The reason it took six years to get a sequel made to the highly successful Wreck-It Ralph is simple: director Rich Moore and co-screenwriter Phil Johnson got a little sidetracked on an even more successful animated feature, 2016’s Zootopia. But the delay turned out to be advantageous in terms of coming up with the next storyline for video game characters Ralph (voiced by John C Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). And since Zootopia featured a not-so-veiled subtext about racism and fear of “the other,” the filmmakers were emboldened to dig a little deeper into their exploration of the world at large. Thus, they came up with Ralph Breaks the Internet, an exceedingly clever visualization and analysis of the way the world communicates today. It’s also a story of a friendship that needs to adjust and grow beyond simply playing games and hanging out together.
Of course, this being a Disney film, the movie takes full advantage of the full spectrum of Disney-owned properties and their internet presence, including Star Wars, Marvel, and most impressively, the Disney princesses, all of whom make appearances (most of whom are voiced by the original voice actresses) in a series of scenes that is actually somewhat lovingly critical of the stereotypical princess characters. But the film is so much more than that, as Ralph and Vanellope meet up with characters voiced by the likes of Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, and Bill Hader, on their quest to bid and pay for a much-need part for Vanellope’s Sugar Rush game, lest the game be removed from the arcade they share.
I sat down with Moore and Johnston recently in Chicago to discuss the film’s many messages, including the more mature ones; the soon-to-be-legendary princesses scene; and how they narrowed down the endless story possibilities into this particular story. Please enjoy…
Why did it take so long to get this made?
Rich Moore: We’re lazy [laughs]. Actually, Zootopia landed for both of us. It landed right in the middle of this. We started working on this in 2014…?
Phil Johnston: Yeah, we would have been done ages ago if it wasn’t for that little thing. It was about a year after the first one when we started saying that we really wanted to do a sequel. And I wrote a draft of the script in 2014, and then we went on to Zootopia for a year or year and a half, and returned to that draft. But having worked on Zootopia, we thought “This draft doesn’t go as deep as it needs to. Let’s explore some more complicated emotional things.”
There are literally an infinite number of possibilities of where you could have taken this story. How do you begin narrowing down what you want to address and what story to use as the framework?
RM: We went to lots of different places and different versions of this thing, so it wasn’t like we said “Okay, we’re going to go here and here and here.” We tried so much to make these movies. About every six to eight months, we watched a new version of the movie—we built animatics of the complete movie in storyboard form, all scratch dialogue, especially in the beginning. And we watched it and said “Do we like it? How can we make this better?” And we just honed it over and over again, and if the locations that they’re going to don’t really service the story, then it doesn’t end up in the movie.
PJ: It’s like saying “We’re going to make a movie set in Chicago.” Okay, do we make it Southside, Northside, Irish, black, Polish? What version of Chicago? So when we landed on this simple story of what this movie is about—it’s about a friendship between two people whose friendship is growing a little toxic—once that story came in, we were able to figure out what websites to go to and where in the internet we needed them to be.
When you decide it’s going to be set on the internet, it’s so vast…
RM: Hugely daunting!
You could feasibly lose your characters among the fun site gags and places to go and visualizing all of these well-known sites.
RM: We definitely had moments like that in our process, where we’re just playing around with the idea “It’s the internet; they can go anywhere.” Then we’ll pull it back and say “We need to concentrate on this simple story. Everything needs to bounce off of that.”
It’s actually a really intimate story that you’ve set in the largest landscape you could have possibly used as a backdrop.
PJ: And I honestly think that if the story had been any more complicated, we would have gotten lost. It needs to be simple and relatable, and the internet is a place that can test friendships and really push the boundaries of appropriate behavior.
RM: It can destroy friendships.
I do want to ask about he scene with the princesses, but the scene that took my breath away was when Ralph wonders into the Comments room. That’s a dangerous place to go; and everything stops and goes silent when he sees the comments and reads them; there’s no spectacle about it.
