The Walt Disney Studios live action panel at the 2015 D23 Expo was something of a mess.
For months Disney has been positioning this panel as a big deal, announcing that Marvel Studios would be abandoning their long-held position of supremacy in Comic-Con’s Hall H and that the Star Wars panel at SDCC would be holding back new information in favor of saving it for D23. Which makes it incredibly strange that both Marvel and Star Wars felt extremely underrepresented when Expo finally rolled around.
Let’s start, as the presentation did, with Marvel. Marvel has just finished Phase Two of their Cinematic Universe and are getting ready to move into Phase Three. This is the time when they would traditionally pull out all the stops to have a huge celebration for the fans, promising bigger, better things to come in the next phase of films. Instead, as Kevin Feige took the stage, clearly disregarding the teleprompter in the back of the hall feeding him lines, it all felt oddly subdued.
He started with a discussion of Doctor Strange, promising that it would be not only Marvel’s weirdest movies to date, but one of the weirdest movies of all time. There was a pre-recorded bit from Benedict Cumberbatch (who couldn’t be present due to his role in Hamlet in London) and a sizzle reel of concept art from the film. The concept art was great, with images evoking everything from Inception to Dune to 2001, but as soon as the reel ended, Feige quickly shifted gears to talk about Captain America: Civil War.
He noted that the arc of Steve Roger’s story will make the Captain America films one of the most unusual trilogies in history before bringing both Anthony Mackie and Chris Evans to the stage. These guys are an irresistible presence and the two of them bantering back and forth was an absolute joy. It makes me so happy as a fan to feel like all of these guys are just the best of friends; it’s something that makes the whole idea of this cinematic universe feel fun and special. Beyond that, I’d like to believe that the pairing of Mackie and Evans is an attempt to reinforce the relationship between these two, subtly planting the seeds for Mackie to eventually take up the mantle of Captain America. There have been many people known as Captain America in the pages of Marvel comics, and at least a few of them have made an appearances in the movies. Of all the potential candidates, though, I think Mackie is the one who has what it takes. Sam Wilson has resonated with fans in a way that Bucky Barnes simply hasn’t, and it would be such a cool statement to have the modern Captain America, the avatar of the American ideal, be a black man.
Moving on to the footage shown, we got to see a clip (presumably early in the film) of Cap and the Falcon fighting Crossbones (an armored up version of Frank Grillo’s character from the last film now that he’s been outed as a HYDRA agent). The action here is breathtaking – in case you weren’t convinced by The Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers really know what the hell they’re doing, throwing in fun visual gags like Falcon using one of his wings as a shield to deflect gunfire (more support for my Sam Wilson as Cap campaign!). After that, it moved into more rapid fire trailer stuff. We see that Bucky has regained his memory (he knows Steve’s mother and that Steve used to put crumpled up newspaper in his shoes) and that the heart of Tony and Steve’s conflict revolves around whether or not there should be a government body overseeing the actions of super heroes. “Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth,” Tony Stark says. General Ross (from The Incredible Hulk) seems to be running the organization Tony’s backing and Bucky appears to be caught in the middle (he’s shown captured by Ross/Stark’s forces). There’s also quick stuff that’s presented out of context (Vision in a suit! Natasha and Clint coming to blows! Iron Man and War Machine facing off against Cap, Falcon, Black Widow, and (maybe?) Scarlett Witch!). The footage ends with Scott Lang meeting Cap, and it’s an absolute joy (“You know a lot of super people, so thinks for thanking of me [sic].”).
After that, the presentation somewhat abruptly moved to Walt Disney Pictures stuff, beginning with a momentum destroying look at The Finest Hours, a film based on the 1952 rescue of the Pendleton tanker.
Sean Bailey (who throughout the whole presentation felt weirdly disingenuous) brought out Chris Pine who suffered from having to follow Anthony Mackie and Chris Evans, and they showed some footage from the movie, which looks, well, like a January release (i.e. Oscar bait that isn’t good enough to stand any chance of being nominated).
The whole presentation proceeded this way in an awkwardly rushed fashion. Like clockwork they’d set up the film, schlep out the actors, roll a clip, then move onto the next thing. This is probably due to the fact that Walt Disney Pictures was trying to cover no less than seven films. Of those, two looked promising, two looked bad, and three were shown too vaguely to tell.
Let’s start with the good: The Jungle Book looks like it could be really solid! Director Jon Favreau took the stage to discuss how much the Disney movie meant to him growing up, and that it’s incredibly important to him to approach this film with the same kind of dedication to both story and craft as the original film had. He describes it as being one of the most technically advanced films ever made, involving new advances in digital environments and motion capture tech, and the footage shown was really incredible. Even in this early state with unfinished CGI, the characters and environments felt tangible in a way that even something like Avatar lacked. Beyond the technical qualities, though, the movie looks fun! It dances on the line of carving out its own visual identity and delivering nostalgic homages to the original film. I couldn’t help but smile seeing Mowgli sitting on Baloo’s stomach as the two lazily float down a river humming “The Bare Necessities.” The voice cast is also top notch featuring Scarlett Johansson as Kaa; Ben Kingsley as Baghera; Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s wolf mother, Raksha; Bill Murray as Baloo; and Christopher Walken as King Louie (a surprise which got a delighted laugh from the audience).
