At Saturday’s massive D23 Expo in Anaheim, Disney flexed its powerful movie muscles in both live-action and animation, emphasizing cultural diversity and legacy building. Among the standouts were sneak peeks of the “Mulan” live-action remake (March 27, 2020) and Pixar’s “Soul” (June 19, 2020), with the studio’s first black protagonist (Jamie Foxx voices an aspiring jazz pianist). And the common thread was the richness of family in all its various forms.
In fact, Walt Disney Studios’ co-chairman Alan Horn literally underscored the point when kicking off the presentation: “You’re not just fans, you’re family,” he told the crowd of 6,800 in D23 Hall.
Here are nine key takeaways from the D23 movie presentation:
1. Goodbye to the “Skywalker Saga”
Horn began by introducing Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and director J.J. Abrams to bid farewell to the “Skywalker Saga” with the ninth and final “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (December 20). The Resistance battles the First Order to conclude the ancient conflict between the Jedi and Sith, led by Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), and Oscar Isaac (Poe), who appeared onstage with other cast members along with the returning Billy Dee Williams (Lando). He said: “Lando has never left me.”
After screening new footage with a black-hooded Rey wielding a dual red lightsaber, Abrams told a prophetic story about including unused footage of the late Carrie Fisher, whose character of Leia he described as “the heart of the story.” After replacing Colin Trevorrow as the director of “The Rise of Skywalker,” Abrams recalled reading a shout out about him in Fisher’s memoir, “The Princess Diarist,” realizing that she had already thanked him for directing her twice.
2. Marvel’s “Black Widow” Origin Story
After Marvel president Kevin Feige and director Ryan Coogler teased the date of “Black Panther 2” (May 6, 2022), and Feige announced that Kit Harington (“Game of Thrones”) will play non-Eternal Dane Whitman in the cosmic adventure “The Eternals” (November 6, 2020), he offered up exclusive footage of “Black Widow” (May 1, 2020), which added its own family spin.
In a hard-hitting action scene in the Cate Shortland-directed movie, which kicks off Phase Four of the MCU, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow finds herself in a brutal kitchen fight with Florence Pugh’s Yelena. Only she’s not a foe but a sister figure, and it’s the start of a deadly rite of passage for the future Avenger.
3. The Reimagining of “Mulan”
Given the current trade war with China, the timing of Niki Caro’s (“Whale Rider”) remake of “Mulan” couldn’t be more fortuitous. “What drew me to this project is Mulan herself, her journey from village girl to soldier to hero in a story as relevant and inspiring as it was 1,500 years ago,” Caro said. “In live-action, it’s real, very visceral, and very emotional.”
Indeed, the footage was sumptuous and epic in scope, yet full of wit as well. Mulan (controversial no-show Liu Yifei) dresses for a meeting with a matchmaker in a state of confusion, yet refuses to play the part of the silent, invisible wife to be, breaking a teapot despite her valiant effort to avoid disaster. Later, when war breaks out, Mulan steps up to honor her family by masquerading as a male soldier, displaying remarkable grace and power in a montage laced with poetic imagery. If ever an animated Disney classic cried out to be remade as live-action, this is it.
4. Pixar and Pete Docter Find “Soul”
Pixar’s new chief creative officer Pete Docter, joined on stage by producer Dana Murray, co-director/writer
“Soul” journeys from the streets of a retro New York City to the mysterious cosmic realm of “The You Seminar,” where we discover our unique personalities. Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher who dreams of joining a jazz band. Ahmir Questlove Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, and Tina Fey lead the supporting voice cast. Musician Jon Batiste writes the jazz music and the score is from Trent Reznor
In the exclusive clip, after finally getting his big break, Gardner falls through a manhole and enters the cosmic world as a ghostly-looking character who must go through some basic training about soul searching with young sidekick Fey to make his way back. Once again, Docter explores one of our darkest fears with imagination and humor.
5. Pixar Goes “Onward”
In Pixar’s other original, “Onward” (March 6, 2020), Avengers Chris Pratt and Tom Holland reunite as elf brothers in search of their deceased father. Directed by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), it’s a world inhabited by non-humans where magic has been replaced by complacency and laziness. In new footage, we discover that Holland has an awkward gift for wizarding to bring their dad back for one day, but that older brother Pratt must tutor him to make it happen. In a hilarious moment, the dad partially returns from the waist down, and the journey will be harder than they think after a growing spell inadvertently shrinks Pratt.
6. “Frozen 2” Gets Trippier
As the new chief creative officer, Jennifer Lee has her own new vision for Disney animation, and it begins with the Oscar-contending “Frozen 2” (November 22), which she once again co-directs with Chris Buck. This one explores the enchanted elemental forest that went horribly wrong by upsetting the forces of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. It offers a more varied visual splendor and a new spiritual adventure for royal sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell). Also returning are Josh Gad (snowman Olaf), and Jonathan Groff (iceman Kristoff). They are joined by “Westworld” star Evan Rachel Wood as their mom, and “This Is Us” Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown as a new military ally.
In new footage, Anna gets to shine as well with the origin story about Elsa’s great frozen power. The girls continue bonding with the help spectacular effects and seven new originals songs by Oscar-winning songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. (including the lullaby, “All Is Found,” and “Some Things Never Change,” sung onstage by Menzel, Bell, Groff, and Gad to cap the presentation).
7. Disney Embraces “Raya and the Last Dragon”
Lee also introduced a new animated original, “Raya and the Last Dragon” (November 25, 2020), a Southeast Asia-influenced fantasy/adventure, directed by Paul Briggs and Dean Wellins (“Big Hero 6,” “Frozen”), produced by Osnat Shurer (“Moana”), and scripted by Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”). It’s about lone warrior Raya (Cassie Steele) from the kingdom of Kumandra (five lands surrounded by a dragon-shaped sea), who teams up with a band of misfits to find the legendary dragon to save their kingdom from dark oppression. They discover Sisu (Awkwafina, from “Crazy Rich Asians”), a dragon trapped in a human body, and battle to bring light and unity back to their world.
8. A New “Jungle Cruise” Adventure
Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt engaged in good-natured sparring onstage to introduce “Jungle Cruise” (July 24, 2020), inspired by the classic theme-park attraction. Johnson, who plays riverboat captain Frank Wolff, described it as a cross between “Indiana Jones,” “Romancing the Stone,” and “The African Queen.” A mock trailer showed off his “kicking ass and saving the girl.” But not to be outdone, Blunt demonstrated that their relationship is a “two-hander” by introducing an alternative mock trailer in which her strength and smarts as scientist Dr. Lily Houghton lead them on a journey to find “The Tree of Life.”
9. The Return of “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”
Exclusive footage from “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” (October 18, 2019) revealed a very complicated family affair, in which Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent in a battle with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith, who threatens her bond with goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning). In a deliciously awkward dinner scene in the royal dining hall, the Queen deliberately provokes Maleficent with racist remarks and the declaration that Aurora will “finally get the love of a real mother.” This incites a war with unexpected allies (namely Chiwetel Ejiofor) joining the battle against the Queen. Jolie said that it’s about families “being pulled apart by their differences” and the fighting “for the belief that what makes you different, makes you stronger.”