D23 Expo 2013: What’s Next for Disney Animation?

John Lasseter at D23 Expo
John Lasseter takes the stage at D23 Expo to introduce a slate of upcoming films.

Walt Disney is famously quoted as saying, “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing–that it was all started by a mouse.” The spirit of that idea is alive and well under the leadership of John Lasseter, the head of Disney’s three animation studios, whose guiding principle seems to be WWWD? (What Would Walt Do?) Animation has consistently been the core of the company, and after seeing what the future has in store, I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

Lasseter showed an impressive slate of upcoming films from Pixar Animation Studios, Disneytoons, and Walt Disney Animation Studios on Aug. 9 at D23 Expo 2013, a three-day convention for fans of every aspect of Disney culture. In an arena filled with 4,000 enthusiastic fans, Lasseter took the stage to introduce exclusive clips, celebrity guests, and a surprise live performance by Idina Menzel of a song from the highly anticipated film Frozen.

First up was Pixar. Here are some of the highlights:

  • “Party Central,” a new short based on Monsters University, was screened in its entirety. In it, the monsters of Oozma Kappa use two door stations to steal all the elements of a wild fraternity party from their rivals, much to the alarm of a human couple whose bedroom is stuck in between. It’s a fun idea that builds on all the possibilities of the space-warping technology of the doors, with all the wit and imagination you’d expect from Pixar. The short will run in theaters with the upcoming feature The Good Dinosaur.
  • Speaking of The Good Dinosaur, we saw some of the first public footage of that film too, including a beautiful sequence of dinosaur farm workers set to Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” The film is based on the premise that the dinosaurs never became extinct but instead evolved into farming creatures. It sounds weird, I know, but it made sense when director Pete Sohn explained it. The main character is an apatosaurus named Arlo, voiced by Raising Hope‘s Lucas Neff, who befriends an early human child named Spot. Arlo’s family includes Papa (John Lithgow), Mama (Frances McDormand), brother Forrest (Bill Hader), brother Cliff (Neil Patrick Harris), and sister Ivy (Judy Greer). Neff, Hader, and Greer appeared on stage and shared some banter about how they’d just met each other backstage and were already behaving like family.
The Cast of The Good Dinosaur at D23 Expo
The Good Dinosaur stars Lucas Neff, Judy Greer, and Bill Hader joke around with director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream.
  • The next film in Pixar’s lineup, due in 2015, is Inside Out. Lasseter had some fun with the initial working title announced at the last D23 Expo in 2011, The Untitled Pixar Film Which Takes Place Inside the Mind. Quite a mouthful. Director Pete Docter (Up) and producer Jonas Rivera introduced the characters, who are all emotions living inside the mind of a girl named Riley. There’s Anger (Lewis Black, who else?), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Hader again), Joy (Amy Pohler), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Hader came back on stage along with Smith and they both tried performing the lines of some of the other characters with limited success. There was also some test footage shown featuring a fight between Riley and her parents in which we see what is going on in each of their heads. There were plenty of laughs from the audience during the scene. The concept for this one is a little bit out there, but if anyone can make it work, it’s the guy who put a flying house, a grouchy old man, a wilderness explorer, a talking dog, and an exotic bird all together in one movie.
  • The company wasn’t ready to reveal too much about the upcoming sequel Finding Dory, except that the original voices of Marlin (Albert Brooks) and, of course, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) will be back. Director Andrew Stanton is also back at the helm. The film will pick up a year after Finding Nemo, and, as the title implies, will follow Marlin and Nemo as they search for Dory after her homing instincts kick in and she takes off. We’ll meet Dory’s parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy), as well as a beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell).
Bill Hader, Andrew Stanton, Lindsey Collins at D23 Expo
Bill Hader begs director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins for a part as a sea cucumber in Finding Dory.
  • The last project from the Pixar lineup was the upcoming Halloween TV special Toy Story of Terror, airing October 16 on ABC. It takes place sometime after the end of Toy Story 3 and finds the toys going on vacation with Bonnie and her parents. We got to see the first 10 minutes of the special and, despite the footage ending on a cruel cliffhanger, it was great to see Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of the gang in action again. An ordinary roadside motel is the setting for the story, which includes some clever references to all the classic horror movie tropes. This one might be a bit frightening for the little ones, but older fans ought to get a kick out of it.

The next section of the presentation dealt with films coming from Disneytoons, the studio responsible for the Tinker Bell and Planes (yes, there will be more) franchises.

