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Disney Taps Deep Into DNA In Unveiling Animation Slate

In announcing its animation slate for the next four-plus years yesterday at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, The Walt Disney Studios affirmed the new "director-driven" mandate since the acquisition of Pixar and rejuvenated leadership from John Lasseter and Ed Catmull.

The three-hour unveiling concentrated on 10 new theatrical features, highlighted by a newt, a Scottish princess and a band of elves, as well as four direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray 3D-animated titles with Tinker Bell. Fittingly, there was a full-size mock-up of the robot star from Pixar's WALL*E and free popcorn.

Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook kicked off the event, noting that it had been close to a decade since the studio last unveiled a long-range slate of movies. "2008 is a significant year for us," he added. "In the 80th year since the creation of Mickey Mouse, we're renewing our commitment to the art form of animation. It has always been and always will be the heart and soul of the company -- it's in our DNA."

Touting the upcoming films as "the most unique and diverse line-up in the company's history," Cook introduced Animation Studio President Catmull and Chief Creative Officer Lasseter. The pair entered to the appropriate strains of Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me" and Catmull was the first to speak. "It's been two years since the merger... I'm really excited by the transformation at Disney and the continued creativity at Pixar," he said, adding "John's got a great presentation" before leaving the stage to Lasseter after his brief moment in the spotlight.

Dressed in his standard Hawaiian shirt ("What did you think I'd wear?"), Lasseter emceed the rest of the event solo. "I've been at Pixar just over 20 years, and I'm proud to be back at Disney -- what Walt did is why I'm in animation." He listed the three ingredients necessary to making a great -- and commercially successful -- animated feature:

"A compelling story -- one where you can't wait to see what happens next; memorable characters who live beyond the boundaries of the film; and a believable world where the audience doesn't think of anything else until the lights come up."

Lasseter introduced the upcoming films' creative teams (heavily weighted with first-time directors) to talk the audience through their projects and present concept art and film clips. First up was Pixar's WALL*E, the studio's entry in this summer's blockbuster demolition derby, due out June 27.

Andrew Stanton, the film's writer/director, currently occupied recording the film's closing credits song with Peter Gabriel, appeared onscreen to introduce a 30-minute excerpt from the film. Once again Pixar's amazing trompe l'oeil artistry was on display in its depiction of a crumbling and abandoned metropolis tended to by WALL*E, a dutiful sanitation robot. The studio's pitch-perfect characterizations and storytelling instincts were evident as well, with WALL*E coming fully to life as a clutzy, warm-hearted romantic hero strictly via his mechanical "body language" and Ben Burtt's sound design for his vocal effects. Stanton revealed his geek streak by gleefully announcing that the voice of an automated self-destruct countdown was provided by Sigourney Weaver, in a deliberate nod to her starring role in the ALIEN movies.

From there, Lasseter leapt to the last film in the pipeline: KING OF THE ELVES, due out from Disney at Christmas 2012. Longtime Disney animators Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker debut as directors, in a feature based on a short story by the movies' favorite dead sci-fi author, Phillip K Dick. The audience was treated to concept art of "a new elf mythology" -- a lost tribe of elves living in Mississippi who make a gas station owner their new monarch. They've managed to remain undiscovered by blending into the surrounding plant life "like a biological adaptation," according to Walker. "We're designing an entire world from the very small to the huge."

MONSTERS INC. director Pete Docter was on hand with producer Jonas Rivera and writer/co-director Bob Peterson to introduce UP, Pixar's first 3-D movie. (Lasseter announced that, "from here on, all Pixar movies will be produced in 3-D.") Docter marveled that UP is Pixar's tenth feature, and like THE INCREDIBLES, its hero "travels the globe, fights evil -- and eats dinner at 3:30 pm."

Due out on May 29, 2009, the film features the surprisingly poignant premise of a 78-year-old widower (voiced by Ed Asner, Hollywood's grumpiest old man) embarking on an unlikely adventure (one that involves sending his house aloft via helium-filled balloons) to fulfill his late wife's dream. Peterson described the film as "a coming-of-old-age story" and screened a rough sketch story reel.

