It's important to understand that liking Disney and Pixar movies does not make you uncool, or childish, it just means you're sensible. An entire new era has begun for the company now that John Lasseter has been promoted from head of Pixar to Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney's animation studios. Because let's face it: while they were putting out some good
animated films outside of Pixar, they hadn't done anything great
in a very long time. But it looks like all that is about to change.
I attended the 3D Disney animation panel with Lasseter hosting and did not walk away unimpressed. The black igneous-like coating around my little heart shattered into a thousand pieces when confronted with the pure charm and talent that exuded from the things we were shown. Especially when master animator Hayao Miyazaki showed up. But that comes later.
First up was a 3D version of the original intro of "Toy Story 2". Both it and the first film are getting a spruced up 3D double feature re-release (two for the price of one in theaters) on October 2nd. I'm always surprised by the amount of people I know who have never even given these movies a chance and you have to believe me...the name sound silly but both films are absolute magic and genius. Go see these in the theater and you most definitely will not regret it. Lasseter even promised there would be an intermission.
After John talked some more about how they didn't actually change anything at all in the original films in order to add the 3D element, "We've always been making our films in 3D, the theaters just caught up with us," they showed a short preview for the double feature re-release and then brought out the director of the upcoming third 'Toy' chapter, Lee Unkrich, who has long been a co-director and an editor of various other Pixar releases. There wasn't any new footage shown, but he said there's about ten months left before the last bit of work is done on it. The story involves Andy being all grown up now and getting ready to leave for college. All the original voice actors are back and all the characters are back including Barbie who apparently gets a lot more screen time in this outing. Being introduced as a new character is "Ken" (naturally) who is being voiced by Michael Keaton. A small bit they made to be like a clip from an interview in the 70's with Ken was pretty amusing. I look forward to seeing how they make it work in the film.
Next up was "Beauty and the Beast" which is getting re-released with the 3D treatment in theaters February 12th 2010. One of the original directors, Kurt Wise, entered to talk about how he helped them translate the beloved film into the new format. Once again it was established that absolutely nothing is changed from the original, only translated to 3D. Then we got to see one sequence updated, the Academy Award winning "Belle" song part of the movie.
Next up was "Prep and Landing", Pixar's first foray into television. It's a 30 minute Christmas special set to come out this holiday season. We got to see the beginning and I gotta tell ya, I was mightily impressed. This is the usual quality we expect from this company only for free on the smaller screen. The story follows an elite company of elves who work for Santa prepping and checking each house before he enters it to drop off his goodies. The way it's executed is like "Mission Impossible" with Christmas stuff. Like, for instance, the elves use gingerbread cookie PDAs and have temperature sensitive equipment to make sure the milk left out is just the right level of cold. It looks like it's gonna be a lot of fun.
Lasseter was very excited, and well he should be, for the return of the hand drawn animated film from Disney. This first picture under his aegis is "The Princess and the Frog", which is also the first animated musical they've done in some time and absolutely the first time they've had a black princess. Despite some controversy about that last bit (everybody has to get sensitive the moment it's looked at as a 'race' issue) it's about damn time, I must say. The directors of the film (Ron Clements and John Musker) came out and described the film as an "American" fairy tale set in New Orleans in the 20s. The 'princess' character is named Tianna (Anika Noni Rose) who meets a prince (Bruno Campos) who was turned into a frog by a witch doctor (Keith David). She is asked to kiss him to break the spell but it backfires and turns her into a frog as well. They adventure into the Louisiana Bayou looking for a voodoo priestess (Jenifer Lewis) who can break the spell for them and, as you might expect, end up falling for each other. Not sure how frog lust goes and I'm still not entirely sure I want to know.
They talked about the new songs for the film, 7 original compositions by long time Pixar collaborator, Randy Newman and then showed us one musical number where the Prince first meets and is captured by the Witch Doctor. Honestly, it was so original and yet harkened back to the early early days of Disney animated films, it got my blood pumping to see this. Next was a clip where the two frogged-out royals who are being guided through the swamp by a friendly jazz singing alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) who appears to be based on Louis Armstrong, get their tongues locked together and have to be helped out by a cajun firefly (Jim Cummings).
Finally, what I had been waiting for, as John Lasseter, with all the respect and reverence due, introduced the legend, Hayao Miyazaki. He and his translator came out and sat down and they started talking about his new film "Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea", in America simply called "Ponyo" due to come out August 14th here. They discussed the film a bit and then Miyazaki's storyboarding process (Lasseter expressed how amazed he still is that Hayao does all of it by himself) and then we got to see a long clip from "Ponyo". And let me tell you something right now, it was the most intense artistic work I've seen so far. It featured the mermaid Ponyo running across these waves during a massive storm that would turn into giant fish and then morph back into water while a young mother and her son are trying to out drive the storm. You have never seen water done like this before. It's not that it's realistic, that's not what they're going for, but the interpretation and use of them here is positively hypnotizing and brought a tear of appreciation to these tired ol' eyes.
After the clip there was a small bit of q&a with Hayao which was highlighted by the question of why he always cast women as his protagonists to which the man, who is one of few words, answered, "Because women are strong and beautiful". Indeed, Mr Miyazaki, indeed. Even though the whole slate here looks great, I'm more wowed by what this master has to offer than anything else. If you haven't dived in yet to his films, do yourself a favor.