On Day 2 of Disney’s D23 in Anaheim, and the company’s mega-movies were front and center. Alan Horn, co-chairman and chief creative officer of The Walt Disney Studios, took to the stage to preview the upcoming slate of films, a list that includes Black Panther and Frozen sequels, as well as the final installment of the Star Wars Skywalker saga that began in 1977.
Horn’s preview in front of 6,800 often-delirious fans drew on Hollywood’s gaudiest roster of hitmakers. Marching under his Walt Disney Studios banner — Disney, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, Pixar Animation Studios, and, newly added, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and Blue Sky Studios.
With a title card on the overhead screen showing the titles of upcoming Fox releases (including Avatar), Horn said the Fox acquisitions are “not quite ready” to be part of the D23 presentation. Then he brought out filmmaker J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, who arrived on stage to the soaring fanfare of John Williams’ signature Star Wars theme.
Rise of Skywalker opens Dec. 20 and closes out the Skywalker saga that began when George Lucas launched his era-defining space opera in 1977 with the first Jedi film, Star Wars, later renamed Episode IV: A New Hope.
“What an ending. I can’t wait for you to share what we have all been doing all these months under J.J.,” Anthony Daniels said in a voice that has the familiar lilt of his character, C3PO, to a strong ovation. Abrams (getting a bit choked up) praises the late Carrie Fisher and confides that the Star Wars icon put a “special thanks” to him in her memoir, The Princess Diarist, that seemed to foretell the fact that Abrams would direct this final chapter of the Skywalker odyssey.
Abrams said work is still underway on the trailer (groan from the audience), but there was still something to share. Screens showed a terrific teaser trailer. Scenes of Imperial Star Destroyers floating in the upper atmosphere of a planet under siege. Fisher’s image flashed on the screen and sentiment welled up in the room. Scenes of light sabers spinning in the air and much Jedi combat. The Emperor returned and Star Wars fans in the room cheered so loud that they could probably be heard on Endor.
Horn moved on to Marvel Studios and introduced the “man with the hat,” as he called Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, who came on stage and brought out Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther, the only superhero film ever nominated for best picture. “We really, really want it to be right,” Coogler said by way of explaining why there’s no footage or even a title. There was a release date, however: May 6, 2022.
Marvel Studios is the hottest brand in Hollywood after closing out a first decade of almost unreal success. But it moves forward with new challenges to overcome. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Tom Holland won’t be returning to the familiar Marvel ensemble while Scarlett Johansson (with one film left) and Jeremy Renner (with a Disney+ series left) are short-timers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has also reluctantly deported Spider-Man back to Sony after revenue-split renegotiations ended the properties’ unique cinematic dual citizenship.
Feige’s bid to create the next wave of Marvel stars hinges on minting new characters and heroes. To that end he brought out the cast of Eternals (including Angelina Jolie) who stood on stage and waved, then promptly left without uttering a word. Feige announced Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones is joining the Eternals cast and the actor’s image flashed on an overhead screen. Harrington will portray the Black Knight, a classic Marvel character, but there was disappointment in the room that Jon Snow wasn’t present in the flesh.
Feige cuesdup a surprise: overhead screens showing Scarlett Johansson and David Harbour in a helicopter. The actors feigned a scene and then broke character to address the camera. “Can’t wait to see — can’t wait for you to see — what we’ve been cooking up,” Johansson says in the taped message from the London set of Black Widow.
Feige introduced Black Widow footage and it looked great. In scenes of dank alleys and cobblestone streets, the footage followed Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff into atmospheric European espionage settings. “I have a specific skill set,” the super spy said at one point (evoking Taken) and action shifted into a high-velocity, close quarters combat scene in a kitchen (evoking the Bourne films). Scenes included a first look at Taskmaster, a relatively obscure character from the pages of Marvel Comics in the early 1980s.
The show kept rolling. Dwayne Johnson emerged on stage to thunderous ovation and Introduced footage from new comedy, Jungle Cruise. Johnson, evincing a macho bluster, compared himself to Harrison Ford, Humphrey Bogart, and Michael Douglas and explained that the movie is an adventure that shows him “rescuing the girl.” Emily Blunt, his costar, came on stage protesting her costar’s hubris (and riding in a vintage convertible). The pair kept up the playful facade and introduced a different rebuttal trailer that showed the adventure more from the female point of view. The film opens July 2020.
President of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, Sean Bailey, moved on to Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and reintroduced Angelina Jolie. “I missed her and I love playing her. In the first film we brought two people, two creatures, who were very different and historic enemies in many ways, but they are family and we brought them together.” In the new film those differences pull the characters apart. “What is family and what defines family is what you believe in,” Jolie said, talking about the nature of family bonds transcending blood relations.
Jolie brought out two costars, one returning and one new. Elle Fanning, now 21.
Footage from the Maleficent sequel showed Jolie and Fanning debating romance. “Love doesn’t always end well,” Jolie said in a line that will evoke smirks from many. The scene shifted to a royal dinner with Pfeiffer dripping jewels and dressed in a queen’s resplendent white regalia. The dinner didn’t go well and ended with Maleficent unleashing bolts of green eldritch energy that create havoc.
