A certain type of knowing nostalgia is the linchpin of the Wreck-It Ralph movies. The hook of the original animated film, released in 2012, was its affectionate twists on ’80s video game characters. In the sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, the parodic target has shifted to the web. Aiding those sendups are Internet’s “characters”: personifications of various web functions, like browsing, clickbaiting, and going viral. A know-it-all owl—an embodiment of search autofill—can’t help blurting out words as soon as someone starts typing at his desk. Did you mean help? Helix? Hello Kitty? Helen Keller?
Ralph Breaks the Internet evinces a winsome cleverness in its lampooning of online culture today. But the scenes destined for breakout naturally play on the past. (Spoilers from here on out.) A fleeing Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman) stumbles into a room crowded by Disney princesses, as if the diminutive racer had crashed the break room for Disneyland’s “cast members,” but in cartoon form. The royals initially attack—Cinderella creates a makeshift shiv by breaking her glass slipper in two—but they soon realize that Vanellope is one of them, albeit with underdeveloped powers. (Strings have yet to stir when the speed demon sings about what she wants.) While this long-tressed, wasp-waisted sorority recounts what everyone’s been through—kidnapped, poisoned, cursed, and caged—Vanellope teaches them the merits of a life-transforming invention they’ve apparently never encountered in their adventures: comfortable clothes. (This time, the midmovie makeover involves the princesses getting into personalized pajamas.) Later, after the virus that Ralph unleashes to get back his friend (long story) threatens to shut down the internet forever, the princesses help save the day.
That Disney princesses make up such a big chunk of Ralph Breaks the Internet seems fitting, given their perennial popularity as subject matter and the countless, sometimes mind-boggling revisions they undergo online. (Lest you think I’m exaggerating, here’s what the Disney princesses would look like as cement mixers.) By web standards, the film’s updates on Mulan, Pocahontas, and the rest—modern wardrobes, individual weapons, cheeky observations about the lot of royal women—are tame and familiar.
And yet there’s something undeniably gratifying about Disney’s Tumblr-esque treatment of its own princesses, which is no less than a culmination of the company’s pivot toward inclusion. Not too long ago, the Disney princesses were the face of everything wrong with children’s entertainment, especially its effects on girls. Recent films like Coco, Zootopia, and Big Hero 6 have gone a long way in embracing diversity, but given Disney’s near synonymy with princesses—its film division’s logo is Sleeping Beauty’s castle, after all—the rebranding of its princesses toward feminism, independence, and self-actualization outside of heterosexual romance feels that much more striking. Accordingly, the company has dropped many of the princesses’ typical accouterments. Brave focused on a difficult mother-daughter bond instead of the proposed marriage at hand, while Frozen centered on a strained sororal relationship (and made its handsome prince a villain to boot). Moana even had its Polynesian princess, a naval adventuress, attempt to renounce her royal status, Simba-style. The film’s self-aware retort: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
But between ticket sales, merchandise sales, amusement-park visits, and all-around brand loyalty, Disney has too much riding on the nostalgic appeal of its princesses to toss out the category entirely. So it’s strategically widened the definition of a Disney princess, even if it means not-so-subtly rewriting entire characters. (Internet’s Ariel is no longer our favorite shopaholic, for instance, but a trauma survivor.) The princesses all bear a resemblance to one another—and as a result, I kept confusing Sleeping Beauty with Cinderella and Rapunzel—but now they’re all smart, and kind, and badass. A princess’s happily ever after is only in effect as long as she keeps up with the times.
Ralph Wrecks the Internet is an often intelligent film about the web, climaxing with the sharp (and surprisingly subtle) point that the internet often has a way of amplifying our most toxic tendencies. (The climax’s leviathan, which snowballs out of its creator’s control, is a wonderfully apt metaphor for revenge porn, for instance.) But the sequel isn’t really here to ding the web as much as acknowledge both its faults and its delights. And so the film’s series of tubes is healthily boisterous, just like the fans who have been creatively and progressively making over the princesses for years. Ralph Wrecks the Internet is a more-than-convincing mea culpa for Disney’s spotty ideological history. But it’s far better as a thank-you to the unpaid artists who made sure their childhood heroines would grow up with them.