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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

CinemaCon 2018, Day 2: Walt Disney Studios

Film Flam Flummox


It's fitting that the plum post-State of the Industry event slot, which begins immediately after that program with no intervening break, would go this year to Walt Disney Studios, the one Hollywood studio that has always put on the most no-nonsense, straightforward, and business-minded presentations at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Heavy on PowerPoint slides and charts with clips and trailers occasionally breaking the visual monotony, and nary a celebrity in sight, some could go so far as to call the Mouse's CinemaCon stage style as being--gasp--boring.

Personally, I wouldn't go that far, and a large reason for that is the smoothly professional style of the studio's regular presentation host, Dave Hollis, Disney's President of Theatrical Distribution. As mentioned in the previous article, Hollis is set to depart his post at the end of next month, and the studio deviated from its usual laser focus on business to pay him special homage. No less than Alan Horn, Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, was first up on stage to not only trumpet the studio's industry-leading box office success of the past year as shown in the customary introductory sizzle reel before his entrance, but to also offer words of tribute for Hollis. Upon taking over the podium, however, the ever-unflappable Hollis quickly redirected the attention to recapping the company's year of successes before a brief and classy thank you to the studio and the exhibitor community for "the three happiest years ever." He signed off on behalf of Disney for the final time by introducing the presentation proper's first film preview footage.

Avengers: Infinity War (April 27): Even with the third super-team entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe on deck for release in mere days, a brief taste was offered to the convention crowd in the form of a brief scene that appears to (wisely) come from near the beginning of Joe and Anthony Russo's film, with the Guardians of the Galaxy bringing a post-Ragnarok Thor aboard their ship. Comedy of character crossover collisions ensues as has now become familiar in the Avengers films, this time with a bit of a sillier bent, given the involvement of the Guardians. It was a well chosen tease that gives a brief taste of what to expect without showing anything substantial--except for the pre-ordained fact that audiences the world over will eat it up.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 6): Horn briefly returned to the stage to introduce to the crowd Hollis's imminent successor, Cathleen Taff, who wasted no time in continuing the Marvel Studios theme with the premiere of the newest trailer for the second starring vehicle for Paul Rudd's size-shifting hero. This time he's paired with Evangeline Lilly suiting up, as suggested in the previous film's conclusion, as the other title insect, and since this film takes place roughly before the seemingly cataclysmic events of Infinity War, the trailer shows Rudd (who also co-wrote) and returning director Peyton Reed continuing the jovial tone--reinforced by the use of a remix of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's classic "It Takes Two" as score throughout--even as Ant-Man and the Wasp due battle with a mysterious adversary in a white suit. While the trailer ends with a brief appearance of new co-star Laurence Fishburne, there is still no sign of the new co-star fans really want to see, Michelle Pfeiffer as Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp. I guess we'll have to wait for trailer #3.

Captain Marvel (March 8, 2019): It was back to the PowerPoint for the look--nay, glance--at Marvel's first female-(co-)directed film (by Anna Fleck, with regular partner Ryan Boden), and first female-headlined one, by outer space adventurer Carol Danvers, who was originally known in the comics as Ms. Marvel before going through numerous name changes until finally landing at Captain Marvel. Only some concept art, including renderings of star Brie Larson in the Captain Marvel costume, was shown. Nothing in these vague glimpses convinces this longtime comic geek that the B-List-at-best character of Carol Danvers--who has gone through many overhauls over the decades to find an identity that somewhat caught on only in the last five years--is worthy of a lavish big screen solo showcase treatment, all due respect to the talented creatives involved.

Christopher Robin (August 3): Gears then shifted to Disney's live action division, first with a behind the scenes look of this twist on the beloved Winnie the Pooh, with the "hunny"-loving bear catching up with his now-adult human companion of the title (played by Ewan McGregor). The talking head interview bits with the likes of McGregor and director Marc Forster in the EPK-style featurette did not go beyond the usual on-set hyping, but there is potential here for a film with enough humor and heart to appeal across a wide range of ages.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (November): The latest feature adaptation of the perennial holiday season ballet also got the EPK-style behind the scenes featurette treatment, with special focus on the film's featured performance by American Ballet Theatre's mainstream-popular principal dancer Misty Copeland. There was nothing too unusual from the norm about the rest of the featurette, nor the world premiere trailer, which teases a Narnia-esque tale of a young girl who enters a magical realm featuring various signposts inspired by the ballet, such as a nutcracker soldier come to life--with one huge, glaring, exception: the glaring absence of a director. Things are obviously still in flux with this film, for the original director Lasse Hallström was recently replaced in post-production by Joe Johnston, who is also at the helm of what are reported to be some extensive reshoots. Neither Hallström nor Johnston were physically present in the behind-the-scenes feature, but one passing verbal reference to a "Lasse" in one of the crew interview segments did slip through. No matter whose vision is ultimately the winner, the final product looks to be a visual stunner, and names in the cast such as Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, and Eugenio Derbez look to be having fun in the elaborately designed proceedings.

