Editor’s note: This post originally was written in live-blog format. It has been edited to past tense but maintains the timeframe in which it was written.
There was a galaxy full of news at Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim today, with the most-anticipated presentation of the three-day convention’s first day seeing Kevin Mayer. The chairman of Disney’s Direct-to-Consumer & International Division took center stage with his deep-dig preview of Disney+, the streaming service that launches Nov. 12.
The panel presentation ended with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy talking about the “exhilarating and liberating” challenge of embracing live-action episodic storytelling — something that’s new for both the Star Wars brand and Kennedy herself, whose career has hewed to big-screen sagas.
Kennedy announced that Clone Wars, the fan-favorite animated series, will return with a Disney+ revival. She was joined onstage by daft duo of Diego Luna and Alan Tudyk, who will begin filming their previously announced Rogue One spinoff series next year. “See you in London,” Kennedy said as the pair left.
Then came the moment everyone has been waiting for: The Mandalorian preview. The Mandalorian is the first live-action Star Wars television series in the four-decade history of the Jedi universe. The action is set on the lawless fringe of the galaxy shortly after the fiery funeral of Darth Vader on Endor and the place is that’s slipping into chaos.
Jon Favreau is the writer, creator, and showrunner for The Mandalorian and serves as executive producer with longtime Lucasfilm stalwart Dave Filoni (The Clone Wars), who directed the first episode. The affable tandem of Favreau and Filoni have bonded in recent months as two lifelong Star Wars fans excavated new stories in the universe that George Lucas introduced in 1977.
The cast is a fascinating mix: Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Nick Nolte, Giancarlo Esposito, Carl Weathers, Emily Swallow, Omid Abtahi, Werner Herzog, Taika Waititi, Bill Burr, and Mark Boone Jr. “Do these people not look like they belong in the Star Wars universe,” Favreau said as his cast assembled on the D23 stage.
Pascal said, simply, “This is a dream come true.” Then the trailer, which looked fabulous. The trailer (watch it here) is the same as (or very close to) the footage shown at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago but it was terrific. Some of the best-looking Star Wars footage in franchise history with a Once Upon a Time in the Old West ethos.
Then a bombshell. Kathleen Kennedy returned to the stage and introduces someone she describes as very special to the Star Wars universe. Ewan McGregor emerged onstage, fulfilling the rumors that have been circuiting that he is picking up his light saber again. The Scottish actor and Kennedy had a playful moment.
“Ask me if I’m going to play Obi-Wan Kenobi again,” the rakish actor said. Kennedy compiled. “Are you going to play Obi-Wan Kenobi again?” McGregor grinned. “Yes.” Crowd went wild.
After four years of equivocating on the topic, McGregor said it was a relief to finally answer succinctly and positively. Kennedy said writing for the series is in advanced stages and filming will get underway next year.
Star Wars is one major centerpiece of the Disney+ programming plan, and the other is Marvel, which is nothing less than the hottest brand in recent Hollywood history. The big news from Feige: She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Moon Knight are three new Marvel Studios series that will hit the streaming service, bringing a trio of characters created in the 1970s pages of Marvel Comics to the screen for the first time.
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige also showed footage from What If? the first animated Marvel Studios project. The traditional 2D animation footage looked sharp and distinctive and the audience reaction was strong to the show concept which revisits pivotal moments in Marvel canon and asks what would have happened if things had gone differently?
The What If? footage showed Agent Peggy Carter, the British intelligence agent who becomes the one true love of Steve Rogers, but in this alternate reality she is the one who gets the super-soldier serum and, with a Union Jack-emblazoned shield, she fights as Captain Britain.
Here’s a trailer for the launch of the streaming service:
Feige welcomed to the stage Hayley Atwell, who played Carter in Marvel films as well as her own primetime TV series. Feige then brought up Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, stars of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and announced that Emily VanCamp will return to the role of Sharon Carter on the show.
Marvel Trailer for WandaVision, which teams Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany, presented a truly off-kilter interpretation of MCU with a tonal melding of epic Marvel adventure and sitcom. It seemed like an episode of The Outer Limits as first glance (and included an unexpected nod to The Dick Van Dyke Show). Clearly, Marvel is looking for a wide array of genre approaches to the traditional superhero saga and this partisan crowd loved it.
