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Why Disney decided to take the mick out of its princess stereotype

In the movie, the princesses stand up for themselves.

null Source: DISNEY

IN THE LATEST Disney animated movie, Ralph Breaks The Internet, there’s a scene that might surprise viewers. In it, lead character Vanellope Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman) meets a group of the studio’s iconic Disney Princesses, including Mulan, Snow White and Elsa.

She tells them she’s a princess too, whereupon they ask her what people have got wrong about her. “Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big, strong man showed up?” Rapunzel asks Vanellope, the annoyance clear in her voice.

The scene takes the mick out of the princess trope – the stereotype that she’s weak and needs rescuing – while also giving the women a voice that up till now hasn’t been heard.

It’s a moment that’s unexpected in a Disney movie. Yes, the princess trope has been much criticised, but would the movie behemoth be capable of accepting this in order to take the mick out of the company’s work?

As it turns out, the company wanted the initial idea pushed even further, directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston tell TheJournal.ie

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET Source: null

The directors were initially nervous about pitching the scene, says Johnston (who was a journalist before he had a career change at the age of 30 and went back to do an MFA in film). “We showed it to the bosses at Disney very early, when it was just in a sort of embryonic state, and they loved it,” he says.

“And they said that’s fine, go farther, with the idea being the rest of the world pokes fun at and mocks Disney and the Disney brand. But if we who are on the inside can do that lovingly, the way you would make fun of a friend or a family member, then our satire is coming from a place of love and respect for the characters and not any malice or anything like that.”

He says that “as silly as that scene is, and funny hopefully” it’s their “abiding respect for the characters that I think makes the satire actually work”.

“So no one leaves feeling yeuch, icky about it,” he says. Co-director Rich Moore (who worked on Futurama and the Simpsons and who designed the Ned Flanders character) adds that they were cognisant of not trying to change the idea of what a Disney princess is. Perhaps it was more a case of updating her for the modern age.

“We’re not reinventing who they are. It’s definitely coming from the personalities that we know and from their journeys that we know,” he says. “Or that maybe we’ve forgotten about how incredible these stories are that they’ve gone through. And I think that maybe people think of them, the princesses, as fashion plates.

That here were these women wearing gowns that look beautiful – but really they have crazy stories that led them to that point. And shining a light in a humorous way on it, on their stories, makes them – as strange as it sounds – in this funny movie it makes them more human to me, and it makes them more contemporary to me.

Designing the internet

null Source: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Another interesting element to the movie is that it brings the characters Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C Reilly) and Vanellope Schweetz into the internet – which meant visualising what the internet would actually look like. How do you even go about doing that? 

“I would say first it started as not really understanding how daunting it would be,” says Moore.

It took months of work with a production design team to start feeling like they were dong the notion justice. Once they hit upon the idea of the internet being “like an ancient city where it’s built one civilisation on top of each other”, things began to get exciting.  

In order for the internet to feel real in the film, they had to strike a balance between what some might consider ‘product placement’, and inventing new websites. “Philosophically we treated it the same way we treated the first film [Wreck-It Ralph], where we had Pac Man and Street Fighter alongside the games we had made up, like Felix Jr and Sugar Rush,” says Johnston.

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They wanted to make their internet feel like the real internet, so in addition to Ebay and YouTube they put their own ideas of BuzzTube and Knowsmore into the world. They didn’t have to get permission to mention the companies – and thanks to copyright law, no money needed to change hands.

They also made sure not to make the names too gag-heavy, so that viewers weren’t trying to decipher names like ‘Amazazon’ or ‘Doodle’, disrupting their enjoyment. 

How the film deals with things like spam, pop-ups and the dark web is also a clever element which might go over children’s heads, but which will definitely tickle their parents.

“The US is not our stage anymore, it’s the whole world”

The movie is notably diverse in terms of cast and background characters, which reflects how the directors wanted the milieu of the Worldwide Web to feel worldwide.

“There’s a tendency in animated film, since we can go in and change things for different territory, to be like ‘well this is the version for China, this is the version for Europe, this is the version for South America’,” says Moore.

“And we said nope – we’re not going to be doing any of that, the version that you see in the United States is going to be the same as the one in China and so on. So we included signage from all over the world in every version, we wanted people that you see in all walks of life, people from action movies, dramas, comedies, men, women, because we wanted to feel inclusive. The US is not our stage anymore, it’s the whole world.”

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Johnston notes that there were over 500 people from 25 different countries working on Ralph Breaks The Internet. “So we’re getting input from people of all races and different nationalities and religions and so on,” he says. “We obviously want a unified theme in our film and a through-line that makes sense and gives true north to what the story is, but we have input from the most diverse people.”

He says that things need to become more diverse in the animation world, and that the leadership of Disney studio “is really pushing that now, which is awesome”.

“I’m a white guy from Wisconsin, so my point of view is going to be different from someone who grew up in Egypt,” says Johnston. “And I love to hear what the person from Egypt is bringing to this story – which is the story of friendship. It’s pretty universal but everyone has a different point of view on that, so I think listening for us is a very big part of it.”

For a company that has huge reach across the globe, particularly to young children who are learning about the world around them, this focus on diversity and inclusion is surely a sign of a positive future for movies. No doubt other studios are taking note.

Ralph Breaks The Internet, starring John C Reilly and Sarah Silverman, hits cinemas on 30 November.  

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