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.