D23 Expo 2013 – Art and Imagination: Animation at The Walt Disney Studios

ROBERT A. IGER (PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY)There is a saying in Hollywood that you are only as good as your last picture.  Well, at this weekend’s D23 convention, Disney held a panel showcasing the next several year’s worth of their animated films, all designed to have us looking forward rather than back.  The presentation took several hours, and by the time we were reintroduced back into the real world, I think the entire audience had been convinced that the future of Disney is looking very bright indeed.

John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios oversaw the presentation, introducing each new film with his trademark enthusiasm and passion for the projects he is associated with.  While not every presentation was a slam dunk, he treated each film as if it was the most exciting thing he had ever worked on, and I accept that he genuinely believes that about each and every project.  As he stated, “it’s a fantastic, exciting time for animation at Disney and Pixar,” and that seems truer now than ever before.

As mentioned above, the presentation was extremely long and there was an incredibly extensive amount of material shown.  Rather than simply recapping each and every film discussed, I’m going to just hit some highlights and give an overall impression of the proceedings.  With that being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t begin by discussing the absolute highlight of the entire panel, Inside Out.

JOHN LASSETER (CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER, PIXAR AND DISNEY CORPORATE EXECUTIVE)

This looks to be one of the most creative films to come out of Pixar in years.  Set in the mind of a little girl named Riley, we are introduced to the concept that our emotions are actually represented by physical beings that control us from the inside out.  These characters view Riley’s world through a viewscreen that sees what she sees, and they not only manipulate her actions, but choose which memories to save in short term and which to save in long term memory.  When Anger, Sadness and Disgust are left in charge, there is a comic setpiece that will go down as one of the funniest sequences Pixar has ever put together.  It’s a complex setup masterfully executed in a seemingly simple way.  We were also treated to a great deal of concept art from the film, including a tour of the various “lands” of Riley’s psyche, including the imagination, abstract thought, dream production, etc.  Linking these realms is a train, referred to as a “train of thought.”

BILL HADER, PHYLLIS SMITH

The cast of Inside Out includes Bill Hader (who showed up for 3 different Pixar films throughout the panel), Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, and Phyllis Smith.  Hader and Smith came on stage and performed some schtick about swapping roles that wasn’t that funny conceptually, but killed on stage.  It was a great presentation.

Other highlights from Pixar included Finding Dory, which showcased some concept art and introduced a new character named Bailey, a beluga whale voiced by Ty Burrell, as well as a short film spun off from Monsters University and ten minutes of Toy Story of Terror, a highly impressive Halloween special airing this October on ABC.

The most disappointing aspect of the Pixar production was The Good Dinosaur.  I love dinosaurs, and have been eagerly anticipating any footage from this film since they first announced it at D23 two years ago.  Unfortunately, this was not the movie I was expecting.  Positing the question, “what if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth and the dinosaurs never went extinct?”  It’s a great concept, but the film focuses on a tribe of dinosaur farmers.  We were treated to an extended sequence of them working the fields, and while it’s moderately creative, there wasn’t anything all that compelling about the footage shown.  The dinosaurs do talk, and the story focuses on the friendship that develops between one of the dinosaurs and the first human, a caveman child, that the dinosaurs ever see.  While the world itself looks amazing, the dinosaurs are way too cartoonish, and the characterizations appear far broader than I was expecting.  I think I was expecting a little more depth, and this one just proved overwhelming.

The next portion of the panel revolved around Disney Toon Studios, the company responsible for the Tinkerbell films and the newly released Planes, starring Dane Cook.  I’ve only seen one Tinkerbell film, and while it’s not my personal type of film, I appreciate the content they are providing for their intended audience.  There are two films under the Tinkerbell banner currently in production, “Legend of the NeverBeast,” and “The Pirate Fairy.”  It is “The Pirate Fairy” that is going to garner all of the attention with the reveal that Tom Hiddleston, aka Loki, will be voicing none other than Captain Hook.  They look to be tying the world of Pixie Hollow into the world of Peter Pan, and for the first time, I think I might be starting to consider possibly getting excited about one of these Tinkerbell movies.  Christina Hendricks from Mad Men also stars as the title character, and it was a thrill to see Hiddleston and Hendricks on stage bantering together.

CLARK SPENCER, BYRON HOWARD

Finally, Walt Disney Animation had two standout presentations for me.  The first is a film that was completely off my radar called “Zootopia.”  You know how Cars creates a world from the ground up in which there is a reality to the fact that only sentient cars live there and everything is designed from that perspective?  Well, Zootopia does exactly the same thing, only instead of a world for Cars, this is a world for anthropomorphic animals.  There are NO humans in the world of Zootopia, and the world is structured in such a way that the various different animals can thrive in environments tailor made for them.  I can’t recall the exact names of each section, but there is a rain forest, a barren desert like environment, an icy environment, etc.  Great pains were taken to ensure that there is a realism to the mechanics of how these worlds would work, and the film looks incredibly ambitious.  I can’t wait for this one.

Finally, the entire presentation ended with Frozen, the big animated film that will close out this year.  A fairytale based on the story by Hans Christan Anderson, this looks to be another classic fairytale from the company, with music from the writing duo that did Avenue Q and the Book of Mormon.  The animation is stunning, the humor spot-on and the voice work tremendous.  Idina Menzel gave a showstopper of a final number from the film that is destined to become another classic for the company.  Entitled “Let it Go,” I have a feeling that I will be hearing this song many, many more times over the years.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we saw, so to speak.  I barely touched on Planes or it’s sequel, coming next Summer.  There was also a presentation for a film called Big Hero 6, an adaptation of an obscure Marvel comic set in an American Japanese hybrid world called San Fransokyo.  There are definitely a lot of films with drastically different styles in development, and that’s part of what makes this lineup so intriguing.  There is a vast array of genre on display, and the artistry being employed to bring these films to life is stunning.  Disney is simply the best in the business at this sort of thing, and today was just a testament to that statement.

Tomorrow we will be attending their presentation of live-action films and will be providing coverage for that as well.  Featuring sneak looks at Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, Thor 2, Captain America 2, Gaurdians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, along w/ the promise of a few surprises, it’s going to be a very exciting event and we can’t wait to tell you all about it.