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Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Highlight Upcoming Films at D23

At the last D23 Expo's animation panel in 2013, fans were delighted by a little impromptu song by Tom Hiddleston and then a very well-planned finale of Idina Menzel singing the hit song of the year, "Let It Go" from "Frozen." This year, fans couldn't convince "Modern Family" star Ed O'Neill to sing, but the crowd was wowed by the presence of Ellen Degeneres, Randy Newman and Dwight "The Rock" Johnson, and was treated to a South Pacific-influenced musical concert. John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, was the afternoon's emcee and fans of Pixar's "Toy Story" series and "Finding Nemo" had reason to scream with delight.

"Finding Dory"

Degeneres was at the expo to help promote the much anticipated sequel to 2003's "Finding Nemo," which will center on Degeneres' character and be called "Finding Dory." Dory is the forgetful blue tang that Nemo befriended in the previous film. A reel of Degeneres on her talk show making wishful comments to campaign for a sequel was shown to the audience before Degeneres came on stage. Although Degeneres is known for awkward humor, the lack of planned patter might have disappointed the audience, but the audience was delighted by the separate scenes introducing O'Neill's character Hank, a curmudgeonly octopus, and "Modern Family" star Ty Burrell as Bailey, a beluga whale who mistakenly thinks his head bump is an injury instead of a natural characteristic of his species, and "Always Sunny in Philadelphia" star Kaitlin Olson as Destiny, a whale shark who is sure she is really a whale.

Oscar®-winning director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”), co-director Angus MacLane and producer Lindsey Collins (co-producer “WALL-E”) offered details about the all-new story, which reunites Dory with friends Nemo and Marlin and takes Dory to California's Monterey Bay, and the famed aquarium and rehab facility there. Albert Brooks will be returning to voice his character, the clownfish Marlin, but young Nemo will be voiced by another young star (Hayden Rolence) due to the voice change that comes with aging (Alexander Gould is now 21 but was 9 when the original movie came out). Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton will voice Dory's parents. 

Disney·Pixar’s “Finding Dory” is scheduled for release on June 17, 2016.

"Riley's First Date?"

If you enjoyed Pixar's "Inside Out," you'll be delighted to know that it will feature more emotions emoting when it comes out as a digital bundle on Oct. 13 and on Blu-ray Nov. 3, 2015. The D23 Expo audience was treated to the world premiere of the animated short “Riley’s First Date?” Director Josh Cooley, along with “Inside Out” filmmakers Pete Docter (“Up,” “Monsters, Inc.”) and Jonas Rivera (“Up”), introduced the short, which revisits Riley, who is now 12 and the film deals with both her father and mother trying to figure out if this guy at their door is Riley's first date. Cooley commented, that they "all have daughters" and were a "father-daughter support group" during the production of "Inside Out" and “having a daughter myself, it was a lot of fun to mine my own feelings to show this emotional time in a parent’s life.

"The Good Dinosaur"

At the last D23 Expo, the originally announced director Bob Peterson was noticeably absent. The story line seemed to be about an agrarian society of dinosaurs with the main character a sauropod. At this year's D23 Expo, the story was explained as a boy and his dog story. Director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream showed breathtaking sequences with fans, including never-before-seen footage of a trio of T-Rexes in action. For fans of animation, the first scene will make you gasp. The foliage in this 3D animated feature is so lifelike while the water is up to the quality of the last feature film installment of "How to Train Your Dragon." 

The feature takes place in the American Northwest. Arlo, the youngest in an Apatosaurus family, loses his father and gets swept away from his family. On his journey home, he meets an orphaned human who he calls Spot and is forced to help a trio of T-Rex cowboys who don't need to ride horses, but are ready to wrangle rustlers (velociraptors). Arlo is the boy; Spot is the dog. In this parallel universe apparently the human race has gone to the dogs.

Arlo and Spot journey through a world that has been greatly inspired by the American Northwest,” said Sohn. “It is epic in scope, soul-enriching and simultaneously beautiful and treacherous. In this world, we meet up with a very special family of T-Rexes, who help Arlo find a way through his personal fears and ultimately teach Arlo what he's truly made of.

