If this past weekend’s third D23 Expo of Disney fandom in Anaheim seemed like a mini Comic-Con, it was certainly by design now that Lucasfilm has joined the powerhouse fold with Marvel and Pixar, making Disney the envy of the industry. But despite showing off its impressive animation and live-action slate, there was palpable disappointment in the arena about “Star Wars: Episode VII” being totally ignored. In fact, it seemed like a missed opportunity in light of the attention paid at the recent Star Wars Celebration Festival in Essen, Germany.
It’s not like Disney had to do much since they’re still in pre-production: J.J. Abrams or Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy could have merely appeared on stage with a piece of concept art or just a brief recap of what was teased in Essen (which included the announcement that composer John Williams will return). The fans would’ve cheered and Disney would’ve delivered a powerful message to the industry.
Aside from that, though, Disney delivered the goods. Marvel continued its momentum from Comic-Con, showing off some fantastic new footage from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (April 4, 2014), including Chris Evans’ Cap strategically taking out an elevator full of foes like that guy named Bourne (which was shown in Comic-Con), and a stealthy, flirty initial scene between Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
Marvel’s Phase II seems to be both darker and lighter, making great use of the Robert Downey Jr. touch as Iron Man while exploring more existential crises for its superheroes. Cap is now a fish-out-of-water in modern times and very uncertain about the moral ambiguities and tricky deceptions he encounters (Robert Redford plays a high-flying SHIELD agent, but you just know there’s more than meets the eye). When you add the introduction of Anthony Mackie as The Falcon (the first mainstream African-American superhero), Marvel has clearly stepped up its game.
Meanwhile, on the animation side, Disney keeps improving during this new renaissance led by John Lasseter. The studio finally seems to have found its comfort zone by melding Walt’s hand-drawn legacy with the best that CG has to offer. The upcoming “Frozen” (November 27) goes beyond “Tangled” as a modern, musical twist on the classic Disney fairy tale — this one culled from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Indeed, the awkward meet cute scene between ordinary but determined Anna (Kristen Bell) and Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) is as witty and poignant as any rom-com today. Talk about strong and relatable female protagonists in animation. And Olaf (Josh Gad), the talking snowman that’s always falling apart, makes a great comic foil.
No wonder “Wreck-It Ralph” screenwriter Jennifer Lee was elevated to director to work alongside Disney vet Chris Buck (“Tarzan”): “Frozen” is a stunning-looking adventure about reuniting two strong-willed sisters to save their kingdom from eternal winter, the other being Elsa (Idina Menzel), who has a secret talent/curse for creating snow and ice (the best ever in CG). Menzel, the star of “Wicked,” even brought the house down at D23 with a live performance of the stirring ballad, “Let It Go.”
The more I see of “Frozen,” the more I think it’s going to be the one to beat for the Oscar. Likewise, the new Mickey Mouse short, “Get A Horse!,” which will be playing in front of “Frozen,” is even more daring than the Oscar-winning “Paperman.” Boasting hand-drawn, black-and white Mickey (voiced by Walt, no less) and his pals from ’28, it then breaks the fourth wall in color and CG and 3-D, and becomes a hilarious dialogue between the past and the present. It’s sure to at least snag a nomination.
But Disney continues to mix it up with “Big Hero 6” (November 7, 2014), the first Marvel collaboration featuring a boy and his huggable bot and a gang of misfit superheroes from San Fransokyo, which could be a big hit, and “Zootopia” (2016), a potentially fun and funny throwback to anthropomorphic animals dressed as humans that have designed their own world, highlighted by a mismatched fox on the run and a rabbit cop.
On the Pixar side, they’re back doing originals: “The Good Dinosaur” (May 30, 2014) is their first prehistoric buddy movie between an agrarian Apatosaurus named Arlo (Lucas Neff from TV’s Raising Hope) and a little boy named Spot. It’s all about visually dealing with scale and venturing into unknown territory outside the comforts of home. And Pete Docter’s “Inside Out” (June 19, 2015) is arguably the most unique Pixar movie yet, going inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, who’s ruled by her five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). You can’t help but see some of the hand-drawn caricaturing that goes all the way back to the Seven Dwarfs.
But the Walt factor has cunningly seeped into Disney’s live-action movies as well, including noteworthy spin-offs “Maleficent” (July 2, 2014), the origin story of the iconic villain from “Sleeping Beauty,” starring Angelina Jolie (who charmed the crowd with her love of Disney and dazzled in the teaser trailer), and “Cinderella” (March 13, 2015), directed by Kenneth Branagh, who seems more at ease here than with “Thor.” In a video message, he promised to do right by our childhood memories by delivering the charm, glam, romance, and spectacle.
Brad Bird’s super-secret “Tomorrowland” (Dec. 12, 2014) starring George Clooney has Walt’s visionary DNA all over it, though we still don’t know precisely what it’s about. However, judging by a delightful ’60s era animated teaser presented by Bird and co-writer/producer Damon Lindelof, it hints at the idealism of invention pitted against the dark forces of the Cold War.
Yet “Saving Mr. Banks” (Dec. 20), the studio’s Oscar bait for this season, pays tribute to Walt himself (played by Tom Hanks) and his enduring ethos that was celebrated at D23. He tries to woo the unwitting “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into selling him the rights to make what would become the beloved live-action/animated musical. If the rest of the John Lee Hancock-directed drama is as witty, charming, and devilish as the meet cute scene unveiled between Walt and Travers, then Disney will have a legitimate Best Picture Oscar contender. (More details on the movie, which closes the London Film Festival, here.)