The other promising film was Beauty and the Beast featuring a similarly top-notch cast. While we didn’t get to see any footage from the film, we were treated to some behind the scenes shots, and it all looks lovely and fun. Between that, the cast, the fact that it’s a musical, and that it’s directed by Bill Condon, this is definitely one that I’m looking forward to. The 1991 original may be a perfect, unmatchable film, but this seems like it could be a lot of fun in its own right.
On the other side of the coin, the presentation outlined the plot of Alice Through the Looking Glass and it sounds dreadful. The central premise is that Alice returns to Underland to find that the Mad Hatter has gone… crazier, I guess, and in order to fix him she has to make a deal with Time (played by Sacha Baron Cohen). From there, Alice travels through time in an attempt to prevent what’s happening to the Mad Hatter, but it’s all just a pretense to have a Mad Hatter origin story. Fucking really. Alice 2 is essentially Alice in Wonderland Origins: Mad Hatter. The footage looked predictably terrible, but that’s okay because it just means there’s one less movie I’ll feel compelled to see next year.
The rest of the movies presented were shown so vaguely that it’s tough to even comment on them. We got a clip from the remake of Pete’s Dragon, but because none of the CGI for Elliot is finished yet the footage was just people talking about the dragon. Robert Redford’s in it, though, so that’s kind of neat. I guess we’ll see when we get some more information.
They also talked briefly about Queen of Katwe, a film directed by Mira Nair and starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo telling the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. They didn’t show any clips from this one, but it has a solid cast, a woman director, and unlike Disney’s similar efforts, it doesn’t rely on the trope of the “white savior.”
Finally, there was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. They didn’t show any footage from this one, so who knows if that would have made me feel any better about this. Instead they announced the cast – Depp and Rush returning with a villain played by Javier Bardem and two new characters (presumably filling the obligatory love story role) played by Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites. They also announced that Will Turner would be returning and my ears are still ringing from the screaming that this news was met with. After all that, Johnny Depp trotted out on stage in his Jack Sparrow getup and my heart shattered. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of these silly movies (except P4 which is total garbage), but seeing Jack Sparrow in person brought no joy to me. This wasn’t like reuniting with an old friend. It was like catching up with your cool friend from high school and finding out that he’s never moved on. In the original trilogy there was a certain feeling of irresponsibility to the Jack Sparrow character, like Verbinski and co. were sneaking something in past the Disney censors, but now Jack is just a corporate icon and the result is processed version of the same thing. Jack is still weird, but it’s not genuine weirdness; It’s safe, child-tested, Disney-approved weirdness, and the whole thing just made me sad. Who knows if the movie will be any good, but at this point it’s clear to me that Pirates of the Caribbean has passed its expiration date.
After all that we got to the most anticipated and subsequently most haphazard portion of the presentation: Star Wars. They started by discussing the Star Wars Anthology films which have been quietly rebranded under the dumb A Star Wars Story banner. We got a video of Gareth Edwards from the set of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (see, isn’t that new title awful?) as well as our first photo of the cast.
They briefly discussed Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Han Solo movie, but there was no real news there. It was also confirmed that Colin Trevorrow will be directing Episode IX which has finally pushed me into actively resenting Jurassic World. After that they brought out J.J. Abrams to discuss The Force Awakens. This whole part of the panel was strange, and it felt distinctly like something was cut at the last minute and the hole was hastily filled with something else (more on that in a minute). J.J. began by announcing that he didn’t have any footage to show, but that there is an important announcement they’d like to make. First, though, they brought out the new cast for The Force Awakens: Jon Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong’o – bringing the total number of appearances by Nyong’o up to three (not that I’m complaining, she’s wonderful). The four of them introduced a new D23 exclusive poster created by the legendary Drew Struzan.
After that, J.J. brought Harrison Ford to the stage which resulted in a literal minutes-long standing ovation. After everyone was done cheering, Bob Iger came out and banished J.J. and the cast off the stage in order to make a completely unexpected announcement for Star Wars themed lands coming to Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World.
I had been hearing rumors that the troubled development of this project meant Disney still hadn’t finalized an approach for this thing in time for Expo, but surprisingly we were treated to eight pieces of concept art along with brief descriptions of two attractions and the nature of the land itself. The artwork is incredibly ambitious, showing a detailed, lived-in world that feels very much like Star Wars despite being based on a planet we’ve never seen before. It appears to be breathtaking in both scale and scope, featuring towering structures and diverse inhabitants. Iger promised that every restaurant and shop would be owned and operated by unique characters which would be reflected in the design, products, and staff. In addition, he discussed an attraction in which guests will be able to pilot the Millennium Falcon on a top secret mission, and a second attraction that will involve a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance.