Mary Poppins Returns (Christmas): Perhaps the most eagerly awaited film on the Disney release slate post-Infinity War continues to be given the tease treatment. Instead of a behind the scenes featurette or even a new official trailer, all that was shown to promote the Rob Marshall-directed, Emily Blunt- and Lin-Manuel Miranda-starring musical sequel was a wordless montage of short snippets set to Marc Shaiman's original instrumental score. No actual plot or story could be gleaned from the brief reel, but the one intriguing moment has Blunt and Miranda interacting with old fashioned, classic 2D hand-drawn animated birds, which is a nice nod to the beloved original 1964 film. Blunt also still looks very much the part stepping into Julie Andrews's formidable footsteps. We shall see if the rest of the film measures up come the holiday season.

Dumbo (March 20, 2019): Oddly enough, more extensive looks were offered at two big live action projects given their very first preview ever. Another EPK-style behind the scenes featurette offered the initial taste of Tim Burton's take on the 1941 flying elephant classic, revealing an elaborately designed circus setting that looks distinctly Burton-esque, with wild costumes and makeup to match on Burton veterans Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, and Eva Green. What wasn't revealed, however, was the title character itself, with only some vague production sketches shown that lived up to the term "teaser." With Burton at the helm, I imagine the final CGI elephant design will be impressive, and I hope some of his signature quirk is able to cut through the commercial cash-in motivation of the project, much like it did in his Alice in Wonderland.

Aladdin (May 2019): Even more surprising was the amount of production footage shown for next year's other animated classic adaptation, that of the 1992 blockbuster of the same name. While the jury is still out on if the headscratching choice of Guy Ritchie as director is the right one (I remain wildly curious as to how he will handle the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman/Tim Rice musical numbers), other aspects look right. Mena Messoud and Naomi Scott look very much the part as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, respectively, and the costuming is on point if, in these early glimpses, a bit on the theme park character side; ditto the sets, which would very much look at home as a virtual Agrabah in any Magic Kingdom around the world. The big question mark going in, of course, is Will Smith as the Genie, and while the footage of him shown was clearly during the "Prince Ali" sequence--that is, his Genie was in human form/disguise and skin tone--one does indeed get a sense that much like how the legendary Robin Williams imprinted so much of his distinct persona onto the role, so does Smith, infusing some amiably goofball swag into the role in the place of his predecessor's zany hyperactivity. Whether or not that's a good or bad thing remains to be seen, but I do believe it being a different thing is a step in the right direction toward justifying this project's existence.

Incredibles 2 (June 15): A more substantial look was offered for Pixar's long-awaited superhero sequel. Writer-director Brad Bird returns, as do principal voice actors Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, and Samuel Jackson in this new adventure from the super-powered (or should it be "incredible"-powered?) family, and if the opening 20-minute sequence shown is anything to go by, no one has missed a beat in the ensuing 14 (!) years since the original, seamlessly blending the family comedy aspects with comic book-inspired tropes, and some imaginative and impressive action sequences.

Ralph Breaks the Internet (November 21): The other animated sequel (arriving a mere six years after the first film, Wreck-It Ralph!) on the Mouse's immediate release calendar, finds old school video game characters Ralph and Vanellope (the returning John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, respectively) leaving the confines of the arcade for the wild west known as the World Wide Web, and the brief scene shown shows the Walt Disney Animation Studios having a lot of fun their legacy characters, a few of whom meet up with Vanellope. I will not give away any more, but the sharp wit that returning director Rich Moore brought to the first film is still very much in evidence, and this scene will undoubtedly be a highlight for many moviegoers when the film is released in time for Thanksgiving.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (May 25): The first Star Wars film of the Disney era to get the Fox era's traditional Memorial Day release slot previewed one complete scene for the prequel "standalone" installment, which is set for its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Director Ron Howard provided a taped introduction to the clip, which brings to life one of the points of Original Trilogy lore, that of Han Solo (here played by Alden Ehrenreich) winning the Millennium Falcon ship from Lando Calrissian (here, Donald Glover) in a card game. What is particularly striking was not what is depicted in terms of a fan service story beat, nor Glover nor Ehrenreich's performances, which in this bit appear to honor and fall in line with their legendary predecessors, Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford, respectively; but Bradford Young's characteristically shadowy and moody cinematography, which makes for a more atmospheric visual texture than the Lucasfilm--pre- and post-Disney takeover--norm. We shall see if other distinctive stylistic flourishes appear in the complete film.

The Lion King (July 2019): The surprise grand finale for the presentation was a very early and exclusive look at 2019's third animated classic redo, Jon Favreau's take on the 1994 box office phenomenon. Technically what was shown was not actual footage from the film, but it nonetheless should be an accurate representation of Favreau's vision, for the screened proof of concept reel was quite spectacular: a shot-by-shot recreation of the iconic opening "Circle of Life" number (using Carmen Twillie's original recording), but this time staged with the remarkably photorealistic CGI animals that populated his terrific 2016 update of The Jungle Book. That description is both spot-on yet insufficient in conveying just how spectacular the reel looked, and even then in only "rough" proof of concept form, and how it made a film and score that never left the pop culture consciousness after premiering 24 years ago feel new and unexpected. Never mind the fourth Avengers film--I think this is the 2019 summer blockbuster that will reign over all at the box office.

Stay tuned here and on my Twitter and Instagram all week for ongoing coverage of all the goings-on at CinemaCon 2018!

(photo by Michael Dequina)

(Special thanks to Sean Bailey, Walt Disney Studios, and very special thanks to Heather Lewandoski, Corey Barger, and the entire team at Rogers & Cowan for all their helpful and generous assistance at the convention, as well as Mitch Neuhauser and the CinemaCon crew)

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