As in the WALL*E excerpt, Pixar again proved its skill in dialog-free storytelling: a handful of images (a quick succession of ties being tightened, the vacation money jar repeatedly raided for emergencies) effortlessly compressed the couple's life together into a few moments of screen time. A brief CG test clip followed, showing the elderly hero and his spunky 8-year-old sidekick dragging the floating house through a forest like a Thanksgiving parade balloon. (And anyone who remembers THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW knows how Asner feels about spunk.)

Observing that "the castle is at the center of every Disneyland theme park," Lasseter announced that Disney's Christmas 2010 release will be the studio's first classic fairy tale story since SLEEPING BEAUTY -- a CG retelling of RAPUNZEL. Co-directors (again, freshmen helmers) Glen Keane and Dean Wellins were on hand with producer Roy Conli. Flanked by the much taller Wellins and Conli, Keane joked, "I feel like I'm talking out of a valley." The bald animator mused about a common thread in many of Disney's animated heroes: "Ariel and Pocahontas' flowing manes... Tarzan's dreadlocks... " Then, with flawless timing, he added, "Maybe I'm trying to make up for some lack in my life." A succession of concept paintings backed up the trio as they facetiously claimed, "We got Rembrandt and Michelangelo to do our boards."

Lasseter returned to extol Disney's upcoming series of direct-to-DVD releases: the long-delayed Tinker Bell movies. Lasseter credited the films' inspiration to a series of "amazing books" from Disney's publishing arm. The first of the four movies -- all themed to the seasons of the year -- will be released on Oct. 28 and reveals Tink's origins, with the remainder to be released at one-year intervals. A montage of 3D-animated footage (described by Lasseter as "stunning," but obviously overmatched by the clips that preceded and followed it) unreeled, followed by an onstage quartet of dancers portraying Tink and her pals. (Their performance ended with a burst of Mylar confetti sprinkling down from auditorium's ceiling.)

BOLT is this year's holiday release, due out Nov. 26. The canine film is another project that has seen its share of changes since Lasseter took over as head of Disney animation, with LILO AND STITCH director Chris Sanders leaving a project with a much different storyline and originally titled AMERICAN DOG. Lasseter highlighted the ten patents earned by the studio's new technology that gave the film's 3D backgrounds a hand-painted appearance. "But technology never entertains the audience," he quickly added before lauding BOLT's characters as "some of the most entertaining we've ever created." Lasseter noted the film's high-profile voice cast, led by John Travolta, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM's Susan Essman and (in a surprise announcement) super-hot HANNAH MONTANA star Miley Cryus.

BOLT's newbie co-directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard and producer John Powell (the former head of Disney's now-shuttered Orlando animation studio) presented a story reel of the film's first 15 minutes. In a tightly choreographed high-energy sequence (that put any of Michael Bay's film to shame), Bolt's adolescent owner Penny escapes from a super-villain's band of minions aided by her dog's super-powers. The reel's fake-out ending reveals the entire sequence was a chase scene from Bolt's TV show -- with the highly trained dog believing his adventures are genuine. (With the complex sequence presented as an animation-free story reel, and with less than nine months until the film's release, one might be forgiven for wondering if the studio is under the gun to finish BOLT in time for its release.)

From that beginning, BOLT evolves into a road movie, with the still-deluded and now lost dog in search of Penny. A CG sequence, by turns moody and slapsticky followed, highlighting Bolt's companions: an eager-beaver hamster named Rhino (voiced by Disney story artist Mark Walton) and mangy alley cat Mr. Mittens (Essman).

PRINCE OF EGYPT director Brenda Chapman, together with producer Katherine Sarafian (from the Pixar short LIFTED), introduced Pixar's THE BEAR AND THE BOW, a Celtic-themed legend targeted for a Christmas 2011 release. Against a background of concept paintings and character designs (many reminiscent of Victorian illustrator Arthur Rackham), Chapman described the factors inspiring her original story: her love of Brothers Grimm-style dark fairy tales, the landscapes of Scotland ("it's very rugged and masculine, yet it has a feminine aspect -- there's something growing on everything") and her daughter Emma Rose's fiery personality, the inspiration for the film's Princess Merida. "She has one of the most important traits of all," Sarafian observed, "great hair."

