Whew! Day 1 of the 2015 D23 Expo has come and gone, and I’m exhausted. Today’s main events were the Disney Legends ceremony (which I did not attend, but which featured a surprise appearance by Johnny Depp), and the Disney Animation presentation (which I did attend and was amazing). My day started when I joined the queue for the show floor at 5:15 or so, after getting my guidebook, schedule, and badge holder, and after walking by the Buzz Lightyear balloon from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. D23 allowed people to camp out overnight for the first time this year, and I was probably 600th in line to get on the show floor, though there were relatively few people in line for the Disney Legends ceremony (which supposedly wasn’t full when it started).
My goal was to head straight for “The Magic Behind the Muppets,” and considering most people waiting in line were only interested in limited edition items in the stores, I ended up among the first twenty people in line for the Muppets, earning me a 2nd row seat in the large venue. The panel opened with footage from the pitch video which has been used in many of the commercials for the new show, and then Muppet performers Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Bill Barretta, Eric Jacobson, and Matt Vogel were introduced.
A combination of Muppet legends and new faces, this group has been the core behind the last two movies, and they offered some insights into the new show and its format. As the pitch footage indicated, the show will be filmed in the popular mocumentary style (The Office, Parks and Recreation), focused on the behind-the-scenes lives of our favorite Muppets along with interview segments. The premise is that Kermit is producing a new late-night talk show starring Miss Piggy, with the rest of the Muppet family filling various roles in the production. The panel rightly pointed out that variety shows don’t really exist anymore, so it would have been silly to go back to the original format of The Muppet Show as it is no longer relevant.
But the real magic of the panel happened when the Muppets arrived from under the table cracking jokes about having been in boxes all day. Gonzo, Rizzo, Pepe, Fozzie, and Floyd continued the discussion alongside their performers, and took questions from the audience. The group discussed the shock at the fact that Fozzie is dating a human, considering they’ve never seen him date anyone before, while Pepe flirted shamelessly with every woman who came to the microphone to ask a question. Fozzie eventually disappeared in order for Animal to come out after a fan’s request.
The panel continued with giving a handful of volunteers the chance to perform Muppet characters alongside Kermit and Steve Whitmire that showed many of the challenges of performing a Muppet on camera, from simple things like remembering to have your Muppet look at whoever is talking to the nuances of mouth movements. Some volunteers caught on quickly, while others floundered, but they all struggled to keep their arms high enough over their heads.
In all it was a fantastic panel, with a perfect mix of behind-the-scenes info about the new show, funny moments from both Muppets and performers, and lots of heart. Most of those who asked questions were too emotional to get their questions out, and I couldn’t blame them. It’s amazing how alive the performers can make these characters. When a girl told Animal that she loved him, he rolled over on the table in embarrassment in a way that was completely endearing and made me forget that he had someone’s hand inside controlling him. Of course, it’s miraculous to watch legends like Dave Goehl or Steve Whitmire work, particularly in the way their characters always feel alive even when they’re not a part of the conversation.
But the funniest moments all happened at the end, when Bill Baretta brought out Rowlf. His goal was to show, with Steve Whitmire, the complexity of performing a character like Rowlf, which takes two people and three hands, but it started off hilariously when Bill tried to get his hands in the right place only to find that Rowlf’s left hand was pinned to his chest. He rolled around in agony on the table while Steve undid the pins, only for Bill to discover a foam hand inside Rowlf that he then had to remove. We were all cracking up at this point when Rowlf did his impression of Donald Trump before Bill tried to demonstrate the coordination between the two performers by having Rowlf open a bottle of water (Bill as the left hand, Steve as the right). Things didn’t go quite as planned, and the water ended up getting dumped all over Rowlf, the table, and probably the performers’ laps. Even the seasoned veterans couldn’t keep a straight face, and Rowlf was left to shake the water off in true dog fashion.
