In “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) come to the realization that they each have different needs and that the world is quickly changing around them, including the Millennial role of the Disney Princesses.
Similarly, Disney Animation is coping with change as well, led by Jennifer Lee as the new chief creative officer, who succeeds the legendary yet embattled John Lasseter. Though continuing to balance legacy with innovation, there’s now an important opportunity to embrace greater inclusion and diversity at the studio, breaking up the old boy’s club by empowering more women and people of color from top to bottom. (One indication is the Asian-themed, female-driven fantasy being developed by “Crazy Rich Asians” scribe Adele Lim and “Moana” producer Osnat Shurer.)
“I think there is great change going on at the studio,” said “Ralph” director Rich Moore. “It’s that feeling of ‘we’re still trying to do the same things, but different.’ Jen is doing a great job as our creative leader as well as balancing ‘Frozen 2.’ I look at our creative slate and there’s great stories and great leadership that comes from different points of view.”
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“I think what we’re going to see most in the coming years is continuing the foundation at its best, but we are empowering people with different voices,” added Phil Johnston, the “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia” screenwriter-turned-director on “Breaks the Internet.”
As former outsiders, Lee, Moore, and Johnston have now become the consummate insiders, well aware of the risks and opportunities of coping with change. With “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Disney’s first sequel during this new golden age, the challenge was not getting swallowed up by the Internet, the studio’s most ambitious and complex piece of animated world building.
“At its core is a simple story about friendship,” Johnston said. “It gets a little toxic and then changes and, hopefully, gets better. But when we first realized that the Internet is where we wanted to base this thing, it’s limitless. How do you tell a simple story in the biggest world you could ever imagine? It was bumpy getting here, but ‘Zootopia’ was probably bumpier getting there.”
As Ralph and V venture into the Internet, a modern metropolis of popular branding built on the foundation of a circuit board, Ralph’s insecurity gets the best of him and spreads like a virus. “How we realized that onscreen seemed impossible,” Moore said. “But the Story Trust encouraged us to embrace change and see it through to the end with Ralph and Vanellope.”
But even when confronted with pleas to change African American Tiana (“The Princess and the Frog”) back to her original appearance in the hilarious Princess sequence, the directors were sympathetic. “It was unexpected but like anything we get notes on, we looked at it and realized they were absolutely right, we hadn’t gotten it right,” Johnston said. “So the challenge of drawing in 2D and converting that into CG had never been done before with that character.
“We had one of the original animators, Mark Henn, come in and recommend changes to make her look more like the original, hand-drawn character,” added Johnston. “And we brought in voice actor Anika Noni Rose and [Color of Change], and they said we got it right. We were thrilled.”
Disney’s proactive response to the Tiana push back further demonstrates the studio’s cultural sensitivity, according to the directors. “Our theater is not just the United States anymore — it’s the world,” said Moore. “And to appeal to the world, you need different points of view. I think the reach needs to be wider, but it’s a very inclusive environment I see happening at the studio.”