D23 Expo is a time when all factions of the Walt Disney Company come together and exhibit, to the fans, exactly what they've been working on behind closed doors. And there are few panel that generate as much excitement or interest as the panel devoted to all things animation -- that means Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios and, somewhat surprisingly, DisneyToon Studios. This presentation, which lasted for more than two hours and concluded with a full on mariachi musical number (more on that in a minute) was hosted by John Lasseter, a founding member of the Pixar team who now essentially runs the creative side of Disney.
So, what was revealed during today's presentation? Well, a lot actually. Let's rundown what, exactly happened during this lavish celebration of all things animation:
Prepare for Takeoff, There's Another "Planes" Movie Coming
Unexpectedly, the first thing that was detailed was a new project out of DisneyToon Studios, the Glendale, California-based facility that gave us the straight-to-home-video "Tinker Bell" and "Planes" films (both of which are much better than anybody gives them credit for). Lasseter began by saying that filmmakers at the studio have been working hard to "re-imagine and reinvent" DisneyToon and to "elevate storytelling to new heights." While this may be true it also worked as excellent wordplay, since the studio's new film is a "thrilling, entirely new adventure" that celebrates "the next horizon of aviation." In other words, yes, it's another "Planes" movies. But the "speed test" Lasseter debuted, featuring a pair of "Top Gun"-style planes and a plane that looks like the Blackbird zooming into outer space, was more visually sophisticated than any of the previous films. At the end of the "speed test," the word "space" tantalizingly glowed on the screen before more words were revealed, leaving us with this terrific joke: "This space to be filled with a title when we think of one." (It should be noted Lasseter never used the word "Planes" during this presentation but the footage was of planes with eyes so ...) Whatever-it's-called will be out on April 12, 2019.
"Olaf's Frozen Adventure" and "Frozen 2" Took Center Stage – Literally
After the definitely-still-a-"Planes"-sequel footage was screened, the attention shifted to Walt Disney Animation Studios, arguably the crown jewel of the entire company (especially after a string of critical and commercial smashes like "Zootopia" and "Moana"). The focus of this section of the presentation was two properties -- "Frozen" and "Wreck-It Ralph 2." No new announcements were made and Jack and the Beanstalk musical "Gigantic," which got a fairly splashy debut at the last D23 Expo, wasn't even mentioned (it slipped from a November 2018 release date to November 2020, so it's probably got bigger issues). Instead, this section of the presentation rested squarely on the very successful shoulders of these two franchises.
First up was "Frozen." Kristen Bell aka Anna took the stage to briefly introduce "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," a 22-minute "featurette" that will play theatrically ahead of Pixar's "Coco" (again: more on that in a minute). She described the plot of the new Walt Disney Animation Studios production as: "['Olaf's Frozen Adventure'] takes place during the first winter since Anna and Elsa have reopened the doors of the castle. They prepare for their first holiday together. The villagers all leave early to go home for their own family traditions. They realize because they were separated for so long they don't have any holiday traditions of their own. It breaks Olaf's tiny little icy heart to see the girls so sad. So he decides to take it upon himself to cheer them up." He goes about cheering them up by visiting the townspeople, asking them about their holiday traditions, and then taking those ideas back to the castle. (Definitely shades of both "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," but way cheerier.)
Bell said that there would be a special treat -- we'd get to hear one of the four new songs that appears in the special (written by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson). But while the footage started to run, it became jittery and, well, frozen. Out from the rafters bounced Josh Gad, voice of Olaf, who then performed the song live. (Spoiler alert: it's really cute.) "At last Olaf is front and center," Gad joked afterwards, engaging in some lively and hilarious banter with Bell.
The three of them then jointly announced that the sequel would simply be called "Frozen 2." "Not 'Thawed,'" Lasseter joked, before parading a bunch of really bad potential sequel titles across the screen (among them: "Frozen Solid," "Frozen Peas," and "Frozen Assets"). Everyone is returning from the first film, including directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez. "We start all of our films with lots of research. For this film our filmmakers were inspired by some of the most glorious locations on the planet," Lasseter said. Bell continued: "They recently went on an incredible research trip to Norway, Iceland and Finland, so that the world can experience their adventures as well." A short video was run of their adventures doing research for the film, which included going into a very big and deep (and hopefully dormant) volcano. Even in shaky home video quality the terrain was breathtaking; haunting, otherworldly and surreal. In other words: the perfect setting for an animated film. At the end of the video Buck looked into the camera and said, "Elsa would be proud."