"The Good Dinosaur" will be in theaters on Nov. 25, 2015.


I love rabbits. Before I had dogs, I had rabbits and before I had rabbits, I was a frequent visitor to one of the world's most famous zoos, the San Diego Zoo. I also love Shakira whose "Hips Don't Lie" inspired me to take up belly dancing. I don't know if there will be any belly dancing in "Zootopia," but Shakira is lending her Grammy®-winning voice to Gazelle, the biggest pop star in Zootopia, Zootopia is a modern mammal metropolis where rookie rabbit officer Judy Hopps (voiced by ABC’s “Once Upon a Time ” Ginnifer Goodwin) must solve a crime with the less than honest fox Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman). Judy Hopps' motto is in Zootopia, "Anyone can be anything" as she becomes the first rabbit cop in the Zootopia Police Department. Nick's motto is "We are who we are."

Goodwin joined directors Byron Howard (“Tangled”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph”), and producer Clark Spencer (“Wreck-It Ralph”) to help introduce fun scenes from the film that included the fox pulling a clever con at an elephant-run ice cream parlor where he first meets the rabbit, and a segment that aptly illustrates every driver's least favorite experience of waiting at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles) with all the employees portrayed as sloths.

A recorded message from Shakira teased the audience with a fragment of the all-new original song, “Try Everything,” written by singer-songwriter Sia and songwriting duo Stargate, and performed by Shakira. Said Howard, "For the role of Gazelle, Zootopia’s most beloved superstar, there was only one person on our wish list: Shakira. Luckily for us, she said yes. Her immense talent and charm bring Gazelle and her song, ‘Try Everything,’ to life.

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootopia” opens nationwide March 4, 2016.

"Toy Story 4" 

This year, Pixar Animation Studios marks the 20th anniversary of the movie that really launched the studio: “Toy Story.” Said Lasseter, "All the characters from ‘Toy Story’—especially Woody and Buzz—are so close to us. They seem more like family members than just creations. Not only do we dearly love the characters, but we also love the world of ‘Toy Story’—the world where toys come to life when people are not in the room has always been rich with many story possibilities."

Lasseter, who’s one of Pixar’s three founders, welcomed to the stage two-time Oscar®-winning songwriter and longtime Pixar collaborator Randy Newman, whose Pixar credits include “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Cars.”

Also joining in the celebration were “Toy Story 4” co-director Josh Cooley (“Cars 2,” “Ratatouille”) and producer Galyn Susman (“Toy Story OF TERROR!”) and screenwriters Rashida Jones and Will McCormack (“Celeste & Jesse Forever”).

"I’m very proud of our films,” said Lasseter. “When we made the first three ‘Toy Story’ films, we didn’t realize what we had done was to change the genre of each of the films’ story. For ‘Toy Story 4,’ we are doing a type of story we have not done before: a love story. It’s a story about a relationship between Woody and Bo Peep. "

“Toy Story 4,” which will be directed by Lasseter and produced by Susman, is slated for release on June 16, 2017.


From the title and the image, you'll get hints that Walt Disney Animation Studios is looking into the famous fairy tale "Jack and the Bean Stalk" for their feature “Gigantic.” The movie will feature music from Oscar®-winning songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who shared one song with the D23 EXPO fans with art for the sequence projected on the large screens. Director Nathan Greno (“Tangled”) and producer Dorothy McKim (“Get A Horse!”) described how they decided to set the tale during the Age of Exploration in Spain because Jack is an explorer and the land in the clouds doesn't have one giant couple, but a whole world of giants. While doing research in Spain, the team met a girl named Inma with a giant personality and she inspired them to make the story into one that features a 60-foot girl named Inma. In the song, Inma has just discovered the frightened Jack and is playing with him as if he were a doll.

I always wanted to be part of the Disney legacy,” said Greno. “I loved those classic stories brought to life—‘Snow White’ or ‘Cinderella’—in a way that made those films the definitive version for generations. I want to carry on that tradition by bringing ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ to modern audiences. We’re taking parts of the story we all remember and adding twists and turns, emotion and humor.” In the story, both worlds are threatened by storm giants. 

