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Breaking the Rules: Phil Johnston and Rich Moore Return for 'Wreck-It Ralph 2'

Re-teaming as co-directors, Johnston and Moore push every boundary they can in ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet,’ the long-awaited sequel to Disney’s 2012 hit animated comedy adventure.

With the wildly successful Wreck-it Ralph and Zootopia under his belt, and with the writer, Phil Johnston, and producer, Oscar-winner Clark Spencer, of both films at his side, Oscar-winning director Rich Moore really hits his stride in Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney’s long-awaited sequel to their 2012 hit animated comedy, which opens in theatres November 21.

Moore’s background as a writer, director and animator on quirky, contrarian TV series such as The Simpsons, Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures and The Critic makes his storytelling sensibilities the perfect counter-balance to the more traditional themes that Disney has so successfully relied upon for decades, bringing a slightly subversive perspective and sense of humor to his work that has made both Ralph films feel firmly contemporary without seeming contrived or fawning. They’re also Disney’s funniest films in recent memory, original concepts rooted in popular culture rather than adaptations of classic fairy tales, fables or comics. They look, and feel, quite different from other CG-animated features dotting the horizon.    

Ralph Breaks the Internet also marks Johnston’s directorial debut – he co-wrote the film with Pamela Ribon, as well as co-writing Zootopia with Jared Bush and Wreck-It Ralph with Jennifer Lee. Working together again in their third Disney feature, Moore and Johnston bring audiences a sequel that is more than a worthy second act, an even deeper, funnier and more engrossing film that despite the vastness of its digital setting, never seems bloated or sluggish. The film also shows the two are far more than gag-meisters, deftly weaving together exceptional performances by Sarah Silverman as Vanellope von Schweetz and John C. Reilly as Ralph, in a fun, engaging and surprisingly poignant adventure set in a thoroughly charming world of bits, bites, clicks and avatars. And, they brought us KnowsMore.

I recently had a chance to speak to the directors, who shared their insights on grappling with the enormity of the subject matter, getting away with making fun of the very essence of Disney “Princesses,” and capturing such fantastic performances from their actors.

Dan Sarto: If there was ever a concept that could prove too difficult to visualize, it would be the ‘Internet.’ How did you approach the idea, the vastness, the design of such an abstract concept? How did you bring it down to the size needed to tell your story?

Phil Johnston: You break things into two buckets: story and visuals. And, the technology that went into creating the visuals. For us, initially, the thing that was quite overwhelming about the movie was, as you say, how big the world was. But not just that. What story are we telling within the Internet? I've used this analogy before. It's like saying ‘We want to make a movie about New York City.’ OK, cool. Well, is it about the Lower East Side? Is it about Harlem? Is it about Crown Heights? Is it this, is it that? There are eight million stories, and eight million visuals. So, for us, the real question was, ‘How do we simplify everything into a story about a friendship…a friendship that is going to fracture within this journey. And then, we want to heal that fracture.

From a story standpoint, every decision we made about where they go in the Internet, the people they meet, and the things they encounter, all had to bounce off that core idea of this friendship. How do we make things as challenging and unpleasant as possible for Ralph, and how can we help him and Vanellope find their way through it?

Rich Moore: It's so strange that these films keep getting bigger and bigger. You would think that after Zootopia we would stop there. That was a big world with a lot of characters and huge challenges. But, here we've done it again. It’s about the Internet. Well, that's a big world. We have to build that out, we have to show it. You can't just say, ‘Ooh, this is a very big world!’  We've got to put it on screen. As far as designing it, there aren't a lot of reference points or footholds to give you traction. It's not like Zootopia where we could say, ‘OK, imagine New York, or Tokyo, or Paris but animals built it.’ And you’d think, ‘I can picture that.’

So, for us, it's the Internet, but it's a city. Well, the Internet is just a screen that I look at, or it's servers and wires in a building. At first, it was very uncomfortable. Doing this job, I know that there are going to be lots of uncomfortable moments where you have to sit in the creative process and wait for the right idea to bubble up. That's what makes the movies here very special -- we're allowed to sit in those kinds of uncomfortable moments and wait for the soup to present the idea.

This was the first time that it felt like we were creating in an absolute void, as far as what does the Internet look like. And that moment of discomfort went on much longer than it usually does. It was many, many moments of, ‘OK, it's going to show itself. It will show itself. Trust the process.’ We say that a lot, and this film put that to the test for me. There were moments when I questioned myself, thinking ‘Have we bit off more than we can chew?’ We want it to be perfect. We want it to be great.

PJ: There was a moment where it felt like, ‘I don't know if this is going to come. I don't know if that bolt out of the blue is going to hit.’ And then it finally did. But I'm a firm believer in if you give it time, the idea will show itself. You just have to wait for the miracle to happen…and be there to grab it when it comes.