A Scene from "Wreck-It Ralph 2" Stole the Show
After all things "Frozen," the attention was turned to "Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2" (it's not to late to change that name to something that can actually fit on a movie theater marquee!). After a brief (and hilarious) teaser where Ralph and Vanellope travel to the Internet and are bombarded with seductive click bait, Lasseter introduced the creative team of co-directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, who are "coming off their Oscar-winning work on 'Zootopia.'"
Moore, who is one of the funniest people on the planet, started out by saying: "We are so excited to be back here and thrilled to return to the world of our first animated feature. The first film was a love letter to videogame arcades and when we thought about where to take these characters next we had to go big." Johnston continued: "They're going to escape the arcade world and enter a whole new universe, the exciting world of the Internet." Sarah Silverman, who voices the Sugar Rush kart racer Vanellope von Schweetz, was then introduced to the stage. She said she loves "this rascally glitch of a girl, so much." The reason that Ralph and Vanellope travel to the internet is revealed: Sugar Rush is broken and they're looking for a replacement part, using the arcade's new Internet router to travel the web. (Does anybody say "web" anymore? No? Okay.)
The team then introduced the audience to Yesss, a character voiced by Taraji P. Henson. Yesss is an algorithm. "If it's cool and trendy Yess has discovered it and shared it with the world," Moore said. Tall, willowy and ethereal, she looks like a fan favorite character in the making. And in keeping with the genuinely groundbreaking nature of the "Ralph" sequel, Moore said Yesss, "has the ability to constantly shift the look of her hair and the look of her clothes."
And then they dropped the princess scene on us. You can read about some of it here, but it really is funnier and more shocking than anyone has given it credit for. At the end of the sequence I picked my jaw up off the floor. Not only is it audacious and hilarious but it is also so quintessentially Rich Moore. It's also very forward thinking; not only do the princesses acknowledge their occasionally iffy place in gender politics but they actively rebel against anything that will have them labeled dainty damsels in distress (it's awesome). The animation, also, is gorgeous. You can tell the animators took the task of creating 3D versions of the world's most beloved princesses very seriously. I love little details like how Pocahontas' hair is always blowing in the wind even if there is no discernable, you know, wind, and how Moana, when she's dressed in her "comfy" clothes, is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "#shiny."
Adding to the overwhelming respectfulness even with a sequence that irreverent was, right after, John Lasseter announcing that all of the original actresses returned to voice their respective princess, including Ming-Na Wen as Mulan and Idina Menzel as Elsa. And then ... the princesses took the stage, including Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O'Hara (Belle), Linda Larkin (Jasmine), Irene Bedard (Pocahontas), Anika Noni Rose (Tiana), Kelly MacDonald (Merida) and Auli'i Cravalho (Moana). Seeing all of those powerful women onstage together was pretty spellbinding and made the sequence we had just seen even more impressive. It also made the wait until November 2018 (when "Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2" is scheduled for release) seem impossibly long.
A Few Details from 'Incredibles 2' Emerge, Catlike, From the Shadows
When it came time to talk about "Incredibles 2," John Lasseter admitted that he had been hankering for a follow-up to the film since the saw the story reels for the original. "I said, 'I can't wait for the sequel,'" he recalled. After a brief faux documentary detailing the career of fashion designer Edna Mode, returning writer-director Brad Bird took the stage. "What separates the Incredibles from other superhero films is that it's fundamentally a story about family, they just happen to have superpowers," Bird said. He then went on to explain how the more sophisticated technology was a key part of returning to the characters (and that world): "The cool thing about doing this again is the technology is so much better. We've gotten them closer to how we wanted them in the first film. We have controls that can do so much more than before. It's like driving a better car." As Bird spoke, the new versions of the characters flashed on the screen, going through several motion tests where you could see them act and react. They're definitely the same characters you know and love but their look has evolved; even though the events are set right after the first film they're definitely more sophisticated and expressive. The Incredibles have truly grown up.
Bird then flashed through some images, including the family's new house ("Water flows throughout the whole building and it's made almost entirely of sharp corners") and cryptic descriptions of the sequel ("the whole world is greatly expanded upon") and its characters ("we'll meet a new variety of superheroes with a variety of powers"). The filmmaker also suggested that Elastigirl will be the center of this story, leaving Bob at home to take care of baby Jack-Jack. "We're putting everything we've got into this film," Bird said (and you'd believe him). He then introduced the cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, and Samuel L. Jackson, plus newcomer Huck Milner who takes over for the voice of Dash. When Bird asked the rest of the cast if they had any Hollywood knowledge to impart on the young actor, Samuel L. Jackson gloriously shot back with: "Never read the comments."
