Review of Disney's D23 Expo 2011 (part one)

The entrance of the Anaheim Convention Center during a very rare quiet moment at D23

The fifth (and final) stop on my five-convention tour of pop-culture events in Southern California was Disney’s D23 Expo at the Anaheim Convention Center last weekend. As far as the experience is concerned, it’s somewhere on the continuum between the mammoth miasma of all things popcult that is San Diego Comic-Con, which is about way more than comic books; and the scaled back specificity of Transformers BotCon, which is about everything that relates to one line of toys. As the name implies, D23 Expo concerns itself with the vast and multifaceted world of the Disney Company, which, as you most likely know, encompasses far more than cartoons and theme parks.

Yes - Iron Man is (technically) a Disney character

What distinguishes D23 from its pop-culture convention competitors is that the events and floor space – including the independent retail area – were devoted to Disney-related topics and merchandise. Additionally, costume themes had to be kept to Disney characters – which when you think about it, still keeps thousands of characters in play. This is one of the many aspects of D23 (as well as BotCon and Weekend of Horrors) that I really enjoyed. Since popcult cons became a “thing to do,” organizers too often forget the word “no” when it comes to cosplay, booths, and/or presentations to the point that I often find myself scratching my head wondering, “Who’s that?,” and, “What in the world are they doing here?”

Invasion of the Comics People

Perhaps the biggest difference between the first expo in 2009, and this year’s second outing, was the size of the crowd. Evidently, this was largely due to Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment just after 2009’s D23. Marvel Studios’ conspicuous all but complete lack of presence at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con [especially in Hall H, where Sony/Columbia and Fox did the heavy lifting for Marvel movies.] further fueled speculation that, now that the House of Ideas was part of the House of Mouse, they were reserving the big guns for their part of the Walt Disney Studios presentation at D23 (which, incidentally, was not the case). Attrition probably had something to do with it, too, as the convention was much better publicized this year. Or as my new friend Princess Leia (actually, Jennifer, a costume designer from OC) put it, “Last time, it was just Disney fans. Now there’s all these normal people here.” In other words, last time around, the crowd was mainly there for Disney. [And for those cynics who might question a Princess Leia costume’s relevance to a Disney convention, I have two words: Star Tours.]

Left to Right: The Evil Queen from Snow White and Mary Poppins

Comics fans add a different (and sadly, more aggressive) social dynamic into the mix. They’re very serious about getting what they want in a crowded, tense situation. In other words, [As a pretty much lifelong comics fan, and having gone to several popcult conventions by now, I feel justified in saying this] it’s the norm, especially for the regulars on the convention floors, to be rude, pushy, and socially backward. Or as one Disney fan, who’d also been to Comic-Con recently, said, “It’s like Comic-Con now, baby. Even if there’s a friend between me and what I want – too bad for them.” I don’t know if this attitude jibes well with the “When You Wish Upon a Star” people, but then again, Disney collectors are pretty hardcore, too.

The Arena – Celebrities and Legends

Celebrity appearances and industry panels are a staple of popcult conventions, and on that front, Disney, as a whole, brought out “the big guns.”

Disney Legends Honoree, Regis Philbin (Right) and Legends Cermony host, Tom Bergeron (Right)

The annual Disney Legends induction ceremony on Friday – which, until D23, was a private affair that began in 1987 – was hosted by the paragon of emcee’s, Tom Bergeron (Dancing with the Stars, America’s Funniest Home Videos). Broadcasting legend Regis Philbin, who will soon begin his final season on Live! kept the laughs coming as he received his award. Voice actors for the Disney Princesses not only appeared, but performed songs from the films which featured their incredible voice performances. To wrap things up, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog performed “The Rainbow Connection,” (which may have the same meaning to GenX’ers as, say, “All You Need Is Love,” has for Baby Boomers) for posthumous nominee, the great Jim Henson.

Paige O' Hara (Belle from "Beauty and the Beast"), Lea Slonga (Mulan and the singing voice for Jasmine in "Aladdin"), Anika Noni Rose (Tianna in "The Princess and the Frog"), and Jody Benson (Ariel from "The Little Mermaid")

Of course, the presentation that was heaviest on star power was the Walt Disney Studios’ presentation on Saturday morning. So big, in fact, that the line to get into the Arena (whose 10,000 seat space was cut down to 4,000 seats to accommodate a larger backstage space and three giant screens) began around five o’clock in the morning. The word in the halls on Sunday was that, regardless of one’s position in line, and what time they got there, priority was given to D23 members, and demand was so high that they even had to turn away lower-tier D23 members – which left more than a few Mousketeers feeling (perhaps justifiably) burned.

