The big news out of last weekend's D23 Expo in Anaheim, a kind of Comic-Con for Disney, was the lack of news relating to the studio's highly anticipated "Star Wars: Episode VII." There wasn't any kind of announcement—no release date or subtitle or confirmation of actors who are scheduled to return (and those who will be sitting this one out). In fact, the silence around 'Star Wars' was so deafening that many lost sight of just how much the studio divulged about its upcoming slate of animated features. Not only did they map out the movies that the studio will be delivering through 2016, but they also showcased what will be the pattern for Disney animated features for years and years to come. Only nobody noticed because they were too busy looking for that Death Star.
The intensive animation panel was more than three hours long and climaxed with a Broadway-style number from the studio's forthcoming "Frozen." When the number ended, fake snow fluttered from the ceilings while some in the audience wiped away tears; Disney magic, in full effect. The panel was broken down into three sections, each devoted to one shingle of the company's animation output—Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and DisneyToon Studios.
Unsurprisingly the DisneyToon Studios section was the least impressive. This is the shingle that was once the factory for all the cheapo direct-to-video product like "Cinderella III: A Twist In Time" (because obviously the thing the original "Cinderella" was sorely missing was time travel) and "The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea," and who, under John Lasseter, has found some of its creative footing. Now they're focused on two franchises: the computer-animated "Tinkerbell" movies (which are pretty good actually) and now, the "Planes" movies, themselves spin-offs of Pixar's lucrative 'Cars' brand, which look, like the 'Tinkerbell' movies, to be improving with each installation (the footage from next summer's "Planes: Fire and Rescue" looked like a leap forward).
Just as unsurprisingly, we suppose, was the fact that the Pixar section of the panel dazzled. After a number of years where the studio produced either sequels or spin-offs (or somewhat creatively compromised affairs like "Brave"), they are looking to rebound in a big way. We saw some wonderful footage from "The Good Dinosaur," their movie that hits theaters next May and concerns an alternate future where the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed Earth entirely. The dinosaurs have grown into an agrarian society and the movie concerns the friendship that develops between an Apatosaurus named Arlo (Lucas Neff) and the young human he befriends named Spot. While we're not entirely sold on the concept (another buddy movie? Guys you really didn't read our piece), the footage was beautiful and contemplative and we can't wait to see more.
Even more impressive from the Pixar section was the stuff from "Inside Out," debuting in the summer of 2015. The movie takes place largely inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, with the personifications of various emotions working behind the scenes. Director Pete Docter ("Up") showed some very rough footage of what the central characters—Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) would look like (instead of skin they're made up of dancing, glittery particles), and gave us a rundown of the various worlds we'd encounter inside the girl's mind. But the most jaw-dropping moment, maybe of the whole weekend, was a crudely animated sequence that showed the young girl talking to her parents, where the camera would zoom into the parent's respective minds to see how they work too. It was really funny and touching and strange and pointed what could be the next true Pixar masterpiece; what we saw was strange and super special. (Andrew Stanton, his post-"John Carter" wounds visible only to him, said some stuff about "Finding Dory," the sequel to his blockbuster "Finding Nemo," but after the "Inside Out" footage nobody was paying much attention.)
But what was the most interesting section of the entire marathon panel was the stuff about the Walt Disney Animation Studio. For years the studio has struggled to find its identity. In the years when it looked like Pixar wasn't going to stick with Disney, it was developed as a Pixar alternative, with halfhearted movies like "Chicken Little" and "Dinosaur." When Pixar was fully absorbed, it went back to the traditional hand drawn fare of yore, producing beautifully elegant works of art like "Princess and the Frog" and "Winnie the Pooh." The problem, of course, is that nobody showed up. So the studio has had to forge a new identity, one that straddles both sides of the technological divide, maintaining the brand while keeping it distinctive and fresh.
How they intend to do that is thusly—just as "Tangled" made way for the more modern, videogame-inspired "Wreck-It Ralph," so too shall this winter's adventurous fairy tale "Frozen" (inspired by Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen," which Walt himself had tried to adapt in those turbulent years following the war), with next fall's "Big Hero 6," a dizzying adaptation of an obscure Marvel Comics miniseries set in a fictionalized city that mashes Tokyo and San Francisco together. Honestly, "Big Hero 6," along with "Guardians of the Galaxy," looks like it will be the most ambitious of the next crop of Marvel adaptations. Afterwards, the routine will get shaken up a little bit with the studio taking a year off in 2015 so that two big Pixar movies can open. But when it returns in 2016, it will be with "Zootopia," which they previewed at D23. "Zootopia," to be directed by "Tangled" co-director Byron Howard, is an all-animal movie in the tradition of "Robin Hood," with animals walking around like humans dressed in clothes and whatnot. Except that it's sort of a buddy cop movie in the vein of "48 Hours," where the animals live in a megalopolis that's divided up by the animals' station in life (Sahara Square for desert animals, Burrow Borough for underground animals, Tundratown for the snowy animals). While they didn't announce it at D23, Jason Bateman stars as private detective Nick Wilde, a "HPA" (historically predatory animal) who has to team up with Lt. Lucy Hopps, a rabbit and, according to Howard, "Nick's natural enemy."
And, just as the pattern of more modern, irreverent animation movie is mellowed out by a more classically "Disney" fairy tale project, comes word this week that the movie currently called "Giants" is indeed being worked on by Howard's co-director Nathan Greno (who was working on "Zootopia" too until he pitched this new idea). It's a new retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk myth, and since it's coming out in 2016 (or possibly 2017), there will be enough distance between it and this year's odious "Jack the Giant Slayer" that nobody will draw any comparisons. (It probably won't end up being called "Giants." The studio really likes these verb-based titles for their new crop of princess movies, so start brainstorming what a past-tense verb name for a Jack and the Beanstalk movie could be called. "Stalked" is the best but probably too edgy for Disney.) Following up "Giants" will be one of two projects (they're both tentatively penciled in for 2018)—a teenage space race movie by Dean Wellin that is currently untitled, and the most exciting project on the slate as far as we're concerned—"Moana," a Polynesian fairytale directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, two genuine Disney legends who directed "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Princess and the Frog." What makes this project even more exciting is that it will be the first feature-length production to utilize the 2D/3D hybridization style that was first exhibited in last year's Academy Award-winning short film "Paperman" (and in the impressively resurrected Mickey Mouse short "Get A Horse," which will play with "Frozen").
So this looks like it will be Disney's model for its various animation houses—Pixar will keep doing its thing, mixing ambitious new features with sequels, prequels, and spin-offs to tried-and-true hits (hey, those ambitious new features have to be paid for somehow), DisneyToon Studios will feed its two franchises while trying to up the level of artistry and overall quality of the films, and Walt Disney Animation proper will continue to find the right balance between more traditional Disney fare and more modern, relatable projects. It's like an epic word problem to try and figure how all these cogs work inside the same machine, but if anybody can do it with grace and synergistic aplomb, it's Disney.