The film abounds in mythic elements, including an ancient ring of stones (that exists in real-life Scotland and is older than Stonehenge), a secret cave, a witch (or "wise woman," depending on your perspective) and a cursed beast -- a 15-foot-tall bear. Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon voices Merida, while Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson portray her royal parents and Julie Waters (Ron Weasley's mom in the HARRY POTTER movies) is the wise woman.

Pixar's summer 2011 release is the comedy NEWT, directed by LIFTED's director Gary Rydstrom. The film's producer, visual effects veteran Richard Hollander, described NEWT as "a romantic comedy about endangered species," as the last two blue-footed newts -- the lab-dwelling Newt and the caught-in-the-wild Brooke -- discover they can't stand one another. When the pair escape from the laboratory, they encounter Eddie, a "Hell Hollow Slender Salamander" and self-deluded ladies' man. "It was my way of sneaking the word 'hell' into a Disney movie," Hollander joshed, although a hardcore Disney buff might point out that SLEEPING BEAUTY's Maleficent beat him to it by 52 years.

A handful of CG stills illustrated Hollander's talk as he summed up his goal for the film: "We want to prove to you that love is not a science."

Christmas 2009 marks Disney's long-awaited return to hand-drawn animation with THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, from the studio's superstar writing/directing team (THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN) John Musker and Ron Clements. Lasseter pointed out the film is also "the return of the musical to Disney animation," before introducing Musker, Clements and film's producer, musical theater veteran Peter Del Vecho.

Musker began by showing a circa-1976 group shot of CalArts students that included himself, Clements and Brad Bird. After riffing on their three decades out-of-date appearances, Musker described the school as "a magical place." Del Vecho observed that "every fairy tale needs a magical place," and in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG that place is 1920s New Orleans.

The film's princess is the African-American Tiana, another nontraditional Disney heroine, following in the footsteps of Middle Eastern Jasmine, Asian Mulan and Native American Pocahontas. In an unexpected moment, DREAMGIRLS star Anika Noni Rose, the voice of Tiana, came onstage to sing the film's romantic ballad by Disney veteran Newman.

The film's premise is a classic fractured fairy tale twist on the original fable, but done in a more romantic manner than Jay Ward might've imagined: When Tiana kisses the voodoo-enchanted frog... she turns into one as well. The pair escapes into the swamps, where they encounter lovesick, slackjawed firefly Ray, and Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator. Mama Odie, the film's half-blind, 200-year-old "fairy godmother" was described as "a combination of Moms Mabley and Yoda."

After revealing the film's climax takes place during New Orleans' Mardi Gras, the trio introduced Newman himself, who performed a second song from the film, backed up by a jazz ensemble.

Longtime collaborators Lasseter and Newman casually revealed the June 2010 3-D release of TOY STORY 3. The third chapter in Buzz and Woody's story will be directed by Lee Unkrich, TOY STORY 2's co-director, and written by Michael Arndt, who snagged an Oscar for his LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE screenplay.

Lee and producer Darla K. Anderson joined Lasseter to describe how the creative team brainstormed the film's premise -- what happens when the toys' owner Andy leaves for college -- at the same cabin retreat where they developed the original TOY STORY. The trio described opening a bottle of wine and toasting their departed friend Joe Ranft, an early member of the Pixar brain trust.

"I edited the first TOY STORY," Unkrich went on to remark. "These characters are in my blood." Anderson added, "It couldn't be just a wacky adventure, The story had to have heart." All the voice talent of the earlier films will return. Mattel's Barbie will also be back, this time accompanied by boyfriend Ken, who, in a still flashed onscreen, looked about as gay as anyone could possibly imagine.

Lasseter announced the 3-D versions of TOY STORY and TOY STORY 2 will be released in 2009 and early 2010 respectively, leading up to the third film's June premiere.

The festivities appeared to be over -- until Larry the Cable Guy's sudden amble onstage. Together with Lasseter, the pair announced CARS 2, due out in the summer of 2012 and now in production. "They're going international," Larry revealed. "They travel the world. Mater blew out a gasket learning the metric system. And he cleaned out his tail pipe in case the TSA gave him a cavity search."

-- Reported by Joe Strike