D23 Expo kicks off Saturday with a look at ‘Monsters University,’ ‘Brave’ and more

D23 Expo made for a very early Saturday morning.  I needed to be in Anaheim by 9:30 AM to check in, and that meant leaving my house in Northridge by about 7:45 in the morning.  Hats off to the Disney folks for the way this morning’s event was handled.  It was incredibly easy to park, walk inside, and get seated in the main arena.  All told, I made it from my car to my seat in about fifteen minutes with no hassle at all.

That left me with about an hour to sit and wait for the presentation to start, and the first thing I noticed was the way the big giant screens above the stage were constantly showing Disney “facts” that seemed to be designed to reinforce several different ideas.  First, did you know that four out of the eight films that have earned a billion dollars worldwide were released by Disney?  Because they made sure to emphasize that at least three different times in three different questions.  And do you know the story of why “A113” shows up in various Pixar movies?  Because they made sure to include at least five different slides to reinforce that idea.  There was a big emphasis on Walt Disney as an icon, and a real effort to push the characters Mike Wazowski and Sully back to center stage.  It was very canny, very hardcore mythmaking and marketing, and I could almost hear the meetings that went into picking each and every slide that played.

Finally, though, they got to the presentation, and nobody cuts a “oh my god we’re awesome” sizzle reel the way Disney does.  It’s so funny to me to see how omnipresent and impressive their branding is these days, because I remember that crazy moment around the mid-’80s where Disney was the least hip company on the planet, unable to do anything right with their film division, and animation was essentially a dead business.  I consider Walt Disney to be the father of modern movie marketing in many ways.  He saw the way the media landscape was changing, and he seemed to be way out ahead of that change while he was alive.  The company lost its way for a while, but once the Eisner/Katzenberg era began,everything changed, and now they are perhaps the most inescapable movie brand on Earth.

Looking at the opening sizzle reel, with footage from “Pirates Of The Caribbean,” “Toy Story,” “Tangled,” “Cars,” “TRON,” “Steamboat Willie,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Winnie The Pooh,” “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Captain America,” and much more, it’s obvious why they are who they are.  They’ve invested in the character business, and the additions of Marvel and The Muppets and other brands they didn’t create has only made the company stronger.  Moving from the past to the future, they started showing slides or images or logos for “Monsters University,” “Frankenweenie,” “John Carter,” “The Avengers,” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” and as the cutting got faster and the clips got shorter, the lines came up, “The time is now… and the place is Disney.”  BOOM!  With the sonic assault still ringing in my ears, Rich Ross, Chairman of the company, walked out onstage to introduce the event.

“Like you, I’m one of Disney’s biggest fans.  You’re the reason we do what we do.”  And while I’m well aware of just how carefully this entire thing was scripted, and while we heard variations on that theme all day long, it’s true about Disney.  It is generational.  It is handed down in a way that most corporate properties are not.  Parents who were raised on Disney’s movies raise their own kids on Disney movies, and there is a trust that goes with that.  The iconography of Disney is ingrained in people to such an extent that it sort of transcends trends or moments or fads.  Disney just endures.  It’s always there.  Ross talked about the gateway moment for him.  “I went and saw ‘Mary Poppins’ in 1964, and when Jane and Michael popped out of that chalk painting, I became a Disney fan for life.”  He went on to say, “I see dreams come to life every day,” a way of leading into the introduction for the next section of the presentation and the first big guest of the day.

It makes sense that they would start with the animation presentation since animation is, as Ross put it, “the heart and soul of our company.”  He acknowledged that the company was built on animation first and foremost, and there’s no one more qualified to talk about the state of the art of animation at Disney right now than John Lasseter.  As Ross put it, “No one loves Disney more than John Lasseter,” and he is rapidly becoming the face of the company’s animated films.  Sure enough, he took the stage in one of his patented Hawaiian shirts, and i like how Ross made sure to credit him as the director of “this summer’s hit ‘Cars 2.'”  That’s no accident.  The presentation underlined the idea repeatedly that the film is a big hit, and beloved, and no argument on the matter will be tolerated.  Even the shirt was a “Cars 2” shirt.  Lasseter is all-in on the world of “Cars,” whether we like it or not.