RM: We really wanted that to have the feeling of walking into a fist. I think just about everyone, especially creative people—our business, your business—has had some sort of moment like that where you think “This is great.” And you’re hit with an anonymous person saying something about you or your work or your family. It’s that pit-in-the-stomach feeling that comes with it. It was really about making Ralph double down on “Vanellope is my everything. I really thought I was loving this adulation from these hearts, but no, I need to grab tighter.” We wanted it to have that visceral, sick feeling. We wanted it to feel real.
PJ: I’m glad you pointed out how quiet it gets because we wanted the audience to feel like it’s been to the internet. It’s a chaotic movie for a while, but we try to take pauses like that, where the gravity of both the good and the bad of the internet sits with you. It’s that sinking feeling of “Ugh, people don’t like me? That sucks. Who are these people?”
It also mimics what goes on in your head when you read something like that. The world falls away and the noise gets quiet.
RM: You can almost hear the voice or see the face. We wanted it to feel like that.
You have a Stan Lee cameo [this interview took place the day after Lee’s passing].
RM: There’s no voice attached to it, but he does walk through a scene in the Marvel [area].
PJ: What an influence on us, on everyone who loves storytelling.
RM: I’m so proud that that’s in there.
PJ: And Vanellope bumps into him and says “Sorry, mister.”
Let’s talk about that princess scene. What went into pulling that together, from when you dreamed it up to making it a reality?
PJ: First of all, 11 of the 14 original voice actors came back, which logistically, getting them from all over the country to where we were recording was a logistical headache that we didn’t have to deal with—our producer did [laughs].
RM: We wanted to be true to their characters but have fun with the satire of the tropes and their flaws and foibles, walking the line of not feeling fluffy, but really digging into it and have a conversation. That’s where having Sarah Silverman as Vanellope is so to our advantage because Sarah is a great conversation starter. She can sit and talk about it and say “Oh, that’s weird” and recognize it, but then is also lovingly humane to the characters
Did you have to get special permission from Disney to even address some of those criticisms of the princess archetypes?
PJ: When the scene was written, we storyboarded it, cut it together in an animatic, and showed it to our pals at the studio, and when people were really digging it, we were like “We better talk to talk to Mr. Iger [Bob Iger, is chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co.],” and we did. And he and Alan Horn [chairman of the Walt Disney Studios] were like “This is really funny. Go farther with it.” We’ve never done that before.
RM: There was never a moment when someone said “Guys, this is a little too much. I don’t like what you’re doing with our princesses.” It was the exact opposite, especially for Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty—that really are from another time and makes them a little hard to approach or relate to. When I was a little kid, I didn’t understand these princesses. They didn’t remind me of my sister or my mom. I think they saw what we did, the value of it; it makes them more contemporary and more human. It cracks them open in a way that I don’t think the old animated films do.
With Zootopia, you had this message about racism. Did you feel you wanted to up the message factor with Ralph because you could and people seemed to react favorably to it?
RM: I think Zootopia did embolden us. And not to be preachy or hit people over the head, but the subject matter could be deeper than animated films are usually thought of.
PJ: If you do a story that’s funny and fun and then subversively put a message in without it being a message movie, at least people are talking and thinking coming out of it. The goal was maybe people will talk about being a little kinder to each other online; maybe people will talk about friendships that have grown a little toxic. Again, we’re not trying to preach or change the world, but if people can be a little more thoughtful and be entertained, that’s a win.
I love that there’s not villain here, other than time. Ralph becomes his own worst enemy.
PJ: He spent the whole first movie trying to prove he was a good guy and did, and in this movie, his inner bad guy becomes the antagonist he has to defeat.
I could talk for days about that Friend Monster creature you created.
RM: There were 300,000 individual Ralphs make up that creature, and our crew didn’t know if they could pull it off.
It’s weirdly gross. I could feel them crawling on my skin.
RM: The way they were crawling and roiling, ugh. So nice to meet you.
PJ: Thanks for coming.
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