“Gigantic” hits theaters in 2018.


With the the growing popularity of Day of the Dead-inspired art along with a growing Latino population, and the release last year of Fox's Day of the Dead-inspired 3D-computer animated feature "The Book of Life," which received a Golden Globe nomination, it should come as no surprise that Disney also wants to do an animated feature with Dia de los Muertos design features. Director Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and producer Darla K. Anderson (“Toy Story 3”) were on stage to talk about Disney·Pixar’s “Coco,” describing it as the celebration of a lifetime, where the discovery of a generations-old mystery leads to a surprising family reunion.

"As artists and filmmakers, we couldn't help but be drawn to the striking visuals of Dia de los Muertos,” said Unkrich and Anderson. “But it was the celebration's core themes of family, remembrance and connection across generations that resonated within and truly inspired us. Dia de los Muertos is as singular as the Mexican culture, while at the same time completely universal in its message."

In our story,” they continued, “the celebration of Dia de los Muertos serves as the perfect backdrop for our main character to ask where he comes from, what his place is within his family, and how families stay woven together across time through the simple act of remembrance."


The man who can really play to the audiences, perhaps in part due to his time as a wrestler in the WWE, Dwayne Johnson (“San Andreas,” “Furious 7,” HBO’s “Ballers”), came on stage near the end of the presentation. The Rock lends his voice to the mighty demi-god Maui in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Moana." Directors John Musker and Ron Clements ("The Little Mermaid," "The Princess and the Frog," "Aladdin”), and producer Osnat Shurer (Oscar®-nominated Pixar shorts “One Man Band,” “Boundin’") shared early test footage and revealed plans for the film’s inspired music and the extraordinary team behind it. Tony®-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (Broadway’s hottest new hit “Hamilton,” Tony-winning “In the Heights”), Grammy®-winning composer Mark Mancina (“Speed”, “Tarzan” “The Lion King”) and Opetaia Foa’i (founder and lead singer of the world music award-winning band Te Vaka) blend their diverse and dynamic talents to help tell the tale of a spirited teenager who sets out to prove herself a master wayfinder.

Our research took us deep into the South Pacific,” said Clements. “The wonderful people we met there, their rich history and traditions, and their fantastic music changed us forever.

According to Musker, 2,000 years ago, the people of the South Pacific were the world's greatest navigators. They used no instruments, but understood the stars and wave patterns. For some reason, there was a period of time when these people stopped their explorations and long distance journeys and this story is about how they got their maritime mojo back. The main character, Moana, will need the help of the sea and lava, both of which are portrayed as characters in test clips shown to the D23 audience. From an early age, Moana has felt that the ocean is her friend. Now Moana takes a long boat with her pet pig Pua and a pessimistic rooster Heihei. Musker and Clements jokingly suggested that Pua was Clements and Heihei was Musker.

According to my research Heihei means storm or disturbance in Maori and Pua means flower in the same language. Moana is a girl's name that means large body of water.

We can’t wait to bring those experiences to ‘Moana,’” added Musker. “We are incredibly lucky to be able to work with three amazing artists who are the absolute best at what they do. The sounds they create will be something we’ve never heard before—but it’ll feel like it’s been part of this world forever.

The Rock commented that "When I first got into this business, 15 years ago, I had a goal which was to be in a Disney family, to be in a Disney animated story." The California-born Johnson also reminded the audience that he is half-Samoan and half black and because of this he said, "I feel such a deep connection to this (film)." He described Maui as "relentlessly, amazingly handsome" and that "clearly it's the hair."  His character is in the middle, between the world of the gods and the world of humans, "trying to please both worlds." Maui's tattoos also tell his story.

Johnson helped introduce the musicians and Foa’i and his band Te Vaka capped the presentation with South Pacific dancers moving to the movie’s music. “Moana” sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016.

The audience was then let out on to the exhibition hall. A lucky few caught t-shirts and Hawaiian shirts during the presentation, but otherwise no swag for all audience members as with the Saturday morning live-action panel where audience members got two posters. Although no mention was made of "The Incredibles" during the Disney-Pixar animation presentation, on the exhibition floor, there was a poster hinting at the development of a sequel.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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