Lasseter proved to be a very effective cheerleader, as normal, and he talked about the joy of running three different studios right now.  There’s Walt Disney Feature Animation, there’s Pixar, and there’s DisneyToon Studios.  He talked about how a studio is its people, and each one of these is filmmaker-driven in different ways.  He talked about all the films he’s proud of, like “The Princess and the Frog,” “Toy Story 3,” “Tinker Bell,” “Winnie The Pooh,” “Tangled”… and, yes, “I am sooooooo proud of ‘Cars 2,'” he said, leading into the first film of the day, a spin-off set in the same world.

We already knew that “Planes” was coming, and it’s definitely part of Lasseter building out that world much further.  “‘Cars’ is a reeeeeeeally big idea,” he said, talking about how every vehicle he sees suggests a whole story to him.  He talked about how these films all come from someone’s heart, and how the director of “Planes” is from a military aviation family.  He described it as a huge adventure film about a crop duster named Dusty.  He talked about how important the recording sessions are, and how important it is to use those vocal sessions to guide the development of the character.  They introduced the voice of Dusty, Jon Cryer, and he came out to address the audience.

What I noticed about this versus Comic-Con is that there’s nothing spontaneous about the presentation.  There’s no interaction with the audience, no Q&A.  It’s all very rehearsed and very polished, and for the most part, no one was onstage for long.  Cryer stayed just long enough to drop his one sound bite.  “I am so geeked out.  To be a part of this universe, it’s ridiculous.  If you even get a chance to do a voice in a Disney film… do that.”

The footage from “Planes” is exactly what I would expect from a Pixar film called “Planes.”  We see planes taking off from an aircraft carrier, a sort of “Top Gun” vibe to the whole thing, until Dusty takes off.  All 680 1/2 horsepower and a single prop.  He does some loops in the sky, super-excited to be flying.  Short little clip, and then it was over.

The next film they highlighted was “Wreck-It Ralph,” and if any film today could be considered a big surprise, it was this one.  The film is about an 8-bit video game bad guy who travels the length of the arcade, game to game, trying to prove that he is really a good guy.  The film comes out November 2, 2012, and this first glimpse looked to me like Disney’s trying to make “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” for classic arcade games.  There are tons of licensed characters in the film, and they showed us a rough version of the first five minutes of the movie to give us a taste of what they’re doing.

John C. Reilly is the voice of Wreck-It Ralph, and he narrates the film’s opening moments, starting with a quarter being dropped into an arcade game.  “Where I come from, there are only two types of guys.”  We see the hero of the game show up.  “That’s Fix-It Felix.  He’s the good guy.  That’s easy, though, especially if you’ve got a magic hammer from your father.”  The game is set in a building that Ralph is tearing down while Felix works to repair the damage.  “Are there medals for the sweet science of wrecking?  No.  No, there are not.”  Ralph talks about how other games have come and gone, and how lucky he is to be in a game that is still being played.  “Centipede… what’s that guy doing these days?”  The arcade closes for the night, and everyone goes home from their games.  Ralph lives in a dump under a bridge, while Felix goes into that building he’s spent the whole day rebuilding, and everyone gives him pie and thanks him all night long.  And Ralph just watches, wishing he could be that person.  “Sure would be nice to be a good guy.”

Finally we see that the entire opening narration has actually been Ralph at a meeting of Bad-Anon, a support group led by one of the ghosts from Pac-Man.  All the bad guys talk about their feelings and end with the affirmation, “I’m bad, and that’s good.  I’m not good, and that’s not bad.”  The audience seemed to really react to the presentation.  Rich Moore, the director, came out to talk about the film, and he explained that Ralph is no longer content to accept his fate.  He hightails it out of the game and goes game-hopping, eventually ending up in Game Central Station, a sort of hub for all of the game culture, and it’s from there that Ralph starts trying to find his place in other games.  He drops into a first-person shooter like “Halo,” and then eventually ends up in a cart-racing game called “Sugar Rush” which contains a deadly secret that Ralph has to unravel to save the entire gaming world.