Bird then showed a sequence from the film, in rough form, that was based on an early idea Teddy Newton (who was a character designer for the first film and co-wrote the follow up short "Jack-Jack Attack") had that Bird absolutely loved. It involves Bob falling asleep and Jack-Jack waking up and fighting a raccoon outside. It plays into what Bird said earlier about the character: "So like many babies he's pure potential. From the first film and the short, you the audience know that the baby has superpowers but the family is unaware." The sequence itself is pure Brad Bird magic: Jack-Jack fights the raccoon and the gags and physical comedy keep piling up until Bob gets involved. I don't want to spoil anything but this sequence, as short and wordless as it was, is enough to get you totally pumped for the sequel (opening next summer).
"Toy Story 4" Probably Has Something to Do with a Camping Trip
The biggest bombshell of the presentation, dropped with the easiest nonchalance, was when Lasseter announced that he would no longer be directing "Toy Story 4." Instead, Josh Cooley, an incredibly talented story artist who directed that amazing "Riley's First Date?" short film that appeared on the "Inside Out" home video release (it actually premiered at the last D23 Expo), would be taking over for Lasseter. Previously Cooley was simply a co-director, running backup for Lasseter. Cooley described the opportunity as "one of the greatest honors I could ever ask for." And instead of footage from the movie, they instead screened a short, guerrilla-style documentary about the production team. Very little insight was gained but for the most eagle-eyed viewer but there was a telling moment when one of the production team was referred to but not actually present. Instead, Cooley noted, the was on a camping trip with his family that he stressed had nothing to do with the plot of the movie, which means it has everything to do with the plot of the movie.
That Untitled Fantasy Movie Is the Bomb
You can read all about that here.
'Coco' Looks Profound and Heartbreaking
The last film previewed during the animation presentation is the next film set to be released by Pixar: "Coco." Centered around the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities, Lasseter summed it up thusly: "It is breathtaking. It is beautiful. It's incredibly emotional." In other words: it's a Pixar movie. He then introduced director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina and producer Darla K. Anderson.
They went through some casting announcements (Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt and newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) and some announcements about below-the-line talent, including the aforementioned Mr. and Mrs. Lopez, who contribute lyrics to the movie's big musical number "Remember Me," and Michael Giacchino (who has done the music for Pixar masterpieces "Up" and "Inside Out"), who will provide the score.
Up until now, the exact plot of "Coco" has been a mystery. And a pair of sequences that they screened sheds some light on what, exactly, is going on in the movie. In the first sequence our hero Miguel, who has come to realize that his great-great grandfather is a famous musician who he idolizes, tries to enter a contest on the Day of the Dead. Without a guitar he sneaks into his great-great grandfather's crypt to steal his guitar. When he strums the chords he is essentially turned into a ghost, and can see the other ghosts who visit their families on the Day of the Dead (Unkrich did say the film "explores the universal themes of family bonds"). He and his incredibly ugly-cute dog Dante are soon transported to the land of the dead, where friendly skeletons roam around and bicker (just like us). The design for this movie is jaw-dropping but the skeletons themselves are so cool; the fact that they have actual eyes and that their skulls are embroidered like Mexican sugar skulls are strokes of genius and proof positive that Pixar still has that undeniable spark.
The second sequence shows Miguel, as he's reunited with some of his family members, as he visits the Department of Family Reunions. This is the department, it seems, that organizes the skeletons' trip to the living on the Day of the Dead. There are a lot of rules and mythology that's specific to the world that remains elusive, even after seeing the clip, but the sequence is funny and ripe with family drama. There's one bit where they tell Miguel that if he, a living person, stays in the land of the dead for too much longer he'll turn into a skeleton. Miguel looks at his finger and it becomes invisible, showing the bone underneath. It's a really cool moment and stylishly echoes the "disappearing photo" motif from "Back to the Future." Another thing that becomes apparent in that second sequence is that animals, in the land of the dead, don't look like our pets, but look like those colorful Mexican folk art animals. It's so cool I kind of want to scream but I won't because that would be scary.
At the end of the panel confetti rained from the ceiling and Mexican dancers worked their ways through the aisles, as Benjamin Bratt and Anthony Gonzalez sang "Remember Me" in front of a full band. It was the perfect way to end the animation panel and a reminder of why Disney (and Disney Animation) is the best: because they pull out all the stops.