To say that Disney rules the world might not be entirely accurate, but there are certainly times when it at least feels accurate. The mega company owns some of the biggest fandom properties in the world, runs theme parks, and has pretty much everyone in America hopelessly devoted to at least one of its beloved characters. So, when the trailer for Ralph Breaks The Internet featured the Disney princesses in a scene with Ralph's bestie Venelope that totally (lovingly) rips into the entire concept of what it means to be a Disney princess, just about everyone's ears perked up. How did a team employed by Disney get permission to rib its most treasured (and bankable) set of characters? Well, when co-writer Pamela Ribon first came up with the idea for the scene, she had a very similar question.
"We knew that we’d like to do a scene that was meta. With all these different parts of the internet [that are represented in Ralph Breaks The Internet] you gotta be meta and it would be fun to have a scene where Disney is making a little fun of itself. And so, I thought, what if Venelope met all the princesses?" Ribon says at a press day for the Wreck-It Ralph sequel, out Nov. 21.
The scene in question finds Venelope visiting Oh My Disney (a real website devoted to fandom of all Disney-owned properties), and realizing that she might too be a Disney princess... because everyone always assumes a big strong man solves her problems. But Ribon was originally a little sheepish about that idea, and it didn't help that when she texted her pal Elise Aliberti (a longtime Disney animation vet who worked in development on Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana) her plans, she got back a text asking just what exactly she thought she was doing with these Disney classics. "I wrote the scene, and then I read it, and I had a panic attack. And I laid down on the floor and I said, 'Well, I’m either going to be fired or this might be a big deal,"' adds Ribon.
Luckily for her, it turns out the latter was the case. After Ribon poured her love of Disney into the cheeky script for the scene, she and the story team put together some placeholder audio and some storyboards so they could show it to the Disney powers-that-be for approval — and they loved it. "It’s a tough crowd showing this to Disney Animation," she says now, adding that she got a lot of stern faces and non-responses at first, but then, "people broke into applause and it was like, OK this is going to D23, this is happening, let’s get this train rolling."
Part of that process was getting all the original actors for each princess to return to voice their characters (with the exception of Snow White, who is voiced by Ribon in this version since the original voice actor, Adriana Caselotti, passed away in 1997) and to give the directors input on how their characters might handle a situation — like, say, meeting a strange little girl from a video game in a real life manifestation of the internet. "Paige O'Hara and Jodi Benson — Belle and Ariel — have known each other for years because they've done this Disney thing for so long, that they actually have a really great insight into how the princesses would relate to each other," says Ribon.
The other huge undertaking was ensuring that while the animation team updated the slate of Disney princesses for the world of Wreck-It Ralph, changing many of them from 2D to 3D, the essence of each character was unharmed in the process. According to the head of animation, Kira Lehtomaki, no expense was spared and the team created a pod they affectionately called Princess Palooza for the express purpose of getting every little detail just right. They spent hours on Ariel's crimson coif, for instance, making sure it moved the way it did in the 1989 animated classic. And they brought in Mark Henn — the original supervising animator on Belle in Beauty & The Beast, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Princess Jasmine in Aladdin, Mulan in Mulan, and Tiana in Princess & The Frog — to help the team figure out how the princesses should sit, move, and operate in their big scene. "Nobody knows these ladies better than Mark," assures Lehtomaki.
The result is that there are at least a few easter eggs in Ralph Breaks the Internet for princess devotees. "We wanted to find as many opportunities as possible to find these iconic moments and put them into the film. So hopefully you will see little homages that we’re doing. Sometimes they’ll maybe be a little more subtle, but we hope that in the movement and the posing that you just feel the authenticity," says Lehtomaki, referring to slight moments in which some of the princesses strike iconic poses from their films (above).
Of course, for all that hard work, there might not be as much of the Disney princesses in the Wreck-It Ralph sequel as diehard fans would hope. The film's directors, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, say they had to be careful to not overuse them. "It was even longer than that version that we screened this morning," says Moore, referring to the extended footage screened at the Aug. 1 press event, which showed the princesses palling around in their comfy clothes, Ariel being all kinds of extra about learning the word "shirt," and Snow White revealing that reason she always looks so surprised is "because I'm legally blind." "There was at least another three beats that we had and at one point, everyone realized that it was making it not funny anymore," Moore explains.
In fact, at one point, the directors were almost unsure that the princess scene would stay in the film at all — not because it was too chiding of Disney, but because they worried it wouldn't actually make sense in the film. "There’ve been those screenings where it’s felt like, yes, it’s a fun set piece, but how’s it fitting in the story? And it started to feel like maybe it should come out," says producer Clark Spencer. "It’s the hardest decision that the writers and directors ever have to make, if it works fundamentally to entertain the audience but doesn’t move the story forward, but as the story kept evolving, it started to get closer and closer until it finally it was like, this is a critical set piece to the film." Whew.
Not only did the scene get to stay, but according to co-writer Ribon, there will probably be more princesses than the quick taste we got of their pre-show festivities at OhMyDisney.com in the film's trailer. She was careful not to say exactly what was coming, but did manage to tease that "You’ll see a little bit more of the princesses. There are surprises to come."
And I think I speak for Disney fans everywhere when I say, bring it on, Ralph.
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