RM: The way that we were able to stay on course was showing it often to our colleagues and getting the benefit of their fresh eyes. Like you say, this film was big in scope and sometimes you can't see the forest from the trees. It could get so overwhelming. We would watch it together with our colleagues, and if we got the comment, ‘It's very funny and really exciting, but I'm just not feeling for the two of them,’ to me, that was the devastating note to get. In a movie like this, if you don't care about the characters, then all the great visuals, all the bells and whistles, they mean nothing. When you have friends and colleagues whose words you really respect, and they give you that note, that's when you know, ‘OK, it needs to be more intimate. We need more of their emotional story up front because, without it, the whole thing just kind of falls apart.’

DS: Along those lines, speaking of emotional stories, Sarah Silverman and John C. Reilly both give tremendous performances. They're fine actors and comedians, but together, they brought wonderful dramatic as well as comedic energy to the film. Why the decision to have them act and record together? That’s not normally how these films are made.

RM: Well, it was all borne from John's discomfort with thinking that animated film performances should be one actor working by themselves. From the very beginning, he said, ‘Look, I like to bounce off the other person. That's where the spontaneity comes from.’ In that moment, I felt he was absolutely right. We are selling a movie with John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman to the audience, and what they're coming for is to feel the chemistry between them. If it feels just like two separate performances that we're stitching together, we're not giving them that. We’re just trying to manufacture that dynamic. When they're in the same room together, and as John says, looking eye to eye, they can really act together in those very dramatic scenes. It's important that there is a human connection because otherwise, to me, it just sounds…

PJ: Recorded.

RM: Recorded. Just pieces stitched together.

PJ: And their performances are real. If you watched them record, other than they're not moving around on a stage, you’d see it’s a true theatrical performance. When Vanellope is coming out of Slaughter Race, after Ralph has released the virus, her tears are real. Sarah was crying. She was weeping in that moment, and you feel that in your gut as you're watching that performance. I think the audience feels it in that moment as well.

DS: Absolutely. And, it could have been so easy to play Vanellope almost as a caricature, a squeaky little smart-ass kid character…

RM: Yeah. Like Pippy Longstocking.

DS: But her performance was quite nuanced and well done.

RM: Thank you for saying that because that's what we were shooting for. She could easily have been a cliched ragamuffin that's just a loud, screechy kid. But there’s soul in there…she’s one of my favorite cartoon characters.

DS: Wreck-It Ralph is one of my favorite Disney films. In fact, at the time it was released, I said quite lovingly to colleagues, ‘This is the most non-Disney Disney film since Lilo & Stitch.’ Rich, since you came to Disney, you’ve injected a bit of subversive storytelling into everything you’ve worked on. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, in addition to the already infamous Disney Princess scenes, and a host of visual gags, you’ve introduced a character, Double Dan, that had me immediately thinking Fiji Mermaid from The X-Files

RM: [Laughs] Oh, my God. I didn't think of that! I didn't think of that at all! That's right! That makes me really happy!

DS: Which begs the obvious question, who determines how far you can take a joke or potentially controversial idea?

PJ: [Laughing] Within our process, there's no such thing as too far. We cross every single line, and for all our odd ideas…

RM: [Laughing] We say, ‘OK, let's break it.’ We can always pull back.

PJ: They’re kept up on the walls of our story room. Double Dan, that was a bananas idea. But I loved it. I'm like, ‘Well, it's never going to be in the movie, but let's try it. Let's push this thing and see what becomes of it.’ If you had told me when we started on it that Double Dan was still going to be in the movie today, with his vestigial twin…

RM: [Laughing] With a Little Dan, yeah…

PJ: [Laughing] …in his neck!

RM: It's like, ‘OK, Little Dan's gone. Take it out.’ Then, it was like, ‘Wait a minute…we could use Little Dan as the little brother that you're not supposed to look at!’

PJ: And he's insecure about that…that'll tie into Ralph's insecurity in some weird way.

RM: Thematically...

PJ: [Laughing] Guys, it's thematic. Guys, really. It's part of the story.

RM: It earned its way back in. Little Dan's back!

PJ: Put him back. We had one story artist who would always draw him on the right side, and we’d have to say, ‘Toby, Little Dan lives on the left side of his neck. Put him back.’

RM: We appreciated that our crew went on faith at that point. We told them it would be good. I know it doesn't make sense right now. It's a worm virus that makes other viruses like a worm virus does…and he's made from Spam, and it's going to be Alfred Molina doing the voice…it's going to be great! And, if we go too far, we have the ultimate measuring stick. We just go to Clark [Spencer, the film’s producer].

DS: The voice of reason.

RM: Definitely There were points where we’d say, ‘I don't know if we broke it or not. Clark?’ Clark would be the one that ruled. He always knew.

DS: Every production needs one.

PJ: Oh, Lord. We sure needed one on this film.