After the Muppets panel and a quick bite for lunch, I hopped in line for the main afternoon presentation “Pixar and Walt Disney Studios: The Upcoming Films, Hosted by John Lasseter.” I was in line about three hours early, and managed to snag a first row seat at the corner of the very wide stage. This year the main presentations are in the newly created “Hall D23” rather than the arena. The result is an increase in capacity to 7,500 people, but the venue has completely flat seating in a space wider than it is long. There are plenty of large screens, so you won’t miss out on anything that’s happening, but if you want a good look at celebrities you’ll have to line up early. (As a note, no recording devices are allowed, so I don’t have any pictures of the event but I took plenty of notes.)
The presentation opened with a sizzle reel of upcoming Disney films (including live action, with some quick glimpses of Beauty and the Beast, Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, all of which we’ll presumably get a longer look at tomorrow), and then Alan Horn came out to introduce John Lassiter. Lassiter played to the crowd a bit, pointing out his new Hawaiian shirt you can buy on the show floor but a few of which he shot out of a t-shirt cannon into the crowd.
Lassiter devoted the first half of the show to Disney Animation, starting with Zootopia. The reaction from the crowd was pretty lukewarm to the early part of this segment, as Zootopia just isn’t as exciting as some of the other films later in the show. The film’s directors and producer described the research that went into crafting the animal characters and preparing the world of the film, but things picked up when Ginnifer Goodwin came out to introduce her character in the film, Judy Hopps, a small, optimist rabbit who wants to be a police officer. The crowd got considerably more enthusiastic when we saw a few clips, which showed off the film’s creative humor. The first clip showed Nick Wilde, a fox voiced by Jason Bateman, running a con in an ice cream shop an adorable fox pup who thinks he’s an elephant as an accomplice. The 2nd was a later scene when Judy and Nick, having now been forced to work together, go to the DMV in order to run a license plate, only to find it run entirely by sloths. The sloth they talk to (who sounded like Zach Braff) is hilariously slow, and really had the audience in stitches. The only other major Zootopia news was that Shakira will be voicing a gazelle and contributing a song, which she played a snippet of via prerecorded video.
Next was a previously unannounced movie called Gigantic, a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. The film’s director and producer came out to discuss how they wanted to make the definitive version of the classic fairytale, and led us through the process of deciding to set the film in Spain, and the creation of its secondary main character, an 11-year-old giant named Ima, inspired by a real girl they met in their research travels through Spain. Ima is a girl with an attitude and a lot of spunk, who first sees Jack as a new toy, much to Jack’s dismay. But eventually the two will join forces to take on the storm giants who are wreaking havoc on the rest of the giant world. The filmmakers then brought out Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez who will be writing the songs for Gigantic. Kristen then sang one of the working songs for the film, “My Little Man”, set to storyboards, which Ima sings after making Jack her new toy. It was cute and funny and quirky in the way we’ve come to expect from the Frozen songwriters. Gigantic is still in the early stages, but the production art looked very pretty, and the filmmakers really focused on the emotional aspect of the film.
The final film in the Disney Animation side of the show was Moana, by far the most exciting of the three. Animation powerhouses John Musker and Ron Clements, who are directing Moana, introduced the film, which is set 2000 years ago in the South Pacific. It tells the story of Moana, the daughter of her tribes chief, who longs to explore the sea as her tribe once did, despite her father’s resistance. After her grandmother dies (“This is a Disney movie after all,” Clements said), Moana sets off on a journey with her adorable pig, Pua, and a rooster, and along the way she’s joined by Maui, a demigod with a giant, magical fishhook and tattoos that move. Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson, who came out on stage to thunderous cheers and proceeded to completely charm the crowd. We got a short clip showing off Maui’s look (and an unimpressed Moana), as well as some pre-visualization for some of the film’s most impressive effects. We then got one scene phenomenal scene that showed Moana as a toddler interacting with the ocean, which is a character of its own in the film. Young Moana is sitting by the sea when the ocean offers her a shell. She goes to pick it up and the ocean gives her another, receding to leave her a dry path surrounded by walls of water. It creates a crest and waves at her (think The Abyss) and the two play together a bit, until someone calls her and the ocean picks her up and sets her gently back on shore. It was gorgeous, adorable, and really emotional to watch, and I cannot wait to see Moana. The Disney Animation segment closed with a musical performance of a beautiful song from the film, complete with Samoan dancers. The film’s music and songs will be composed by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The Pixar portion kicked off with Pete Doctor, director of Inside Out, showing us the new short film debuting on the film’s Blu-ray this fall, “Riley’s First Date?”. The short picks up from the feature’s end, with the little panicked boy whom Riley bumped into. He comes over to Riley’s house so they can go skating with friends, and Riley’s parents mentally freak out over how to handle this new development. The short is hilarious, and you should definitely check it out on the Blu-ray. I won’t spoil it for you, but it capitalizes on some of the best sources of humor from the feature.
