probably the last four months or so, when the shot of the princesses started getting out into the world. The original [interpretation of the character, in 2009 film The Princess and the Frog] was 2D and hand-drawn, and this is obviously a CG movie—and we received feedback that our design of her wasn’t close enough to the way she was originally portrayed. In fact, we got years and years of notes from lots and lots of people, and we took that as a note, and a really good note. We looked at it, and brought in the original animators who had worked on creating Tiana; we invited in Anika Noni Rose, who voiced her, and a couple of outside groups who had thoughts about it. We looked at it, and tried to true it up as best we could to the original Tiana, and they came in and were blown away by the work that was done, and the thought that had gone into it.
We would be out of our minds if we didn’t want to make that as perfect as we could, simply because it’s a character we love as much as the fans. To us, it was a no-brainer when we heard the feedback, “Make it better.” Our mandate is to always make it better, to always make it as good as it can be. So I’m really happy that discussion happened, and that now, with the movie being done, that she is as true to the 2D version as is humanly possible, I think. I hope people will look at it and appreciate it, and know that we’re honoring her and all of the princesses.
Let’s talk about the original song you’d mentioned, “A Place Called Slaughter Race,” written by Alan Menken. Again, we have a self-aware character moment, with Vanellope giving us her take on a type of song fundamental to musical theater.
Moore: The song was always the B-side to the princess scene. We would talk about it like, “Okay, we’re going to have the song where Vanellope is this princess. It’s kind of an ‘I want’ song. Usually they’re early in a movie, but since her awakening happens in Act 2, it would be this great ‘I want’ song that’s taking place in a Grand Theft Auto world, this lawless video game world. We’re not going to play it as [if] the lyrics are trying to make a joke of it, or the characters are aware that they’re in a funny song; the emotions are all from the heart.” Especially just the fact that it’s taking place in such a rough neighborhood, and this is a world that she’s dreaming of, the comedy would come out of there. We would say, “It should really feel like a second-golden-age, ’90s-Alan-Menken-type song. Who could we get to do this kind of song?” We were talking to our VP of music, Tom MacDougall, and he’s like, “Well guys, I could just call Alan Menken if you’d like. That is an option.”
One thing led to another, and the next thing you knew we had Alan in at the studio. We played this rough version that we had made of the song, and Alan just listened and nodded his head, and said, “Well, I would say this is about 30% of the way there.” [Laughs]
Johnston: “Whoah, Alan Menken gave me a low-F, woo hoo!”