DS: Speaking of ‘Did we go too far,’ did you expect more push back from Disney brass when you first showed them the Princess scenes? Were you surprised it received such a positive reaction?

PJ: I mean, I don't know that I was surprised. We walked the line, for sure, but we have such reverence for the characters to begin with, that we figured if we can satirize these characters a bit, sort of poke at the tropes, but do it with love in our hearts and affection for the legacy of the place, we can go in with a clean conscience and say, ‘All right, we’re not trying to pull a fast one on you. There’s nothing under the surface here, but we’re going to take it a little bit further.’

RM: We really believed in it, yeah.

DS: Ultimately it reestablishes these princesses for a whole new generation. It breathes life into these beloved characters that people today can relate to.

RM: I agree. As I've said it before, I don't relate to Snow White. I don't relate to Cinderella that much. I get why they're compelling characters, but they feel like they're from such a different time.

DS: Because they are. But not with a shattered slipper.

RM: [Laughing] That's right. Suddenly, it feels contemporary!

DS: Stylistically, as far as the Netizens, there’s a very UPA, 1950s-60s look to their design, that works so well because it doesn’t seem to compete with other elements for our attention. What went into that decision?

RM: That was Corey Loftus, our production designer, and Ami Thompson, our art director. It was definitely a UPA style, kind of a cartoon modern look, and it was done exactly for that reason: to give them instant appeal, and not make them so complex that they're robbing attention from the main characters. We wanted them to feel pleasing to look at and immediately kind of funny, but not to the point where there's so much texture and bells and whistles that they're suddenly robbing from the main characters.

PJ: Remember, the Internet is 50 years old. Most people think of the Internet as a more modern thing, but if you go back 50 years to the late 60s, you can imagine why they would be that style. So, some of that is thematically baked into the idea that they evolved in the late 60s, when the Internet was born.

DS: That also allowed you to introduce Yesss as a character that was quite different, more contemporary and unique visually. She also didn't compete with any other characters.

RM: Absolutely. She looks very different from Shank, from Vanellope, Calhoun and Ralph. I really like where those characters landed.

DS: Looking back, were there any areas that you anticipated were going to be difficult that didn't end up as challenging as you feared, and conversely, were there any areas you figured wouldn’t be much of a problem, where you ended up running head first into a brick wall?

PJ: Those videos that Ralph made were probably our biggest challenge. Like the silly videos in that tracking shot in Yesss’ office, which, by the way, is the longest one take in the history of Disney animation. And, we made it more complex by putting monitors in each shot, so it's actually twice as long.

Coming up with videos that would make Ralph go viral…we must've worked on that for 18 months, coming up will all sorts of crazy ideas. He had cracked some formula of whatever it took to go viral. We had Ralph stumbling upon the formula in his own bumbling way, and, my God, the videos were so weird…and they just never landed. Finally, we're like, ‘Well, we'll just copy whatever's popular right now.’

RM: And so that's what we did. What about if Ralph did….and Yesss thinks it’s great?

PJ: Suddenly, the scene just started to move. It was like, ‘Why didn't we think of this a year ago?’

DS: Nothing like overthinking something.

RM: Yep.

PJ: We really overthought that one.

RM: We were way overthinking. If we had a whole movie to explore that in, yeah, that would've been fun. But, it's just part of the second act, you know? And it needed to be much briefer in the moment.

PJ: God, that was torture though.

RM: I know.

PJ: It was so bad for so long.

RM: There were so many nights where I'd go home and just lay in bed thinking, ‘How are we going to crack this?’ I've got believe it's going to happen. It will come.

DS: Disney should put Alan Tudyk in everything.

PJ: Oh God, yes.

RM: Everything. He should be in everything.

DS: Anything they make.

PJ: Yep. Everything.

RM: He's one of my favorite people on Earth.

DS: When I read that KnowsMore was portrayed as a cross between Droopy Dog and Truman Capote, I said to myself, ‘Yep, that’s exactly who that is.’ It was brilliant.

PJ: When we gave Alan that direction, he closed his eyes…then said, ‘Isn't that interesting?’

RM: He was like formulating the voice, weaving it like a gossamer cloud. We’re like, ‘Get out of his way!’

PJ: And his eyes fluttered. I'm not kidding. His eyelids sort of fluttered. It was like he was being touched by something from above.

RM: By comedy gods.

DS: All said, are you pleased with what you guys have accomplished?

RM: Very much, yeah. Very much. There was a moment we both shared where we looked at each other one day and said, ‘I like this movie.’ And from that point on, we knew we were good. At one point, we brought in members of our family. I said, ‘We need fresh eyes on this thing. I'm about as spun on this as I can get.’ Phil brought in his wife, Jill, and my two kids came in, and we watched it together. Everyone was crying at the end. It was like [sighs], ‘We've done some good work here.’

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.