The enthusiastic crowd at D23 Expo 2015 was abuzz with energy during the much-anticipated animation presentation this afternoon. Chairman of Disney Studios Alan Horn presented a sizzle reel of Disney Productions past, present, and future, live-action and animation, that got things off to an exciting start. He pridefully reminded the audience of the recent successes the studio had in “Inside Out” and “Big Hero 6”, and that “Frozen” is now the highest-grossing animated film in history and that a sequel is most definitely in the works.
The stage was then handed over to Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios John Lasseter (proud owner of over five hundred Hawaiian shirts) who talked about continuing the grand tradition of ninety-two years of Disney animation, and how his life changed for the better when Disney acquired Pixar in 2006. He said it marked both a guarantee that Pixar would live forever and that Disney Animation Studios itself would greatly improve, with an intentional change from executive-driven movies to filmmaker-driven entries.
The first upcoming animated feature discussed in detail was “Zootopia”, which director Rich Moore (of “The Simpsons”) described as a “Wind in the Willows” for today’s audiences. Moore and his creative team discussed how they researched the behavior and movement of animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park and in the nation of Kenya. The movie takes place in a city designed for animals, by animals, divided into geographic climate zones like Sahara Square, Tundra Town, and the Rainforest District. The lead of the voice-over cast Ginnifer Goodwin (of “Once Upon a Time”) was then brought out on stage to talk about her character, Judy Hoops, a bunny rabbit police officer in her first day on the job.
Goodwin confesses she is a certified Disney addict, who lives in the house previously owned by Jim Cummings, the legendary voice of Winnie the Pooh, among many other famous Disney characters. The crowd was then treated to several hilarious clips from the film, including one highlight that takes place in a DMV run exclusively by sloths. The movie looks like a lot of fun and will be released in March.
The first big announcement of the presentation came in the form of “Gigantic”, a Disneyfied take on the classic tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Director Nathan Greno hopes the movie will become the definitive version of the tale. It takes place in Spain during the Age of Exploration and Discovery, and centers around the friendship formed between the adventurous Jack and an eleven-year-old girl giant named Inma as they face off against the warring race of Storm Giants. “Frozen” songwriters Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez were brought on-stage to perform their terrifically fun original song “My Little Man” written for the movie, set to storyboards of the scene during which it will play. “Gigantic” certainly seems to be Disney’s attempt to replicate the successes of both “Frozen” and “Tangled” in reinterpreting age-old stories for contemporary audiences. From what we saw today, that success is all but guaranteed.
Directors John Musker and Ron Clements of “Moana” promised a movie inspired by the people, stories, and music of the South Pacific, and it looks to be a visual treat. The story takes place two thousand years ago and focuses on a sixteen-year-old girl who aspires to continue the traditions of her people, renown as the world’s greatest navigators. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays the legendary demigod Maui, and the famous actor/professional wrestler delighted the D23 audience by coming out on stage to discuss his character and how thrilled he was to be in the movie and a part of the Disney family. We were then shown several clips of the film, which looks gorgeous and moving, including a test of a fearsome living volcanic guardian. A subsequent musical performance by the band who will provide the film’s music was very rousing. Very cool!
Then came time for the Pixar portion of the afternoon’s presentation, and John Lasseter gushed about how proud he was of “Inside Out”, and how, to him, it may very well be the most important movie the studio has made. We were then treated to the exclusive world premiere of the new “Inside Out” short, “Riley’s First Date?”, which was very funny and should definitely please fans of the movie, and will be available on its blu-ray and DVD releases in the fall.
The Good Dinosaur
“The Good Dinosaur” is the most immediate release on Pixar’s docket, and its filmmakers were not shy about sharing several long clips of the film, which centers around a dinosaur named Arlo who must transform from timid to confident as he makes a long journey back home after being swept down a river. He is accompanied by a feral human child caveman who, though anachronistic, will likely become a favorite of anyone who sees the movie when it finally hits theaters this November. Despite its troubled production history, “The Good Dinosaur” appears to be a fun road-trip movie with classic Disney-style tropes and characters.
Internationally famous comedian and talk-show host Ellen Degeneres was on-hand to discuss “Finding Dory”, the sequel she publically demanded many times, as was demonstrated in a series of clips. Director Andrew Stanton discussed how he felt the only unanswered question from “Finding Nemo” was Dory’s history– where was her family? So Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy have been cast as her parents and new cast members Ed O’Neill and Ty Burrell (both of “Modern Family”) and Kaitlyn Olson (from “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”) play a variety of interesting sea creatures who help Dory on her quest to discover her past. The clips we were shown looked very promising.
Another original Pixar film in development is called “Coco”, a title finally given to the long-announced Mexican Day of the Dead-themed movie coming down the pike from the studio. The main character will be a twelve-year-old boy named Miguel who unravels a generations-old mystery. We were shown a brief “diorama” of what the world of the movie will look like– lots of skeleton mariachis, apparently– but not much else. This could be interesting, but it seems reminiscent in theme and design to the incredible LucasArts adventure computer game “Grim Fandango”. Part of me wishes Pixar had simply developed that story into a movie instead, considering Disney now owns that property as well.
Toy Story 4
The final upcoming Pixar film to be previewed at this year’s D23 Expo was the hotly-anticipated “Toy Story 4”, which will once again be directed by the man himself, John Lasseter. Lasseter talked about how he and his creative team made a pinky-swear after “Toy Story 3” came out that they would never make another one unless a truly worthy story came around. That story seems to have taken the shape of a quest by Woody and Buzz to track down the now-lost toy Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts, who did not appear in the third entry in the franchise. Lasseter said that each “Toy Story” movie was a different genre, and that this would be the first that could be considered a love story. Personally I think the trilogy works perfectly as it stands and well enough should sometimes be left alone, but I won’t kid myself that there is any doubt I will be in the theater once this new entry finally arrives.
The presentation was closed out by a brisk rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” performed by the always-terrific Randy Newman and accompanied by many Green Army Men, who rappelled from the rafters of the convention center to dance to the music with Woody and Buzz and shoot t-shirts into the crowd. All in all, it was a long, worthwhile afternoon showcasing the very promising near future of Disney animation.