After Ralph (John C. Reilly) bonds with fellow misfit Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) at the end of “Wreck-It Ralph,” their friendship nearly breaks when plugging into the internet in the first Disney Animation sequel since the studio regained its prowess more than a decade ago.
“It’s friendship affected by change,” said director Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph,” “Zootopia”). “Change is constant, which you can count on. Nothing stays the same forever. But doesn’t mean that a friendship can’t resolve because of different points of view or different dreams. In fact, good friendships can become better because of change.”
Six years after altering his role from villain to hero, Ralph and Vanellope must save her arcade game, “Sugar Rush,” from being shut down when its obsolete steering wheel breaks. They plug in to the internet to find a replacement, which sets them on different paths. Ralph becomes a social media star with his trending videos, and Vanellope joins the more thrilling online game, “Slaughter Race.” And they each hook up with new friends: Yesss (Taraji Penda Henson), a sexy, trend-setting algorithm from BuzzTube, and Shank (Gal Gadot), the badass star of “Slaughter Race.”
But first Moore and first-time director Phil Johnston (who scripted “Wreck-it Ralph” and “Zootopia”) had to tackle the World Wide Web with their design and animation teams. After researching computers at Wilshire One in L.A., they scaled patterns of motherboards into an immense vertical 3D city grid (Rome meets Constantinople with a dark web underground).
Then they populated it with avatar forms for online users along with hundreds of online characters called Netizens and hundreds of thousands of signage (mostly real brands and forgoing licensing rights because it’s a satire). The world building task dwarfed “Zootopia” and wrecked Disney’s Hyperion renderer until they broke the buildings apart and generated pieces with different looks and scales.
“And that was a breakthrough because there weren’t a lot of reference points,” added Moore. “And then we came up with [iconic] environments for the familiar brands: eBay was a big auction house.”
In developing the story, though, they needed to find a fresh, funny, and compelling way of testing the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope. “It’s a two-hander,” said Johnston. “Ralph doesn’t want change. The moment Vanellope’s game breaks, he has to go into that thing that represents the most radical change ever, get the steering wheel part in order to preserve his way of life, which is the past. So it’s an existential battle for Ralph: Do I accept the change that Vanellope is seeking because she likes the internet?”
There are two zeitgeist-grabbing moments that elevate the sequel: When Ralph gets devastated by online vitriol after wandering into a chatroom, and when Vanellope hilariously bonds with the Disney princesses as misfits in arms. “To some extent, we were emboldened by the work on ‘Zootopia,’ knowing that audiences are actually eager for a more sophisticated kind of approach in family films to tricky subject matter,” Moore said. “And, it felt like, if everyone else was [making fun of Disney], why shouldn’t we? We could do it better…because those are our characters and we know them intimately.”
With the internet trolling scene, it fed perfectly into Ralph’s self-doubt. “Ralph still has identity issues, and the internet is the worst place to put a person who defines himself by how other people think of him,” said Moore. “And the best advice when you’re trolled, when a stranger belittles you is to ignore it. That’s what Yesss’ comment is to Ralph. So, hopefully, talking about it and using characters like Ralph and Vanellope can help start a discussion between parents and kids.”
Meanwhile, the Disney princess sequence grew out of a discussion about Ralph and Vanellope taking an Anna and Elsa profile test, poking fun at “Frozen.” They took inspiration from the Oh My Disney online site and it evolved into a meta moment with Vanellope and the princesses (voiced by the original actors) joking about their struggles with female empowerment.
“When the scene started to be talked about, and the team went off and wrote it and we started to see boards, we decided, let’s just go for it,” said producer Clark Spencer (“Wreck-It Ralph,” “Zootopia”). “Let’s not at all inhibit what we think is gonna work for the storytelling and the comedy and screen it. And they will live or die in that screening and it played huge.
“And from then on, everybody was hugely behind it, and, I think, it’s because Rich and Phil really thread that line of where we could be satirical and funny about ourselves, but also respectful of the characters. And it really is an integrated scene into Vanellope’s story and putting her on a journey that she needs to go on.”
The through-line for Moore and Johnston remains threading the needle between legacy and relevance: “Both of us love satire. We like tipping sacred cows and questioning things, and I don’t think that stopped when we started working here,” Moore said.