This is all incredible, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. This concept art shows something on a scale that we’ve never seen in a theme park before. Diagon Alley at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the closest point of comparison, but what we’re seeing here is that idea blown up to a dramatically different scale. That, combined with the reports that this was all thrown together at the last minute makes me wonder how much of this is concrete plans, and how much of it is wishful thinking “blue sky.” Is it really possible to do what they’re proposing and have it work consistently?
There are also questions I have about the logistics of this and how it relates to the rest of the park (by that I mean Disneyland, because it’s all relatively straight forward in Hollywood Studios). Thematically, Star Wars does not fit in Disneyland. Disneyland, at its core, is a celebration of mid-20th century American culture filtered through the vision of Walt Disney. Star Wars is a late-‘70s throwback to samurai movies and sci-fi serials filtered through the vision of George Lucas. They are two totally different things. If you’re going to dedicate 14 acres of Disneyland to Star Wars it needs to treated as a walled garden – deliberately separated from the rest of the park. Wherever they put it (which seems like it’s going to be behind the park with an entrance where Big Thunder Ranch is now) there will need to be a certain amount of “decompression” space. It won’t work to use the kind of transitions Disney typically uses between lands, and traveling under the berm (much like you do now with Mickey’s Toontown) will help.
This separation, however, will need to go beyond thematics and physical placement. If they’re committed to making this as “real” as possible, they’re going to have to throw out some long-established rules. For one, there can’t be a universal Cast costume for the area without having it feel phony. Costuming is going to need to design at least a dozen or so unique costumes for Cast Members so that they feel like characters in the world rather than college students with part-time jobs. There might be some concern over whether guests will be able to identify Cast Members if the costuming is so diverse, but from my experience playing “Legends of Frontierland” I can attest to the fact that it doesn’t take much to make someone think you’re a Cast Member.
The other rule that should be rethought for Star Wars is Disney’s long-held policy of not selling alcohol in Disneyland. This, I realize, is a controversial proposition; not only was this a policy that Walt Disney had very passionate opinions on, but it’s also a tradition that many park guests feel is crucial to the identity of the park. However, this goes back to my insistence that Star Wars Land can only work if it’s treated as something separate from Disneyland. The reality of the world should supercede the traditions of Disneyland, and I’m sorry, but Han Solo probably wasn’t drinking caf* in the Mos Eisley cantina. If you’re creating a seedy spaceport on the edge of the Outer Rim, you need to sell alcohol to make it feel right.
As far as attractions go, I hope that we aren’t just getting two more simulator rides. I realize that both attractions will almost definitely rely extensively on film elements, but I hope at least one of the rides utilizes a notable amount of practical sets and effects. I’d much rather be shot at by Audio Animatronic Stormtroopers than projected ones. I’m also curious what happens to Star Tours as a result of this. In Walt Disney World, I imagine they’ll work the ride into the new setting, but in Disneyland will they relocate the ride or just leave it in Tomorrowland? If they are incorporating Star Tours into the new land, it really should be heavily re-worked. If they’re committed to the integrity of this environment, the Prequel-heavy hodgepodge fan service clip show would be a major hole in that notion. Don’t forget that many of the characters seen in the attraction would be dead by the era Star Wars Land is intending to evoke. Disney’s did announce at the Parks and Resorts panel that there is an update to Star Tours coming soon, but what I’m talking about goes well beyond adding a few new sequences to the randomizer.
If Disney can even get within the ballpark of what they’re proposing here, this could be the most spectacular thing they’ve ever accomplished, but the recent history of the Disney theme parks has been one of compromise and squandered potential, and if this all really is just blue sky stuff, it’d be heartbreaking to see the reality of all of this pale in comparison to what was announced. I hope Disney doesn’t take any of this lightly, and that they really pull out all the stops for this project in order to deliver on the enormous potential here. We’ve all been hoping for Disney to really step up to the plate and utilize the full rage of their tools and experience, and I hope this is the moment they finally do just that.
I realize that it’s somewhat odd to end my writeup of the Disney live action films presentation with 1,000 words on a theme park expansion, but it reflects the odd nature of this whole panel. The whole thing felt kind of rushed and compromised leading up to an out of left field theme park announcement that felt like it was subbed in for something else. Going forward, Disney really ought to split this into two or three separate panels, but I’m sure Disney worries far fewer people will turn up for the Walt Disney Pictures live action panel if it’s not bundled with Marvel and Lucasfilm. That said, if Disney wants to position D23 as a pop culture beacon in the way that San Diego Comic-Con has been, they need to give these studios their due and give them the means to play to their fans instead of having to rush through a presentation to make time for Johnny Depp to parade around the stage throwing grapes at the audience.
* “Caf” is Star Wars for coffee.