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Mr. Beaks Beholds The Agony Of JOHN CARTER And The Ecstasy Of THE MUPPETS At D23!

"I have an army."
"We have a Hulk."

You want the "big takeaway" from Saturday morning's Walt Disney Studios presentation at D23, there it is. After two-and-a-half hours of teasing some of the biggest Disney fans on the planet with footage, concept art, or, absent either, fonts for nearly every single geek-friendly movie due out from the studio over the next several years, it's that exchange between Tom Hiddleston's Loki and Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark brought the house down. It's what every attendee tweeted - once they retrieved their phones from security - on their way out of the Anaheim Convention Center arena. They'd seen footage from Joss Whedon's THE AVENGERS, and it looked and sounded exactly like an AVENGERS movie should. Rejoice! Then, once this was out of their system, they began tweeting about WRECK-IT RALPH and BRAVE and MONSTERS UNIVERSITY and two other off-in-the-distance Pixar movies. Or perhaps they led with THE MUPPETS. Or FRANKENWEENIE. Or OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.

And this is how, a month later, Disney won Comic Con.

Disney's decision to shun the massive San Diego convention in favor of a deluxe presentation on their own Anaheim turf was pretty much a smart play all around: rather than jockey with their competition for prime coverage, they used their recently-acquired ace-in-the-hole (Marvel Studios) to generate buzz for their extended slate - all on a weekend where they were the sole focus. But there might be a downside. Whereas it's great to have the fan community buzzing exclusively about your product, this means there's less noise to drown out what doesn't connect - or, in the case of one very ambitious (and expensive) project, falls stunningly flat.

The event also said a lot about Disney's m.o.: Marvel might've been the grand finale, but animation was front-and-center. The message was clear: "We're a full-service movie studio, but animation is the crown jewel, and we still do it better than anyone else."

And now, a moment-by-moment, selectively-detailed (based on my enthusiasm) breakdown of Disney's Saturday's presentation...





Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross takes the stage to welcome the gathered members of the "Disney family" (this is the studio they've chosen). Ross quickly turns the proceedings over to the most beloved person in the building, Pixar/Disney Animation capo John Lasseter.



PLANES (2013)


Lasseter kicks off his portion of the presentation with a sneak peek of the direct-to-DVD complement to the CARS franchise. The main character is a plucky crop duster named "Dusty" (Jon Cryer) who yearns to be fighter jet - which would be controversial if all of the humans hadn't already been killed off in this universe. Cryer is brought out on stage for a few seconds. He looks well.


WRECK-IT RALPH (November 2012)

Or ARCADE STORY. John C. Reilly voices the titular character, an 8-bit bad guy fated be clobbered a quarter at a time at the hands of Fix-It Felix, Jr (Jack McBrayer). Ralph isn't a bad guy at heart (he's just playing a role), but he's still shunned by the characters in the game (which, design-wise, looks like an amalgamation of DONKEY KONG, CRAZY CLIMBER and RAMPAGE). When the Arcade shuts down for the day, he attends a support group called Bad-Anon, where all the video game villains vent their misery in a therapy session moderated by one of the ghosts from Pac-Man. This is no life for Ralph, so he boldly breaks free of FIX-IT FELIX, JR. and attempts to find purpose in another of the arcade's games (including a HALO-inspired shoot-em-up and a kid-skewing title called SUGAR RUSH).
This is the brainchild of director Rich Moore, a veteran of THE SIMPSONS, FUTURAMA and THE CRITIC (name your favorite episode from one of these shows, and there's a good chance he directed it), and it's got the potential to be a visually-inventive traipse through video game history. Reilly's amiable voice work as Ralph seems spot-on, and the supporting vocal talent (McBrayer, Jane Lynch and Sarah Silverman) is impressive. Considering the endless number of games Ralph could visit, this feels like it has real franchise potential for Disney. The concept is fun, but it's Moore's involvement that's got me believing this could be one of next year's big surprises.