This is just the line to get inside so that people could wait on another line for the Walt Disney Studios' presentation

For the most part, the WDS presentation was worth the price of a day’s admission alone. [Then again, if you weren’t a D23 member and had waited since the wee hours of the morning, you were probably in a blind rage because you couldn’t get in to the one presentation you were there to see.] After some nice words from Rich Ross, President of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, Principle Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering, and Pixar CCO, John Lasster kicked off the festivities with Walt Disney Animation’s slate of projects for the near future (Cars spinoff, Planes, Brave, and Wreck it Ralph); the not so near future (Monsters, Inc. prequel, Monsters University); and the far off future (“Untitled Project About Dinosaurs” and “Untitled Project About The Mind”). Jon Cryer, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Billy Crystal, and two time Academy Award winner, Andrew Stanton, (among others) were all on hand to talk about their roles in these upcoming films. And just when the audience thought it couldn’t get any better… Cupcakes!!! Courtesy of Lasster and Disney Animation.

The audience was invited to sing along with Kermit and Rowlf

Next up was Walt Disney Studios, and live action projects: The Muppets (scheduled for later this year), and next Summer’s John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars novels. John Carter director, the aforementioned Andrew Stanton, brought the trailer for the film, as well as some completed scenes and behind the scenes shots. Stars Willem Dafoe, Taylor Kitsch, and Lynn Collins were on hand to talk about the making of the film – including some amusing anecdotes about Dafoe having to learn to walk on stilts (his actual character is a CGI rendered Martian called a Thark) for a new motion capture technology which allows body actors to be on set with live action actors for enhanced performances. Stars of The Muppets, Jason Siegel, Kermit the Frog, and Miss Piggy (who drove in on a motorcycle) added trademark Muppet-onian (?) chaos to the mix with a couple of scenes from the new film. Finally, Ross himself presented some breathtaking – and heart-wrenching – footage from the next documentary from the always excellent filmmakers at Disney Nature, Chimpanzee.

Kermit the Frog and Rowlf sing "The Rainbow Connection" in honor of the late, great Jim Henson

There were visible growing pains during Marvel Studios’ presentation - which, as I mentioned before, is a recent acquisition of Disney’s. Considering the amount of anticipation surrounding their portion of the program – further fueled by Marvel Studios’ all but complete absence from this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego – Marvel underperformed, to say the least. Then unwritten rule of presenting at a convention is that you give the audience something that they can’t get from the geek wires, or worse yet, on the company Wiki page. On one hand, Marvel did in that they showed scenes from next summer’s almost certain blockbuster, The Avengers – of people talking. And a trailer – the majority of which was culled from scenes from the existing Marvel movies.

Cast members Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johanson, Jeremy Renner, Colby Smulders and Tom Hiddleston joined Marvel Studios’ President of Production, Kevin Fiege on stage, and well, just kind of waved at the audience. Robert Downey Jr., speaking for the group, said, ““You know… it is so nice to come down here, and I speak for all of us. We’re very happy to be visiting our parents in Anaheim on the weekend. I didn’t really get to see that. Would you like to see this one more time, this footage?” The audience cheered. Why not? They were great scenes – no arm-twisting required to watch them again. “Oh, all right. “See you next summer. Thanks a lot.” Then, he walked off stage before the footage, which he just said he hadn’t seen and wanted to watch again, rolled. After the clip, the rest of the cast departed. So at the end of the day, it wasn’t that it was awful, but it sure was a lackluster performance considering it was Marvel’s “coming out party” as a division of Disney, and that even if you take speculation out of the equation, there’s plenty of legitimate information on the future of Marvel movies produced by Marvel Studios. I don’t like to pull the “you owe it to the fans” card very often, as sometimes, fans can be too demanding, but in this case, I think it applies. If the only arrow in your quiver is showing the same footage twice…

All this is without even touching the world of Disney parks, cable, and consumer products – which I’ll do in Part Two.

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