Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reverend’s Report: On a Spree Through D23

The D23 Expo, the first officially organized “celebration of all things Disney,” seemed — in classic Disney Company style — to go off without a hitch this past weekend. Sure, I overheard one guy complaining to a Disney exec that the exhibits were great but there weren’t enough of them to fill a four-day experience, and another parent groaned that there wasn’t enough to keep his kids occupied.

For the true, mature Disney fan, though, there were pleasures aplenty to be had at the Anaheim Convention Center. From its Thursday morning opening address by a downright giddy Bob Iger, which was immediately followed by the 2009 Disney Legends ceremony honoring Robin Williams and the Golden Girls actresses (among others) to Sunday afternoon’s celebrations of Disney-Pixar animation’s upcoming (and possible future) releases, there was no end of celebrity encounters (including a surprise appearance by a certain swishy swashbuckler), classic movie screenings and impressive home video demonstrations.

While these may have been the highlights of the expo for many, the following are the D23 moments and opportunities I enjoyed the most:

Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives: This first-time public display of props and costumes from the entire history of Disney film productions was, if not extensive enough for some, an awesome reminder of the studio’s accomplishments. The much-ballyhooed appearance of the Nautilus model from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea didn’t disappoint, and the inclusion of the late Michael Jackson’s Captain EO costume was a nice touch that many attendees seemed to treat as a shrine. Herbie the Love Bug was there, as were Maximilian and V.I.N.CENT from The Black Hole. The oversized, bejeweled storybook used in the opening titles of Sleeping Beauty drew gasps; as one publicist in-the-know remarked to me, “It’s so big, how did it ever open itself?”

It’s a Gay World After All: No, that isn’t the name of a new ride announced for the Disney parks (more on those below), but it certainly applied to the heavy GLBT presence at the D23 Expo. I’ve written plenty on the unique appeal the Disney brand has for GLBT people, but even I was surprised to see and meet so many gay and lesbian expo-goers, presenters, publicists and executives. It left me concluding the only straight Disney employees are the Imagineers but, statistically speaking, even some of them have to be gay. From a human resources perspective if nothing else, good for Disney! And did I mention the gay boys dressed as characters from Tim Burton’s upcoming take on Alice in Wonderland? They were there, and out Disney marketing exec Jeffrey Epstein was working hard to wrangle them!

The Future of Disney Theme Parks: Speaking of those straight Imagineers, one of them gave me a one-on-one virtual tour of Cars Land (based on the Pixar hit Cars), which is under construction at Disney’s California Adventure and is scheduled to open in 2012. While there will be three new attractions within Cars Land, the very cool centerpiece is Radiator Springs Racers. It will combine the timeless appeal of the parks’ Autopia raceway with the high-speed thrills of Epcot’s Test Track.

I was also introduced to a unique future experience, somewhat still in the testing stages, intended for the Disney Cruise Line and vacation spots. Dubbed The Storytellers’ Sandbox, it is a very impressive combination of interactive video technology and good, old-fashioned playing in the sand.

Finally, details of the planned expansion of Hong Kong Disneyland were on full display and will entail Toy Story Land as well as the Grizzly Mountain Coaster, which looks to be a slightly tamer version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with whimsical scenes of an audio-animatronic grizzly bear family. Best though is Mystic Point, a unique variation on the classic Haunted Mansion. Since many Chinese reverence their deceased ancestors and consider ghosts somewhat distasteful, Mystic Point replaces the other parks’ phantoms with a mysterious force that gets loose in a Victorian museum and brings inanimate objects to life. The planned special effects should be amazing!

Shermania!: I was thrilled to learn the first day of the expo that it was also the first opportunity anyone had to purchase the new CD compilation The Sherman Brothers Songbook (which will be released October 13; click hereto pre-order from Amazon.com). It is a spectacular two-disc collection of many of the tunes penned for Disney films and theme parks by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman during their late-1950’s to early-70’s tenure. Three songs from the non-Disney production Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are also included since, as revealed in the liner notes, producer Albert R. Broccoli (who also produced the James Bond series) asked Walt to co-produce CCBB with him. Walt declined but graciously offered Broccoli the services of the Sherman Brothers. The Oscar-winning musical duo was also honored during the D23 Expo with a special screening of the recent documentary about them, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, which Richard attended. Sadly, Robert has been in poor health and has had an acrimonious relationship with Richard in recent years. That, in my opinion, makes it especially important to celebrate their musical achievements now.

At press time, it hadn’t been confirmed whether the D23 Expo would be an annual gathering or not. 30,000-40,000 people were expected to attend, and the vast majority of those I saw were thoroughly enjoying themselves. I predict that over time, the D23 Expo will achieve Comic-Con-esque success.

Report by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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