She’d never ask for anyone to actually call her by the title, but the sassy star of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is, in fact, a Disney princess. When Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman) was introduced in the 2012 Disney hit “Wreck-It Ralph,” she was presented as a sassy racer in the candy-coated Sugar Rush arcade game, a misanthropic glitch who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of her peppy competitors. By the end of the popular animated feature, Vanellope was crowned a winner, a best friend, and an actual princess (in true Vanellope fashion, she simply asked that she be called the president, but the royal stuff still sticks).
In the world of Disney, that princess moniker doesn’t come lightly, and anointing the sassy Vanellope means she joins classic characters such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Pocahontas. Fittingly, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” puts Vanellope at the center of its story, but it’s not the standard Disney Princess narrative. Instead, the film centers its story around a princess intent on making her own way in the world and not being beholden to a handsome prince while doing it.
Silverman doesn’t take that lightly. “This is kind of the first time Vanellope has a role model within the movie, and then, she also gets to be a role model,” Silverman said. “Everybody has something to teach and something to learn. … It’s nice for young girls and boys who are watching the movie, but it’s also nice within the characters of the movie to have this sisterhood.”
While the John C. Reilly-voiced Ralph is Vanellope’s best friend, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” introduces a cool new character for Vanellope to look up to: fellow competitive racer Shank, voiced by Gal Gadot. While Shank seems scary at first, she soon reveals herself to be a charismatic leader who is happy to take young Vanellope under her wing.
“It’s nice to not have the female characters pitted against each other, and [know] that they love each other,” Silverman said. “That they’re both highly competitive and that can be a healthy thing that doesn’t bleed into the personal.”
Halfway through the film, Vanellope runs into a very different group of female role models: the rest of the actual Disney Princesses, who are hanging out “backstage” after another hard day working on a Disney fansite. That’s when Vanellope gets to turn on her own inspirational powers, pushing the princesses to loosen up in the face of such forward-thinking cheer. It starts with their clothes, but it ends up going far deeper.
“When she’s with all the Disney princesses, which is just an insane scene, she actually has something to teach. She looks at these grownups and just is like, ‘Why are you in uncomfortable clothes?,'” Silverman said. “It is something that’s always like, perplexed me, is this idea that boys are never taught they have to be uncomfortable to be loved. Girls have this innate thing, you have to wear tight things or heels or have a small enough waist or big enough boobs or whatever. It’s all just this fabricated thing. It’s all bullshit, you know? You can wear comfortable clothes and still deserve love. It’s a much happier existence.”
For all its important life lessons, the scene is also quite funny, and directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston and co-writer Pamela Ribon seem to have relished the chance to blow up some of the tropes that the studio held dear for so long. “They kind of let us play with these iconic characters,” Silverman said. “I think that in another time, they may have been more protective of that. It’s poking holes in things and showing the progress and inclusivity over time. Disney itself has grown and changed and can make fun of itself. That’s a huge element of growth, and without it, how can we expect these characters to grow and to be able to make fun of each other?”
Personal growth is the film’s overriding theme, and as Vanellope grows, Ralph freaks out, terrified that he’s going to lose his best pal to a cool new life. It’s not the kind of storyline that Disney would normally assign to a princess-leaning film, the kind that’s hellbent on tidy endings and happily-ever-afters.
“That relationship doesn’t have to die,” she said. “I think it’s a very female thing, that we’re starting to grow out of hopefully, of sacrificing your own happiness and your own ambition, to make sure a man isn’t hurt. That really is so beautifully expressed here. There’s no bad guys. He’s riddled with feelings. It’s threatening to him. He’s insecure and that kind of takes on a life of its own.”
It’s a lesson anyone could stand to learn, but it’s thrilling to see these ideas humanely portrayed in an all-ages Disney film. “That’s a real thing that happens, but that we’re all just made up of feelings,” Silverman said. “It’s okay to have feelings that aren’t always good or healthy. It’s how we process things, and realize that we can stay friends and that she can live this new life of adventure that she earned, and that they can both live their best lives and still be friends. That’s something that we all kind of need to learn at different stages of our lives, you know?”
Walt Disney Pictures will release “Ralph Breaks the Internet” November 21.