The Princess Song in 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' Is a New Classic Disney Hit
Disney's follow-up to Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet, might be the quintessential representation of our hyper-connected, always-plugged-in times. When lovable 8-bit lunk Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his racecar driver pal Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) enter the internet, they're faced with a barrage of company logos. There's Snapchat, Amazon, and Fandango. Twitter birds fly about. The final battle involves a Pinterest pin and a Google tower. Vanellope hangs out with Disney princesses in an extremely meta moment. YouTube stars like Colleen Ballinger pop up in animated cameos.
It would all read as totally crass if Ralph Breaks the Internet didn't have something to actually say about the way our digital existence feeds our loneliness and isolation. And it all coalesces in one very amusing song: "A Place Called Slaughter Race."
The sequel finds the mismatched pair visiting the World Wide Web to satisfy Ralph's good-natured desire to make life a little more fun for Vanellope by digging her a new track in her arcade game. It goes haywire, naturally, and in the real world the steering wheel breaks. The only solution: Buy the lone replacement on eBay. All is going according to plan, except these two don't actually understand how an auction (online or otherwise) works, so they overspend on the wheel. This requires them to come up with cash, fast.
Their first attempt is via a personified get-cash-quick pop-up ad, who leads them to a gnarly racing game known as "Slaughter Race," where players try to steal a car owned by Shank (Gal Gadot), the leader of this rundown landscape. (Slaughter Race's obvious real world analogue is Grand Theft Auto; Gadot's role is a semi-homage to her part in the Fast and Furious franchise.) For Vanellope, it's love at first sight. Ralph is unenthused by this fiery, violent wasteland.
The get-rich-quick scheme doesn't work, but it leads them to another, in which Ralph becomes a YouTube -- sorry, BuzzTube -- star, and the likes he receives from adoring fans turn into actual profit. (The economics of this don't really make any sense. Kids, don't try this at home.)
Vanellope, still restless, decides to head to another corner of the internet: Oh My Disney, Disney's fake-BuzzFeed site. Seemingly every piece of corporate IP belonging to Disney shows up in a cameo, from the classic cartoons -- I spotted one of Snow White's dwarves -- to more modern additions to the portfolio. Stormtroopers patrol the grounds, and Stan Lee (RIP) appears. Eventually, Vanellope finds herself an interloper in a dressing room filled with Disney Princesses ranging from The Little Mermaid's Ariel to Frozen's Elsa to Moana's, well, Moana. This royal coterie is milling about before parading around a stage for a "What Disney Princess Are You" quiz. (The references go on and on and on.)
Even as an unabashed fan of the Disney Princess canon, I went in wary. The Princesses are all there, and most of them are voiced by the women who originally gave them life, making it on the one hand a shameless nostalgia play. Fortunately, they also add to the plot, as they're seduced by Vanellope's aesthetic and attitude, while seeing her as a kindred spirit: a girl whose life has been defined by her relationship to a man. Vanellope in turn introduces them to the comfort of athleisure -- keep an eye out for Ariel's T-shirt -- and they eventually come to her aid during the big showdown. (Ralph is a man they finally get to save.)
But most crucially, they introduce Vanellope to the concept of the "I Want" song. To the Princesses, it's the moment where you look in a body of water and sing about your hopes and dreams. It's also defined by lyricist Howard Ashman -- who wrote iconic princess songs such as The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World" -- as when "the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life."
It doesn't click for Vanellope until she hones in on what she really wants: to live and drive in Slaughter Race. Suddenly, she's launching into a song composed by Alan Menken, the Disney stalwart who collaborated with Ashman on several Disney tunes, including Academy Award-winning songs from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
"Slaughter Race" is like Beauty and the Beast's "Belle" filtered through Vanellope's adorably grimy instincts. Her dreamland is filled with mace, underground sharks, and creepy clowns, yet she sings about it with all the earnestness of a princess pining for a magical kingdom. The number is funny, charming, and where the winking nature of the movie finally starts to make sense. The Princess interlude wasn't just a way for Disney to sell new merchandise -- even though, yes, it was also that -- it was also a way for Vanellope to express her desires. Sure, some of the Princess' stories might be outdated, but the tried-and-true therapy of crooning about your hopes still works. "A Place Called Slaughter Race" won't be a "Let It Go"-sized hit, but it should enter the repertoire of kids who identify with Vanellope's weird soul.
For Ralph, the journey into the heart of the internet augments his insecurities. This is quite literal: The final villain is a massive virus made up of hundreds needy Ralphs. For Vanellope, it opens up her eyes to a new community. Both are valid ways to react to being online. Sure, the film could go darker -- the web can be really bad in ways it doesn't touch -- but it gets just about as grim as a Disney flick can.
And while it's worth being a little more cynical about the advertisements flashing on the screen, Vanellope's Princess payoff is better than I could have imagined.