How 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' spoofs the Disney Princess industrial complex
By MICHAEL CAVNA | The Washington Post | Published: November 25, 2018
Pamela Ribon was so anxious about her idea, she had to pause to ask herself: If I write this, will it get me fired?
As a storyteller, Ribon knows her way around a modern Disney princess, having worked for about two years on the hit "Moana." And she says her gift for crafting dialogue of strong, funny female characters had helped her become a writer on Disney’s "Ralph Breaks the Internet" (now in theaters), the sequel to Rich Moore’s Oscar-nominated 2012 smash "Wreck-It Ralph."
So it was with a taste for the satiric that Ribon began to muse: What if, at one point in the film, I surrounded Vanellope Von Schweetz, the "Ralph" franchise’s endearingly daring video-game racer (voiced by Sarah Silverman), with enough Disney princesses that it resembled a sorority reunion -- and then teasingly lampooned their tropes?
Ribon approached the concept’s first draft with the joyful abandon of someone who believed her studio bosses would never actually permit such a comedic palace coup. And so she dragooned the young, well-tressed Disney women, representing eight decades of animated studio history, to quiz the new kid by asking her whether she meets any of the criteria of a stock Disney princess, such as being the victim of a poisoning or doomed parentage.
But then came the true twist: Vanellope’s story detour not only got a green light, but the princesses’ meta-meetup also became one of the film’s best scenes. Despite the long history of Disney-princess parodies, memes and YouTube spoofage by outsider comedians at the gate, the Magic Kingdom itself has just topped ’em all. As Cinder-satire goes, it’s game over -- winner, Team "Ralph."
All because Ribon, the writer and comedian with the peripatetic upbringing -- her many childhood homes included a stint in Germantown, Md. -- adored the internet-hopping Vanellope enough that she believed the big-hearted girl was worthy of being coronated as Disney royalty.
Early on in the making of "Moana," Ribon tells The Washington Post, the writers were wondering about their island heroine: "Will she be a princess? What does that mean?"
That conversation carried over to the early story stages of the "Ralph" sequel. "I thought: 'Gosh, why isn’t Vanellope canon?’ " Ribon says. "To me, she’s my kind of princess -- in a hoodie."
"At first we were joking about Vanellope photobombing the (seven) dwarfs," Ribon says. That brainstorming evolved into having Vanellope -- who goes AWOL from her Sugar Rush game -- come upon the Oh My Disney area of the Internet.
"What if they’re trying to determine whether or not she’s canon -- whatever that thing (is) that they decide at Disneyland that allows some of them to get their coronation," Ribon says of having the princesses grill Vanellope on her potentially royal resume. "And so I took it from there."
But while executing her idea, Ribon says, she began to have a "true panic attack," so she contacted a friend -- a walking Wikipedia of Disney facts -- and told her: "I have all these tropes and I just want to make sure I have the right princesses. Which ones were kidnapped? Which ones have daddy issues?
"She was like: 'What are you doing?' "
What Ribon was doing was steering into a type of scene she has long gravitated toward. Nearly two decades ago, she put together a stage show based on actress Anne Heche’s soul-baring 2001 memoir -- as more than a dozen different performers read from parts of the book.
"I realize what a direct line there is from the Anne Heche monologue show to the princess scene," says Ribon, who studied drama at the University of Texas at Austin. "I did that show because I wanted my female friends to have a showcase, and when I read (her) book, I kept hearing their voices in my head and I thought: 'I think these are monologues for you guys to audition with.' And then that became the stage show."
For "Ralph’s" princess-lounge hangout, Ribon began to hear the voices of many of the actresses who originated the roles. So the film brought in many of them to reprise their roles, including Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel from "Frozen," Mandy Moore from "Rapunzel" and Kelly Macdonald from "Brave."
Finally, without almost no expectations, she ran the idea past the directors, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston ("Zootopia"), and producers, all the while thinking: "They’re not going to let me do this Ariel joke."
Instead came Moore’s encouraging response. "The idea of satirizing Disney," he tells The Post, "is the greatest gift we have been given."
Plus, Johnston says, they reasoned that because the film’s setting is "the internet, you can do anything -- you can go anywhere. So why can’t Vanellope show up at a website where there are the Disney princesses?"
As the princess encounter evolved, the writers played off the fact that not only do Disney princesses often get kidnapped, but that they are forever gazing into "important waters." (In their attention to detail, one princess fan at the studio noted to Ribon that Mulan does not look into a puddle, but rather a horse trough. Robin’s enthusiastic response: "Even better!") The scene also skewers the reliance on a lumbering hunk to solve a damsel’s thorny problem.
Ribon recorded all the princess scratch tracks (the placeholder recordings of voices used during development) so the filmmakers could hear how the full scene would play out.
The producers secured other past princess vocal actors, including Irene Bedard ("Pocahontas"), Jodi Benson ("Little Mermaid"), Auli’i Cravalho ("Moana"), Paige O’Hara ("Beauty and the Beast"), Linda Larkin ("Aladdin"), Anika Noni Rose ("The Princess and the Frog") and Ming-Na Wen ("Mulan") -- and Ribon remained as the voice of Snow White. (Adriana Caselotti, who voiced the title princess in 1937’s "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," died in 1997.)
And all the actresses, Ribon says, clearly relished lampooning their characters with affectionate respect, the filmmakers say -- including how the princesses let their hair down and speak with heightened awareness about their lives.
"It’s like when I make fun of my dad," Johnston says. "Yes, I can do that -- I love my dad and I love his foibles. We are coming at this from a place of love."
Not that Ribon isn’t still on guard about poking fun at the princesses who populate the Kingdom.
"I’m glad people have really liked it," she says, "but I don’t think I’ve truly exhaled yet."