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What We Learned at D23 About the Power of Disney Legacy-Building

What We Learned at D23 About the Power of Disney Legacy-Building

There’s a reason why Disney has become the envy of the industry after buying Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm: chairman/CEO Robert Iger has figured out how to incorporate and expand all of the legacies within the Disney empire. Talk about a shared universe. Last weekend at the D23 Expo in Anaheim (which has truly become a mini Comic-Con), Disney forcefully demonstrated how all of this is falling into place. 
Disney and Pixar are now on a par and peerless in animation, with Disney alternating between fairy-tales and buddy comedies — or sometimes both with the Polynesian-themed “Moana” and the Jack and the Beanstock-inspired “Gigantic” — and Pixar embracing more personal movies about memories lost and found with Oscar front-runner “Inside Out,” “Finding Dory” and “Coco” (the Dia de los Muertos project). Even “Toy Story 4” gets more personal as John Lasseter’s love letter to his wife Nancy, with Woody going after true love Bo Peep.
Meanwhile, Marvel begins Phase III next year with “Captain America: Civil War” (May 6, 2016), the culmination of the Steve Rogers trilogy directed by Anthony & Joe Russo (“The Winter Soldier”). Reminiscent of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” society turns on the Avengers as a result of collateral damage and their continuing existence becomes a matter of hotly contested oversight and conflicting ideologies between Cap (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) 
“Civil War” ties together Cap’s past and present with the reappearance of childhood buddy, Bucky, the Winter Solder (Sebastian Stan), as well as the introduction of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). The gritty, action-packed footage looked promising, but it will all hinge on how tight the narrative is given that they’re juggling so many characters in this mini-Avengers ensemble. The appearance of Paul Rudd as Ant Man, however, adds an added level of self-reflexive humor.
Then Marvel enters the supernatural for the first time with the very strange “Doctor Strange,” with Benedict Cumberbatch as the neurosurgeon-turned sorcerer. We were treated to an assortment of exotic-looking artwork and a trek to Asia, where he encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) before confronting her disciple gone bad, Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). There were plenty hints of ethereal astral projection and powerful energy emanating from his hands. Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” this represents a total Marvel departure.
As for Disney, the studio continues to adapt its animated fairy tale tradition in different live-action guises. But always with the hope of honoring the past while making it relevant to the present. That’s especially tricky for sequels, with “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (May 27, 2016) taking a trippy time traveling turn courtesy of scribe Linda Woolverton and director James Bobin. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Time himself: part human, part clock, forcing Alice (Mia Wasikowska) to return to Underland to save the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and experience a twisted origin story. It certainly looks bolder than the original.
Trickier still is Jon Favreau’s hybrid version of “The Jungle Book” (April 15, 2016), with lush photoreal CG environments and performance-captured animals (Ben Kingsley as panther Bagheera, Bill Murray as lovable bear Baloo, Christopher Walken as Louie, king of the apes, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake, Lupita Nyong’o as mother wolf, Raksha, and Idris Elba as tiger Shere Khan). The only live-action component will be newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli.

The test footage was startling at first but things really looked up when Baloo started humming “The Bare Necessities.” Johansson also channels some Sterling Holloway. The challenge will be getting used to these iconic characters being performance-captured, but we’re in great hands with Weta, and MPC’s work looks promising as well. And we’ll have to see if  incorporating more Kipling lends gravitas.

“Pete’s Dragon” (August 12, 2016), will prove to be another risky remake in that it’s a complete departure from the cultish feature with the animated dragon. It’s very grounded and more dramatically ambitious under the direction of David Lowery. And it has the very hot Bryce Dallas Howard and the very active Robert Redford. Incidentally, the only tease of the CG dragon was a glimpse of the fur.
Then there’s “Beauty and the Beast” (March 17, 2017), in which Disney comes full circle with a big screen musical spawned by the Broadway hit, which was adapted from the acclaimed animated feature. Here again, there’s comfort in leveraging the legacy while finding a sweet spot between the two predecessors. But they’re in good hands with veteran director Bill Condon, and the casting is smart with Emma Watson (Belle), Josh Gad (LeFou) and Luke Evans (Gaston). And the video musical riffing between Gad and Evans was a nice touch.
Although no footage was shown from “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (July 7, 2017), newly inducted Disney Legend Johnny Depp enthralled the hall dressed as Jack Sparrow, leisurely tossing grapes into the crowd of 7,500 screaming fans. Disney’s live-action renaissance began with “Pirates,” which at the time seemed risky, but now serves as a template.
Last but not least, there’s “Star Wars.” Although no new “Force Awakens” footage was premiered, the appearance of a humbled Harrison Ford flanked by J.J. Abrams and new cast members John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac and Nyong’o, coupled with the announcement of the D23 commemorative poster designed by Drew Struzan, was enough to satisfy the rabid fan base.
But that wasn’t all: Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”) was officially announced to direct “Star Wars: Episode IX” for 2019, and a timeline filled in the rest of the initial five year plan: “The Force Unleashed” on December 18, “Rogue One” from Gareth Edwards on December 16, 2016, Rian Johnson’s “Episode VIII” on May 26, 2017, the untitled Han Solo feature from Christopher Miller & Phil Lord on May 25, 2018.
Finally, in the last piece of trans-media synergy, Iger proudly unveiled plans for Star Wars Land to be built simultaneously in Anaheim and Orlando, covering 14 acres and featuring the next gen in Disney Imagineering and ILM CG collaboration for the ultimate in theme park immersion.

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