Bailey moved on to the live-action Mulan and footage preview. The scene was etiquette training for Mulan to refine the “qualities we see in a good wife” but the lesson ended in a slapstick ballet of flying tea cups and flailing arms. The scolding ended when a messenger arrived with news of war and a recruitment directive: one male son from each home must fight the good fight. Scenes follow showing Mulan’s evolution from rambunctious girl to feared warrior woman.
Next up: Bailey announced Cruella and cued up a taped message from title star Emma Stone that was recorded on the first day of shooting for the live-action adventure centering on the shrill but fashionable villainess from 101 Dalmatians. Stone said the film would be set in the 1970s in London, feeling the energy of the punk rock era. Bailey finished up with a first look at Stone in character, and with her shock of hair and black outfit her look was oddly reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands.
Pete Docter, the affable new chief of Pixar, was up next. He explained that Pixar has a history of off-kilter story concepts (rats as culinary professionals, for example) and that’s the case again with an evocative new project. Docter said the film will ask classic questions. “Why are we here? Who would make a film about that? Metaphysics? We’re calling it Soul.”
Docter cued footage from film which introduced a genial middle school teacher who dreams of being a jazz musician. His lifelong dream is coming true, the footage shows us, as his big audition lands him a spot in an jazz ensemble. In his exuberance, the protagonist takes a bad tumble into an open manhole and dies. The scene shifted to another realm of existence where we saw our protagonist as a glowing fuzzy dot with a face.
The team for the project includes Jon Batiste writing original jazz, Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose of Nine Inch Nails, contributing music that will bridge the world of the living and the world beyond. Cast members brought to the stage: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove from the Roots, Daveed Diggs. Foxx does human beatbox greeting and takes a selfie from the stage, Fey gushes about Pixar and the project. Soul is due in theater in the summer of 2020.
Next up was Onward, which takes place in a modern fantasy world with elves. Two brothers couldn’t be more different. One is brash, eccentric and longs for olden days of quests, his younger brother is quiet, restless, and wishes he could meet his deceased father. Footage on overhead screen showed animated neighborhood with mushroom houses, blue-faced suburban teens with pointy ears, and a pair of unruly unicorns eating the trash again.
The hall went crazy when the two stars were introduced: Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, two veterans of the Marvel Universe. The pair were extremely popular with the young female component of the D23 audience. Pratt said working with Holland made the project a special one because it allowed you to “share that experience with somebody you love.” Holland noted that “last time we were space buddies…now we’re elf buddies” and the cheering continued.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus was introduced (the Veep star plays the mother of the two protagonists) and footage was shown. A full eight-minute preview picked up with the 16th birthday celebration of the younger elf brother, Ian (Holland), who was given a gift that was left for him by his deceased dad. The magical Phoenix gem perched atop an ornate staff brings with it an intense promise: it will bring their father back for a single day.
The quest imagery from the Onward footage was steeped in the wizard-world vernacular and RPG rhythms of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering culture. Octavia Spencer was announced as a costar and then Holland offered a last message. “It’s been a crazy week,” Holland said, “but I want to tell you thank you from the bottom of my heart.” No explanation was necessary for the audience who knew full well that the Spider-Man star will be wallcrawling exclusively for Sony moving forward.
The marathon D23 preview drew to a conclusion with Horn introducing Jennifer Lee, the chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios to the stage. The epic fantasy is informed by the cultures of Southeast Asia and the creative team has been visiting far-flung destinations in Laos, Cambodia, Bali, Indonesia, but the movie itself is set in mythical land that pulls together elements of cultural threads from the entire region.
The film is titled Raya and the Last Dragon. Lead character is described as “a five-star badass.” Film themes include the “transformative power of community.” Preview footage showed a lush jungle glistening under sheets of rain and a clinging mist. An evocative voiceover: “Our world was created by dragons, before they left they hid a gift for the people. A powerful but dangerous gift. One that could save an entire kingdom or bring it to an end. The question is what will we find? Hope of destruction?”
The crowd erupted, then the two stars were brought out: Cassie Steel and Awkwafina. Awkwafina plays the dragon and like the way she looks in her magical animated form. “That’s me up there,” Awkwafina says while vamping. “I look good right? I like the hair. I look splendiferous.”
The big finish: Frozen II.
Some tidbits: The story will start in the past. Anna and Elsa’s late parents will be part of the story. Evan Rachel Wood of Westworld will portray their mother, while Sterling K. Brown of This is Us will voice Lt. Mattias. Film starts with the question: Why does Elsa have powers? Wood and Brown came on stage. A scene showed Wood’s character sitting in a chair with her young daughters in her arms. She sang them a song with evocative wintery images of rivers winding their way to the sea.
Another second scene: the central characters of Frozen are reunited and playing a game of charades by candlelight. Elsa’s pantomime is interrupted when she hears a mysterious distant wail, a spectral sound calling to her. She says nothing and retires for the evening. Anna is concerned and distracted (and is oblivious to the fact that she is sabotaging an awkward marriage proposal by Kristoff) goes to investigate her sister’s distress. The two talk about their concerns but Elsa says nothing about the mystery sound. The two comfort each other and snuggle as Elsa sings the same song her mother sang in the previous scene. The scene shows Anna perform a soaring new song grappling with the siren call of the mysterious voice.
The big finish for the preview: Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, and Kristen Bell assembled on stage and sang Some Things Never Change as confetti fell and D23 lost its mind. Disney knows how to stick a landing.