When Wreck-It Ralph was released in 2012, audiences were introduced to the loveable videogame villain and real-life good guy Ralph and the sweet, speed-racing sprite Vanellope von Schweetz. Both ostracised in their game worlds – Ralph because he’s the bad guy in an 8-bit arcade game, Fix-It Felix Jr., and Vanellope because her erratic glitching makes her game, Sugar Rush, unstable – the two form a friendship that propels them through Mr. Litwak’s arcade games on an adventure to accept themselves and win a friendship like no other.
Voiced by comedians John C. Reily and Sarah Silverman respectively, the two characters guided audiences through a neon nostalgia trip into the arcade era and helped the film score at the box office. Aside from the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Animated Film, Disney’s 52nd animated film won the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature and led to one of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ rare theatrical sequels (there are only five), Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018).
In the sequel, Ralph and Vanellope journey into the newly introduced internet on a quest to find a replacement steering wheel for Sugar Rush before the arcade owner, Mr. Litwak, retires the broken game and leaves Vanellope homeless. In the pictured concept art, a digital painting by Ami Thompson, Ralph and Vanellope’s spirit of adventure, friendship and on-screen chemistry is on full display, with Penelope perched on Ralph’s shoulders, directing him forwards as he purposefully rushes to their objective.
Part of that on-screen chemistry comes down to John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, and the approach the filmmakers took recording their performance. Co-director and co-writer Phil Johnston explained to Inside the Magic that while it’s common for animated films to record voice talent separately, for around 75% of their scenes in Ralph Breaks the Internet, the actors performed together. “Actors feed off of each other, and John and Sarah have such great chemistry and are good friends in real life... I think that comes through,” he said.
That sense of a real friendship makes it all the more heart-wrenching when their time in the internet tests Ralph and Vanellope’s bond. Unlike Ralph, who longs for a return to the familiar world of the arcade, Vanellope enthusiastically takes to the internet, finding a new friend and mentor in Shank (Gal Gadot), the tough-as-nails matriarch of gritty online racing game Slaughter Race. “She falls in love with [the internet], and his whole thing is he just wants to get home,” Johnston explained. “He wants stability. She wants change.”
It’s a natural evolution in their relationship from the first film, which ends with Ralph reasoning that if Vanellope likes him, he can’t be that bad, but the filmmakers realised that if Ralph’s sense of self-worth was attached to one person, he still had some emotional growing to do. “He defines himself through that friend... So, we started thinking, what would Ralph say, 'If that kid doesn’t like me, what am I?’” Johnston wondered.
It's a pretty heavy theme for an animated feature, but Johnston and co-director Rich Moore were encouraged by their previous work on Zootopia (2016), which taught them that “audiences are... actually eager for a more sophisticated approach in family films to tricky subject matter”, like racism in Zootopia, according to producer Clark Spencer. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, Ralph’s insecurities manifest as a spreading virus that simmers in the darker aspects of the world wide web, including the comments sections that Ralph discovers are full of trolls and online bullies who batter his self-esteem.
"What is the worst place you could put someone who defines himself by how other people think of him? The internet," Moore said.
Of course, Ralph Breaks the Internet is also incredibly fun and the internet isn’t just toxic. A lot of the film’s humour and joy comes from how the creative team used our understanding of the internet to imagine it as a physical world full of recognisable characters, icons and interactions. According to animator Renato dos Anjos, the team spent more than a year researching everyday ways we use the internet.
“When you’re browsing, when you move your mouse around, what do the internet characters do? What is it like buying something on Amazon.com? What webpages do you visit, buttons do you push? What happens when your internet connection gets lost?” he said, with these interactions used to inspire the filmmakers and inform the animation, resulting in streets that look like circuit boards, sidewalks with aluminum cell phone edges and pop-up ads personified as salespeople. Aside from drawing the world’s aesthetics from the internet, the creative team also considered modern design styles like Instagram filters, Google’s iconography and trends popularised by TV shows like Mad Men (2007–15) to produce a “retro, but modern” concept, according to production designer Cory Loftis.
Of course, the internet bustles with activity and the metropolis reflects that through a swarm of billboards, videos, networked roads and buildings that represent brands like Amazon, Facebook and Google. Another big aspect of the world building was holograms, which could be advertisements, characters or even objects auctioned in eBay (it’s a physical place in Ralph Breaks the Internet). So many holograms required an innovative approach and the development of a new shader that was better at rendering holographic objects as the team “did not want the internal structure of holograms to be visible”.
Another place they needed a hologram was for the sign across the real fan-site Oh My Disney, which appeared as a virtual facsimile of the castle from Sleeping Beauty, where Vanellope meets past Disney princesses, from Snow White to Moana. The Disney princesses feature in a scene pitched by co-writer Pamela Ribon, which ends with Vanellope taking a selfie with her predecessors. Pulling all these characters together required updating their classic animation styles to be consistent with Ralph’s world yet preserved their signature characteristics. In many cases, that meant translating characters who first appeared 2D into 3D, which according to animator Kira Lehtomaki, was assisted by bringing in Mark Henn, the supervising animator on The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Mulan (1998) and The Princess and the Frog (2009).
“He would be there with us during dailies and each round of animation, and he would do some of the draw-overs. He did a test of Ariel, a hand-drawn piece of animation, for one of the sequences," Lehtomaki told MovieFreak. “He just knows them all inside and out.”
It’s not uncommon for Disney to sketch their hand-drawn heritage into computer generated (CG) films. Another character in Ralph Breaks the Internet, the search engine KnowsMore, has a CG body but his expressive, owlish eyes are hand-drawn using Disney’s Meander tool. He’s just one of the 434 characters (with 6752 variations) that the animators generated to populate the world, which also included icons from other Disney properties like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. "You'd walk around, and one person was building the Death Star, someone else was making Dumbo or Iron Man," art director of environments Matthias Lechner told The Hollywood Reporter about the development process.
But the animation of the film’s two stars wasn’t just recycled from the first film either. In the six years between the films, technology changed at a rapid pace and the systems couldn’t even open the old character files. According to head of characters and technical animation Dave Komorowski, Ralph’s features, hair, legs and even the wrinkles on his clothes were overhauled, as well as his legs, which due to his 8-bit nature, proved a little hard to pose in the first film. Similarly, Vanellope received more realistic hair thanks to advancements developed for Moana (2016).
Yet under the digital makeovers, what’s most endearing about these characters that’s remained consistent between the films are their hearts, which has rightly seen them find their way into the hearts of audiences around the world.
– Matt Millikan
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