Here’s the thing about Disney making fun of itself in its latest movie, Ralph Breaks The Internet: it’s so good, I’m almost mad about it. Almost. As a lifelong Disney kid, I’ve often prided myself on my ability to lovingly take jabs at the Disney way of life — all the longing glances at water (important, meaningful water!), bursting ballads about dreams, and the endless sets of twinkling eyes ready to idealize the hell out of the world... they're the perfect fodder for some sick, cynical burns. And because Disney already owns more than half of pop culture (Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel, and OG Disney like the Princesses), imagine my vicious jealousy (and fine, utter delight) when the studio managed to grill its own reputation better than any of the rest of us could with the Disney references in Ralph Breaks The Internet.
If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, we already knew about the Disney princesses making fun of their lives and wearing cheeky pajama sets, and they were cute, I guess, let me be the first to tell you that in the full length film, in theaters now, the hits just keep coming and they are brutal. I just hope Disney is planning to invest its Ralph revenue in a new self-referencial burn unit.
Spoilers from Ralph Breaks The Internet will follow. But firstly, before any joke can land, it needs a set up, so hours before Mr. Litwak installs Wifi (pronounced “wiffy,” according to our hero) in Ralph and Vanellope's arcade, the steering wheel on Vanellope’s game Sugar Rush breaks, threatening to make Vanellope jobless, game-less, and directionless. Ralph decides that he and his pal will go into the internet to find eBay, purchase the wheel, and fix Vanellope's giant problem. The only issue (ha) is the wheel costs actual money and our duo has to figure out how to make money on the internet. And after a series of schemes and mishaps, Vanellope is tasked with acting as a pop-up advertisement for Ralph’s viral videos at Disney’s own website, Oh My Disney. Just like that, the excuse for Disney-on-Disney crime has arrived.
Now, I admit that the self-serving inclusion of Oh My Disney (a Disney-owned fandom site devoted to all properties within the Disney umbrella that essentially encourages that cash to keep flowing in the Disney direction) in Ralph and Vanellope's journey through the internet was somewhat obnoxious. But it turns out it is also the catalyst for something amazing. While the literal romp through the website gives us visits with the princesses, stormtrooper chase scenes, an enlightening Baby Groot Q&A, and a classic womp womp from the one and only Eeyore — all reminders, just in time for the holidays, of all the properties that have tons of giftable goodies on Disney’s own website (real subtle, mouse people) — that clearly bankable move becomes worth it when the princesses tell Vanellope the secret to making your dreams come true: looking at “important water” and singing about your dreams.
The joke that nearly every Disney princess stares at mystically significant water before launching into a musical monologue about their ambitions is pretty good, and would have been enough of an additional princess punchline to satisfy fans who’d already mainlined the teaser clips of the princess suite scene, but then the movie goes unabashedly ham on this seemingly tiny joke.
You see, prior to Vanellope entering the internet equivalent of Disneyland, she seems to have found a new dream: Taking on the trackless street races in the Grand Theft Auto-inspired role playing game (RPG), Slaughter Race, which stars a gang leader named Shank (played by Gal Gadot) whose cohorts dispatch players trying to steal her car with flame throwers. As the movie explores Vanellope's journey to figure out what her ambitions are outside of the tiny Sugar Rush world where she wins every race and knows every track by heart, V attempts to find some important water to think-sing at and winds up finally hitting the nail on the head when she finds a puddle and begins singing your new favorite princess ballad, “A Place Called Slaughter Race” — a song actually composed by the one and only Alan Menken.
You can thank Menken for “Go The Distance” from Hercules, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Just Around The Riverbend” from Pocahontas, “When Will My Life Begin?” from Tangled, “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, and the freaking title song from Beauty & The Beast. The studio hired the guy who invented songs about longing for a new life in the most Disney way possible to lovingly destroy the genre by pairing his newest composition with lyrics (drafted by director Phil Johnston and Tom MacDougall) like these:
What can it be that calls me to this place today?
This lawless car ballet, what can it be?
Am I a baby pigeon, sprouting wings to soar?
Was that a metaphor? Hey, there's a Dollar Store
Look, I’m rhyming; my spirit's climbing
As I'm called through this fog of mace
To this place called Slaughter Race
If that wasn’t enough, the song includes Slaughter Race’s version of cute, baby animals — the great white shark that lives in the sewer and with the rabid dogs and feral cats that pop out of his mouth (he ate them earlier in the movie) — playfully acting as the chorus while Gadot’s Shank magnanimously prevents Vanellope from being blown up or beheaded as she dances through Slaughter Race’s grimy Los Angeles streets like a gruff, glamorous version of Lumiere singing “Be Our Guest” to Belle at the dinner table (also a Menken creation, by the way).
By the end of the song though, the joke’s on you for laughing. Because our dear, sweet, ambitious, conflicted Vanellope actually, legitimately finds her dream. And when she and Shank sweetly sing back and forth that Vanellope is “living the life” and “loving the chase” before flying off a ramp into the sky while bombs explode like Disneyland fireworks in tandem with Sarah Silverman’s sweetly sung “slaughhhhhter raaaaace,” I kid you not, I may or may not have legitimately shed a tear.
And that’s exactly why this loving, ruthless parody of the exact magic that makes Disney Princesses as profitable as they are is so infuriatingly, maniacally perfect. Because for all the cheesiness, the over-the-top-ness, and the brazen disregard for reality that drives every beloved Disney ballad and makes them so easy to hate on, at the center of each one is the human spirit that drives every single one of us. Making that fact startlingly, hilariously, and unforgivingly clear is Ralph’s true triumph.
So go ahead, laugh at the assertion that Snow White is “legally blind” or that every single one of these princesses has "daddy issues," because by the time you get through every ounce of the loving parody that weaves itself through Ralph and Vanellope's journey, the reason why we all bought into these princess stories in the first place will be abundantly clear: That even when the big, lofty dream comes flanked by a guy with a face tattoo and a flame thrower, that oh-so human sensation of voracious hope and longing will get you — every damn time.