BRAVE (June 22, 2012)


This is Pixar's summer 2012 offering. It's an original story about a headstrong Scottish princess, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), whose bow-wielding quest for personal freedom inadvertently results in the casting of a dangerous curse only she can break. It's Pixar's first fairy tale and, more importantly, its first film with a female protagonist. I've no idea why that took so long, but the director/producer team of Mark Andrews and Katherine Sarafian seem to have a strong handle on the story they want to tell.
To goose the audience a bit, Andrews and Sarafian bring out Macdonald and Kevin McKidd (who voices a Scottish lord with a literally indecipherable accent), but they truly win them over with a scene in which Merida crashes her own courting ritual, embarrassing her would be suitors with a dazzling display of archery (concluding with Merida castrating splitting the arrow of the dope who luckily hit a bull's eye). Merida, with her fiery red hair and take-charge attitude, looks to be a fine addition to the Disney princess roster - and I'm all for Pixar staying away from needless franchise building. Speaking of which...




MONSTERS' UNIVERSITY [Or, if Pixar is dead set on eliding the apostrophe, MONSTER UNIVERSITY] (June 21, 2013)


Lasseter kicks off this preview by reiterating Pixar's sequel policy: "We do it because we've found a story as good as or better than the original." And what was the "as good or better" idea that set MONSTERS' UNIVERSITY in motion? "How did Sulley and Mike Wazowski become friends?"
To be honest, I never thought to ask that question - just as I never thought to ask how Laurel and Hardy first crossed paths. But Lasseter seems pretty excited about making Pixar's first college comedy, and when director Dan Scalon shows off the sketches of undergrad Sulley and Mike (the former thinner and shaggier, the latter sporting a retainer), the D23 faithful are delighted. It doesn't take much.
Scanlon also gives us a peek at the Ivy League-inspired campus setting of Monster University. Sulley and Mike will start as "enemies" at the university's prestigious "Scare School" (they both want to be the best scarer in their class). Since we know how this turns out, I guess the film will deal with Mike learning that scaring is not the end-all, be-all in life, and that behind every great scarer is an equally great scare assistant. Yawn. I hate being underwhelmed by the idea of MONSTERS' UNIVERSITY at this point, but nothing they showed us at D23 convinced me that this film needs to exist (which is in stark contrast to both TOY STORY sequels, which a) had compelling premises, and b) weren't prequels). If Pete Docter was back directing, I wouldn't question a thing.




From Bob Peterson (co-writer of UP and the voice of Roz, Mr. Ray and Dug) comes Pixar's inevitable dinosaur movie. We've suspected this one was in the works for a while now, but now it's confirmed. Premise: What if that life-exterminating meteor missed Earth, and the dinosaurs never died out. Dinosaurs and humans cohabiting? Simple, yes, but loaded with potential. It also sounds like a license to print money.




From the great Pete Docter (MONSTERS INC., and UP) comes an animated movie that takes place in the human brain. Feel free to make HERMAN'S HEAD jokes, but I prefer to think Docter is drawing his inspiration from Woody Allen's EVERY THING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX *BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK. Sounds like fun. If there's a voice role for Burt Reynolds, this is automatically my most anticipated film of summer 2014.




JOHN CARTER (March 9, 2012)