We were shown a little bit of a recording session involving Jane Lynch, who plays Sgt. Calhoun, a character in the “Halo”-style game, and then they brought out Jack McBrayer and Sarah Silverman, who voice Fix-It Felix and Venelope Von Schweetz.  Venelope is this hyper-adorable little Powerpuff Girl type character from the cart-racing game, and I’m guessing she turns out to be one of the real bad guys.  Sarah was introduced and said, “I’ve always wanted to come to Anaheim and not go to Disneyland.”

She and McBrayer each got about two lines off before they left.  McBrayer talked about how much his own voice annoys him, and Sarah said, “I have a real love-hate relationship with Disney and Pixar.  I hate that they make me feel.  My heart can’t take it.  I have a tiny, tiny heart.”

They hustled the “Wreck-It Ralph” group offstage, then kicked off the presentation for “Brave,” the next Pixar movie, in theaters June 22, 2012.  Lasseter talked about how it’s a film of many firsts.  It’s the first sort-of fairy tale they’ve done.  It’s their first period film.  And, yes, it’s their first female main character.  They introduced the character, Meredith, and in the clip, she’s riding her horse across the Scottish highlands, firing arrows at targets hanging from trees, and as she lines up for her last shot, her horse stops, throwing her.  She stands up and scolds Anghus, and she throws a rock at him.  He blows mud in her face in response.  Seeing she’s not going to win, she gets really close to him and kisses his nose, and they make up.  As they’re both laughing, she hears something and turns, and they both realize that there’s a bear, rising up out of the mist and the shadows, and very, very close.

In the film, Meredith is set to be married off to another clan to help consolidate power and create peace, and none of the major Scottish clans get along.  Her father, Fergus, is the king, and her mother Elinor, is the queen.  She’s got three brothers, Harris, Hubert, and Hamish, and they’re holy terrors, pure chaos.  There are will o’the wisps on the highlands that have this beckoning quality, and one night, Meredith follows them to a cottage in the woods, where she meets a witch.  Meredith wants a spell to help get her out of her situation, but there’s danger involved.  It is said that the wisps will lead you either to your treasure or your doom, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which.

Mark Andrews, the film’s new director, and producer Katherine Sarafian both came out onstage to talk about the film, with Andrews wearing a kilt.  He explained that everything we saw was early footage, and then started explaining the cast.  Kelly MacDonald is Meredith, and her parents are played by Billy Connelly and Emma Thompson.  Julie Walters, the great Mrs. Weasley herself, is playing the witch, and there are several different suitors competing for Meredith’s hand, including Craig Ferguson as Lord MacIntosh, Robbie Coltrane as Lord Dingwall, and Kevin McKidd as both Lord MacGuffin and Young MacGuffin, who speak with impossibly dense brogues.  Both MacDonald and McKidd came out to greet the audience, and Andrews asked MacDonald to talk about her impressions of working in animation for the first time.

“She’s awesome.  And she’s got the best horse in the world.  Ever.”  I’ve had a shameless crush on MacDonald since “Trainspotting,” and she was visibly giddy talking about the film.  McKidd did some of his impossible to understand Scottish brogue, and then Andrews introduced another clip.