Next up was The Good Dinosaur, which is probably the one film we’ve seen the most of already. Director Peter Sohn debuted four new clips, each of which picked up on segments from the trailer. The first showed Arlo being washed down the river after the death of his father, leaving him stranded. The second, and most emotional, showed Spot and Arlo bonding over the loss of their families, using sticks and drawings in the sand to bridge the language barrier. The third showed Arlo working with a group of T-rexes to track a herd of buffalo things, and played more like a western especially with the voice of Sam Elliot as a T-rex. The final was an extended version of Arlo and Spot running through the wilderness, and served to show just how gorgeous the film will be.
Then came the big one, Finding Dory. Everyone knew it was coming, but by the reaction of the audience you would have thought it was a complete surprise. Though this segment had a few technical glitches with video playback, it didn’t matter once Ellen Degeneres showed up. The theater simply exploded. She didn’t even have to do anything beyond make some jokes about the teleprompter telling them to fill time with banter, because her mere presence was enough to drive the audience crazy. And things got even better when she was joined onstage by new costars Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell, and Kaitlin Olson. We also got two clips, the first of which showed Dory having a flashback/revelation about her forgotten parents, who live in the “Jewel of Monterey.” It gave us our first look at her life with Marlin and Nemo (Albert Brooks returns but Nemo has a new actor), and the lengths they go to to keep her safe while finding a good balance between Marlin’s nature and the growth he went through in Finding Nemo. The second was a very funny scene between Dory, who has been captured by an animal rescue, and Ed O’Neill’s octopus character, who wants to use Dory to help him escape to the wonderful aquariums of Cleveland. Honestly, the clips themselves weren’t stunning or revolutionary, but it didn’t matter, because they gave us more Finding Nemo, and nothing could be better than that.
We got a quick look at the film formerly known as the untitled Dia de los Muertos film, now known as Coco. The film, inspired by Mexican folk art, will focus on a 12-year-old boy named Miguel, who uncovers a mystery on the Day of the Dead. We got a look at what they called a “diorama” showing the visual style of the film.
Lasseter closed things up with Toy Story 4, a film he promised he would never make unless he had a story worth telling. He’ll be in the director’s chair on this one himself, and it will be written by Will McCormic and Rashida Jones. It will be a new genre for the series, telling a love story between Woody and Bo Peep, whom Buzz and Wood will set off to find. Randy Newman then strolled out onstage to perform “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” after which army men dropped from the ceiling and danced onstage while more Hawaiian shirts were fired into the audience.
My apologies, but I’m rapidly running out of steam here. There’s so much more that I saw, even if I still haven’t hit the highlights of the show floor yet. There are many fantastic booths through which I wandered and which could easily bankrupt me. I haven’t hit the main pavilions yet, and I’ll probably save those for Sunday. There have been some excellent costumes (including many Joys), and all sorts of displays. I’ll throw in some pictures at the end of this article. All in all, despite the crazy lines (I’m not even going to try to get into the stores) and crowds, I’m having a fantastic time, and meeting some really nice people. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow holds, between the live action presentation and the parks and resorts presentation. But for now, sleep is calling my name.