This is my most anticipated presentation of the morning. I've always believed in the pulp cinema potential of Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian Tales. They're the template for many of our modern fantasy/sci-fi movies; Cameron recently plundered them for AVATAR, but emphasized stop-and-gawk world-building over the kind of non-stop roller-coaster thrills that should drive a proper Burroughs adaptation. When Andrew Stanton took on the project for Disney, I considered the crackerjack narrative economy of FINDING NEMO and WALL-E, and thought he'd be sensational - provided he could easily manage the transition from animation to live-action.
The presentation is off to a rough start as Disney's head of production Sean Daniels takes the stage to the TRON LEGACY score. Though that film did decent business, Disney shouldn't be aspiring to that standard - i.e. a beautifully designed film in search of a compelling narrative. They need to do better. Before delving into the studio's live-action slate, Bailey cites a quote from Walt Disney: "I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty." That's more like it. Now on to JOHN CARTER...
Andrew Stanton is a great filmmaker, and an avowed fan of Burrough's fiction, so I'm struggling to understand why, save for the Woola clip, this movie continues to evince such a strangely dour tone. This is, of course, the awful thing about out-of-context footage presentations: I'm being forced to grade Stanton's movie against my notion of how a John Carter movie should play. But this is the game Disney loves to play, and right now I'm a little heartbroken by what I'm seeing.
The first sequence Stanton shows finds John Carter stumbling upon a glass-encased nursery full of hatching Tharks. Soon, he's dodging rifle-fire - leaping high into the air thanks to Mars' lower gravity - from a team of Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). This leads to an inter-species dialogue where both beings clumsily attempt to establish a basic form of communication (Tars amusingly believes John's name is "Virginia"). Tars wants to see Carter jump again. Carter, who's played as a bit of a rube by Taylor Kitsch, complies, then tries to escape. The scene concludes with someone being shot.
The second scene features an imprisoned Carter breaking free of his chains, only to be chased everywhere he leaps by the scampering, doglike Woola. This is fun, but, due to the nighttime setting and somewhat dim projection in the convention center arena, I can't quite make out Woola's features.
The third scene is between John and imprisoned Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who pleads with Carter to fight for the people of Helium. She also offers him a way back home, which he seems to take just as her soon-to-be husband, Sab Than (Dominic West), busts through the door with a group of soldiers. Carter is gone. "I am alone," laments Thoris.
The final scene is John and Tars in the arena, where they're pitted against a four-armed white ape. This should be the fist-pumping finale to the presentation, but the staging and basic concept are terribly familiar. This is Luke versus the Rancor, or Anakin versus the stuff in ATTACK OF THE CLONES that I don't care to remember. Though it's adequately executed, that's not good enough for an event movie of this magnitude; this sequence has to be sensational. And, I'm sorry, but 3D is not going to give this sequence the extra oomph it needs. Short of a full-scale reshoot (which would be prohibitively expensive for this allegedly $300 million production), this scene looks DOA.
So does the film, sadly. From the drab color palette to the familiar looking set pieces, JOHN CARTER looks completely joyless. Though I'm a huge fan of the idea to shoot on location with performance-captured Tharks, the landscape appears desolate and earthbound when it should feel strange and otherworldly. And then there's the solemn tone, which is a long way from the rollicking spirit of Burrough's books. Plop two flavorless leads in the middle of this dull, dusty universe, and you've got one seriously torpid tentpole.
My one hope for JOHN CARTER is that Stanton and screenwriter Michael Chabon have somehow elevated Burroughs's narrative, imbuing it with a thematic complexity that wasn't present on the page. When your protagonist is a Confederate soldier transplanted to a bizarre new world, where he must befriend an alien species, the temptation to smuggle must be irresistible. So maybe there's a subtlety to the storytelling that we just can't pick up on until we, you know, see the finished movie. Some films just aren't made for footage presentations. Here's hoping JOHN CARTER is one of them.




FRANKENWEENIE (October 5, 2012)


What's not to like about a stop-motion animated film shot in black-and-white about a boy reanimating the corpse of his run-over dog? This is what I'm asking myself as I watch the work-in-progress preview for Tim Burton's FRANKENWEENIE, which looks great, but has the distinct disadvantage of being directed by a visionary who's been phoning it in for most of the last decade. Everything about this remake of Burton's 1984 short film should appeal to me, but I've been burned too many times by Burton to get my hopes up. This one's a big wait-and-see.






Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton play a childless couple who get drunk one night and write down personality traits for their ideal kid onto scraps of paper, which they then put in a box and bury in the backyard. The next morning, after a heavy rain, a mud-caked boy rises from the earth, hungry for brains. It's a FIELD OF DREAMS wish-fulfillment fantasy from Peter Hedges, who previously annoyed us with PIECES OF APRIL and DAN IN REAL LIFE.




Ever wonder how The Wizard found his way to Oz? Me neither. Great director (Sam Raimi), great cast (James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis), another pointless prequel. It appears that Raimi may be shooting the non-Oz sequences 1.37:1 and in black-and-white. Exciting.




THE MUPPETS (November 23, 2011)


Jason Segel, Kermit the Frog and a seriously perturbed Miss Piggy introduce two Piggy-less scenes from THE MUPPETS. Though the theatrical trailer left me a bit concerned that Jim Henson's creations had been dumbed down for a generation weaned on poop-eating Chipmunks (Fozzie doing fart jokes hurt my soul), these two scenes back me off the ledge: Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin have nailed the brainy, zany tone of the show and the first movie.
The first scene has Segel, Amy Adams and die-hard Muppet fan Walter attempting to scale the Graceland-like front gate at Kermit's house - which Walter soon discovers is electrified. When Walter is revived, he's in Kermit's living room with Segel, Adams and the green one himself, who summons his robot butler to serve his guests their choice of Tab or New Coke. Evidently, Kermit is culturally frozen in 1985.
The next scene finds the reunited Muppets unchaining the front door of the long-shuttered Muppet Theater, which has fallen into extreme disrepair. A massive restoration is in order. Segel, Adams and Walter offer to pitch in, and they're off! Sort of. Actually, they all just stand around and watch Scooter push a broom. Walter reminds them that they used to work to music, which leads Dr. Teeth to produce an old boom box. Soon, Starship's "We Built This City" is blasting (guess they're all stuck in 1985), and a classic '80s clean-up montage is in full swing. While Kermit works the phones, looking for celebrity support for the Muppets' telethon (his outdated rolodex has him calling Molly Ringwald, Cindy Lauper and President Carter), the rest of the gang merrily restore the theater to its former glory. It's a funny, feel-good sequence, the highlight (for me) being Gonzo opening up a closet to find Beauregard, who's apparently been trapped there for nearly thirty years (he emerges and calmly asks where everyone has been).
THE MUPPETS are back, folks, and they're in fightin' 1970s form.




THE AVENGERS (May 4, 2012)


Kevin Feige receives a warm welcome from the D23 audience, and further earns their respect by name-dropping noted Imagineer Tony Baxter. Smooth.
Feige wastes no time giving the crowd what they want - if what they wanted was a tense confrontation between Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). At this point in THE AVENGERS, Loki is being held in a cylindrical containment pod somewhere in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarrier (this cell is strong enough to hold the Hulk, so Loki's goin' nowhere). After demonstrating for Loki what will happen if he acts up (the pod will be ejected, subjecting Loki to a perilous - if not fatal for a god - 30,000-foot drop), Fury lashes into Loki for threatening Earth with war and killing "for fun". Fury is desperate. Loki responds by taunting Fury with the "real power" of the tesseract. Finished with this conversation, Fury walks away and mutters "Let me know if 'real power' wants a magazine or something." It's not a mindblowingly great scene, but it's well-written and directed. So far, so good.
We then get an action-filled montage crosscut with a Stark/Loki confrontation from later in the film. Stark, in his insouciant way, gives Loki a "head count", letting the god know that he's up against two master assassins, a demigod, a living legend "who lives up to the legend", etc. Then comes the above-quoted exchange. The audience erupts. Then Feige introduces most of The Avengers (Chris Evans is absent) and Loki. Now the audience is on their feet. Robert Downey Jr. takes the microphone and asks if they'd like to see the footage again. They do. And so with a "See you next year", the footage is replayed and the Walt Disney Studios D23 showcase comes to an end.


So much marketing...

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

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