In this scene, all of the sons of the lords have gathered to compete for Meredith’s hand, and she’s the one who chooses the contest.  She picks archery, and the lords all assemble to watch.  Lord Fergus opens the games with “Archers! To your marks!”  The guys each take a shot.  The first is high and outside.  The second manages to at least hit the target.  And then the last one up accidentally hits a bull’s-eye, ending the contest.  Then Meredith rides out onto the field and announces that she will be shooting for her own hand, much to the shock of her parents.  It’s an amazing act of defiance, and it shows that this isn’t just a movie where they’ve dropped a little girl into a boy’s role for the sake of quotas.  It’s about the idea that Meredith is property more than a person, and there is real anger in the way she steps up to each target, firing a perfect bull’s-eye.  As she steps up for the final one, her mother orders her to stop.  Meredith lets her shot go anyway, and it splits the other arrow completely in half.  It was a great scene, and it makes me think that “Brave” will be a fantastic addition to the Pixar family when it arrives next year.

After that, of course, “Monsters University” is coming, and Lasseter set up the idea that this is a film about learning how Mike and Sully became friends in the first place.  The sizzle reel was all behind the scenes stuff featuring director Dan Scanlon and returning stars Billy Crystal and John Goodman.  Mike and Sully met in grade school originally, evidently, and they were enemies at first.  Both of them wanted to be scarers when they grew up, and so when they both end up at the same college as freshmen, it’s a competition.  Randall, played by Steve Buscemi, will return, but they’re really filling the film with new characters and monsters.  They showed us jock monsters, nerd monsters, goth monsters, and more.  There was a school mascot, the Were-Pig, and art designed to show off settings like the school quad, a fraternity party, and more.  Scanlon, originally hired as a story artist on “Cars,” was the one who came up with “tractor-tipping” for that film, and he also co-directed “Mater and the Ghost Light” with Lasseter.

We saw designs for young MIke (complete with retainer) and a younger, leaner, shaggier Sully.  Scanlon talked about taking research trips to universities “since we all went to art school, and that’s not real college.”  We saw a bit of Scaring School, the oldest building on campus, an elite program that is very hard to get into.  Dave Foley and Joel Murray are some of the new performers this time, and Billy Crystal actually showed up in person to talk about how great it is to be making a sequel to the film ten years later.

I’m of mixed mind about the two new announcements that Pixar made today.  It’s impossible to really judge either film, and they’re both very early on at this point.  Neither film had an announced release date or title, and I’m not sure what was gained by announcing either one at this point.  Maybe this is a situation like when they were developing “Newt” and “Rio” got out in front of them, sort of negating the need to make their film.  Maybe they’re trying to claim this intellectual property as their own right now.

The first film is going to be directed by Bob Peterson, who you probably know as the voice of Roz in “Monsters Inc.” and the voice of Dug the Dog in “Up.”  Peterson ran through several of his voices as producer John Walker set up the idea of the film, which is set in a world where the comet that killed off the dinosaurs ended up missing Earth completely.  The one image they showed us was a long-necked dinosaur with a small boy sitting on that neck.  They showed us a title card, but for “The Untitled Pixar Movie About Dinosaurs.”  There was nothing else they could really tell us at this point, but they sure seemed excited.

Same thing with Pete Docter, who we knew was working on something.  He revealed it to be “The Untitled Pixar Movie That Takes You Inside The Mind,” and that’s exactly what it’s going to be.  Docter talked about how the films of Pixar each take you to a different world, and this one’s all about the world between your ears.  I have no idea what that means, or what to expect from the film, and they didn’t even have a single image for this one.  It was just an announcement and a vague promise about summer of 2014.

One more big curtain call for everyone, and they wrapped up the first portion of the presentation, with a reminder that Pixar is now responsible for 20 shorts, 12 features, and 25 years of entertainment.  Huge standing ovation from the crowd, and how can you really argue with that?  It was a very confident morning overall, and the presentation ended with an explosion, confetti everywhere, and cupcakes for everyone.  They handed those cupcakes out in about 45 seconds flat, one of the most impressive feats of organized distribution I’ve ever seen.    As a giant Woody and Buzz danced around onstage and “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” played, John Lasseter seemed like he was on top of the world.  They wrapped it up with a victory lap of a highlights reel, showing something from every Pixar film, and then moved on to the live-action section of the event.

More on that tomorrow.