  • Two new Tinker Bell movies are in the works–Legend of the Neverbeast and The Pirate Fairy. Tink is pretty popular in our house, so I’m looking forward to both of these upcoming films, but The Pirate Fairy looks especially cool. The title refers to Zarina (voiced by Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks), a fairy turned pirate captain. She is close friends with a cabin boy named James. (Hmm, a pirate named James in Neverland? Wonder who he could turn out to be.) The oh-so-charming James is voiced by Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston. Both Hendricks and Hiddleston appeared on stage to talk about their characters and their love of Disney. With a little prodding from the audience, Hiddleston even sang a bit of “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book. We got to hear him sing again in an early animation from the film featuring an original song about a flying pirate ship.
Christina Hendricks, Tom Hiddleston, Peggy Holmes at D23 Expo
Christina Hendricks and Tom Hiddleston talk with director Peggy Holmes about their roles in The Pirate Fairy.
  • Looking to build a franchise out of the new Planes film, Disneytoons already has a sequel in the works, Planes: Fire and Rescue. In this one, Dusty heads to Piston Peak National Park to help out a crew of rescue planes and vehicles. Dane Cook will be back as the voice of Dusty, joined by Julie Bowen an energetic scooper plane named Dipper. We saw a sequence showing the rescue team going to work to fight a forest fire. It was thrilling, sure, but it’s hard to shake the notion that this is one of those films driven by the potential for a whole new toy line.

The day’s very long presentation concluded with a look at some of the new features coming from the mothership, Walt Disney Animation Studios.

  • After a touching tribute and appearance by Disney legend (though not officially a Disney Legend, you have to be retired or dead to receive that honor) Burny Mattinson, Lasseter talked a little bit about the company’s Animation Research Library. He brought out the library’s director, who told a story about uncovering and restoring some old animation cells from a 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Get a Horse.” It turns out that the story isn’t actually true, but we were asked not to spoil the fun of the cartoon, so I’m going to honor that and simply say that the studio has achieved something pretty spectacular with it. If you see Frozen, you’ll get to see this run in front of it.
  • Moving on, we heard a little about Big Hero 6, an action film that blends Japanese manga and American comic books. Set in a hybrid city called San Fransokyo, it centers on a boy named Hiro and his inflatable robot Baymax. When one of his inventions falls into the hands of a super villain, Hiro puts together a team of unlikely heroes to help him get it back. There’s a bike messenger, a sushi chef, a barrista, and a comic book geek. It’s hard to get a read on this one so early in its development, but the early art certainly looks intriguing.
Don Hall at D23 Expo
Director Don Hall introducing his upcoming animated feature, Big Hero 6.
  • Coming in 2016, Disney has Zootopia, the first Disney film to feature anthropomorphic characters in a while, and the first to feature them in a modern setting designed by animals. We got a look at how the world will be divided into habitat-inspired districts with names like Tundra Town, Sahara Square, and Burrow Borough (an underground settlement full of cute bunnies). This was one of the most humorous portions of the show, and director Byron Howard (Tangled) and writer Jared Bush have obviously taken a lighthearted approach to the material. But there’s still the underlying conflict between the sharp-toothed predators and the flat-toothed prey. This all forms the background for an unlikely friendship between a fox named Nick Wilde and a rabbit named Hops, whose buddy story will be at the heart of the film.
  • But as amazing as all these other projects sounded, Disney saved the best for last. The anticipation for the upcoming Frozen is so high that there were already fans wandering around the D23 Expo dressed as the characters. There are two princesses at the center of Frozen–the quirky, courageous Anna and her distant older sister, Elsa. Lasseter said that Walt Disney himself had always wanted to produce an animated film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and Frozen, while not being a literal interpretation, somewhat fulfills that dream. Kristin Bell, who provides the voice for Anna, came out on stage to talk a little about her role. We also got to meet the film’s comic relief, a living snowman named Olaf, and the voice behind him, Josh Gad. There was some footage of the character’s big song in the film, “In Summer,” about all of the things he can’t wait to do in summer. It’s funny, but also a little heartbreaking as he has no idea what happens when snow meets heat. The film was a reunion of sorts for Gad, who originated the role of Arnold Cunningham in Broadway’s The Book of Mormon, and the show’s co-writer Robert Lopez, who joined with his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, to write the songs for Frozen.
Idina Menzel, D23 Expo
Idina Menzel brings the house down with her powerful performance of “Let it Go” from Frozen.
  • And then the moment came that overshadowed everything I had experienced up to that point. Lasseter talked a little about the character of Elsa, who spends her life hiding her powers of controlling ice and snow. After an incident in which her secret is discovered, Elsa takes to the mountains to belt out her frustration in a powerful song called “Let it Go.” The voice of Elsa herself, Idina Menzel, came out to sing it live, as footage from the film played behind her and simulated snow drifted down from the rafters over the audience. I’ve often wished I could have seen Menzel on stage in her Tony-winning role as the Wicked Witch in Wicked, but this experience felt pretty close to it. “Let it Go” is a phenomenal, defiant anthem in the spirit of “Defying Gravity,” Menzel’s signature number in that show. Like Elphaba, Elsa is fed up with trying to play by the rules of world that doesn’t understand her. Now that she’s got nothing to lose, she’s going to show everyone what she can really do. I walked out of the arena with chills.

Never let it be said that Disney doesn’t know how to put on a show. It was a long presentation, but well worth it for all the sneak peeks and colorful tidbits shared with the audience. I can confidently say that fans of Disney animation have a lot to look forward to in the coming months and years.