After winning the Oscar for 2014’s “Big Hero 6,” producer Roy Conli was lured to what seems to be a far-flung project: a Disneynature doc, “Born in China,” which explores the life cycles of wild pandas and other native Chinese wildlife. However, he said that it was less about the animals and more about their collective capacity to communicate complex emotions and ideas.
“I’ve always loved the structure of multiple stories,” said Conli, a longtime Disney Animation executive who famously mounted the premiere of “Angels in America” at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992. “There are multiple characters that you need to fall in love with, and they will add up to one story. That was the same with this. You had five species, but you concentrated on three animal families.”
Other Disneynature movies have had more singular topics (“Bears,” “Monkey Kingdom”), but director Lu Chuan’s “Born in China” wants to make the audience intimately familiar with the seasonal experiences of pandas, snow leopards, cranes, Chiru antelope and golden monkeys, while also bringing in Chinese spiritual beliefs about life and death.
“Lu Chuan brought to it that amazing parenthetical structure,” he said. “He took the cranes as the mythological, spiritual end of China, and the Chirus as the down-to-earth cycle of life in China, and then builds these three stories that evolved through the animals. They all play in a counterpoint to one another.” (Disney will donate a portion of the first week’s gross of “Born in China” to the World Wildlife Fund.)
Conli would like to explore more ensemble storytelling in animation, including a potential Marvel-Disney “Big Hero 6” sequel. The first movie concentrated on Robotics prodigy Hiro (Ryan Potter) and his care-giving bot buddie, Baymax (Scott Adsit). However, the cast also includes Go Go Tamago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and Fred (T.J. Miller). It’s also been rumored that Hiro’s late brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), could be resurrected to join the team.
“In one way it begs for a continuation and in another way it sits as its own piece,” Conli said. But he also acknowledged that a four or five-year commitment is difficult for a director. “To restrict a director to that one world, you need to make sure that director wants to inhabit that world for that length of time.”
Upcoming, Conli produced the ABC holiday special “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” He also provided notes for “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2” (March 9, 2018), the Jack and the Beanstalk-inspired “Gigantic” (November 21, 2018), and “Frozen 2.” He offered that Disney embraces Once Upon a Time, while Pixar explores What If.
“There’s not a dearth of ideas, but it’s always a challenge to make those ideas work at the highest possible level,” Conli said. “But we seem to be on a good roll right now. I think we’re in good shape for 10 years.”