Sean Bailey, Walt Disney Studios’ President of Motion Picture Production, then took over the presentation flow and showed footage from Stargirl, which synchs up with High School Musical as a campus-based, music-laced teen program but with a more heartfelt approach. Next was footage from Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, which looked great with its monotone young protagonist, the quirky child detective.
Next up was Lady and the Tramp, a live-action/CG hybrid remake of the 1955 animated classic. Monte, a 2-year-old rescue originally from Las Cruces, NM, plays Tramp opposite a cocker spaniel named Rose who is fetching in the role of Lady. The human voices are handled by Justin Theroux and Tessa Thompson. Charlie Bean (Lego Ninjago Movie) is directing.
The world premiere of the Lady and the Tramp trailer showed a lushly filmed, sweetly meandering stroll through a sun-dappled version of the world. The movie looks sweet but might be aiming primarily for moviegoers who buy dog calendars with air-brushed schnauzers.
Bailey then skipped to some Christmas fare. He described Noelle, a live-action film with Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Billy Eichner, and Shirley MacLaine, that will be available at launch. Kendrick and Eichner came to the stage to intro the trailer. “Please watch it every Christmas,” Kendrick pleaded. “And every other day of the year,” Eichner added.
The trailer shows the Kringle family in search of the missing Santa Claus, and it looked reasonably fun.
Next up: The Muppets.Jim Henson’s band of loopy characters will be featured in a series of unscripted shorts called Muppets Now, which will have an Interview format. Kermit the Frog sounds upbeat about the project so that bodes well but not much else illumination in the teaser trailer shown in the room.
The panel opened with some major school spirit — an elaborate Wildcats song-and-dance number from the cast of High School Musical: The Series (watch the trailer here). Mayer said all Pixar feature films and all the classic Disney animation titles will be available on Disney+.
The Disney Channel segment announced that Lizzie McGuire will be revived as series. The “old” Lizzie star, Hillary Duff, came out onstage. “It’s so great to be home,” Duff said. She will be part of the series, and “thousands” of actresses were auditioned to take on the new version of the 13-year-old Lizzie, which Mayer said will require her to be the “voice of her generation.”
The freshly titled Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe is currently in production for the new streaming service. The title tandem travel across the universe to rescue their big sister, Candace, who has been “abducted by aliens and has found utopia in a far-off planet, free of pesky little brothers.”
This sixth edition of the biennial D23 Expo felt different than previous editions with the scale of the exhibitions (especially with the addition of a tricked-out Lucasfilm Pavilion) and with the still-jarring presence of Fox brands (including The Simpsons and an entire room devoted to Avatar props, models, costumes, etc.)
The dominant undercurrent throughout the event, however, was Disney+ and its impending launch. Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger has framed Disney+ as a key component of Disney’s future and that view is reflected in the scope of the subscription streaming service’s opening-day offering, which will include original productions from Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and National Geographic, as well as high-value archive of Disney.
Iger is making a bid for marketplace ubiquity with the streaming service’s aggressively low price-point ($7 a month or $70 a year) and clearly this fan event in Anaheim was the beachhead effort for the Disney+ marketplace invasion. D23 attendees are being offered a three-year subscription to Disney Plus for $47 a year, which adds up to a 33% discount.
It’s likely that Iger’s decisive, all-in approach to Disney+ would have a fan in the late Walt Disney, who made high-stakes gambles a career hallmark when new entertainment frontiers presented themselves. Disney gambled big in 1937 when he made Hollywood’s first feature-length animated film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) and he did it again in 1955 when he opened Disneyland up the street here in Anaheim. And, in 1954, Disney resisted pressure from other film studios and embraced the upstart medium of television.
The first Disney television production was the anthology series that would later be called The Wonderful World of Disney, which premiered on ABC on Oct. 27, 1954 (the Disney+ launch will miss the 65th anniversary by 16 days). The show sparked a national sensation just two months later when it introduced the frontier adventures of Davy Crockett starring Fess Parker in five one-hour episodes. The Mandalorian of its time?