(*homocinematically inclined)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reverend's Report: D23 2011

Upon my arrival at the Anaheim Convention Center on the first morning of the D23 Expo, I could tell it was going to have a much larger turnout than the first such event in 2009. I ended up having to park on the top floor of the parking structure, and negotiated large crowds of Disney fanatics once inside the center. The second day of the expo sold out the afternoon before, a significant testament to the increased attention being paid to it.

My first stop was the traditional Disney Legends ceremony. A dozen people who have helped build the Disney empire since its founding in 1923 were honored, including five women who have voiced princesses in the more contemporary Disney animated features The Little Mermaid (Jodi Benson), Beauty and the Beast (Paige O'Hara), Aladdin (Lea Salonga, Princess Jasmine's singing voice, and Linda Larkin, Jasmine's speaking voice), Mulan (Salonga again) and The Princess and the Frog (Anika Noni Rose). Host Tom Bergeron, who was nicely casual and provided very funny commentary throughout, noted that Noni Rose is the youngest honoree to be named a Disney Legend.

All five actresses performed to montages of scenes from their respective films, with Benson bringing down the nearly full, 4,000 seat arena both through her audience-participation version of "Part of Your World" and her utterly heartfelt, unapologetic faith sharing. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," she said upon reaching the podium, quoting a traditional Christian hymn. "This is my ministry," Benson remarked of her continuing voice performance as Ariel in video games, television and the new ride inspired by The Little Mermaid at Disney's California Adventure park.

The ceremony climaxed with the induction of late Muppets creator, Jim Henson. While Henson didn't work for Disney while he was alive, his company was bought by Disney after his death and the Muppets have been a welcome, appropriate addition to the studio's holdings. Henson's children, Lisa and Brian, were on hand and reminisced about their father, moving audience members to both tears and laughter. But it was a masterstroke on the part of the event planners to bring Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog out at the end to sing "The Rainbow Connection." Attendees were utterly mesmerized.

Kermit was on hand again Saturday morning at the Walt Disney Studios' presentation of upcoming movies. The amphibian was joined by Miss Piggy (who arrived in a motorcycle sidecar) as well as actor Jason Segel, their co-star in November's big-screen reunion, The Muppets. New studio head Rich Ross and animation executive John Lasseter were fairly giddy as they hyped next spring's John Carter; next summer's Brave; the direct-to-DVD Planes, an airborne knockoff of Cars; The Odd Life of Timothy Green, which does indeed look odd; and their more recently-acquired Marvel epic, The Avengers.

John Carter in particular, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" series, looks really cool. The crowd went predictably wild when cast members from the last came out, including Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johanssen and Jeremy Renner. Other big stars on hand to plug their respective Disney projects were Billy Crystal (the Monsters, Inc. prequel Monsters University), Willem Dafoe (John Carter), Jennifer Garner (Odd Life...) and Jon Cryer (Planes).

A special showroom exhibit entitled "Carousel of Projects" and a Friday afternoon presentation revealed a plethora of developments regarding Disney theme parks around the world. In the Carousel of Projects, visitors could check out a detailed model of the massive Fantasyland expansion currently underway in the Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World in Florida. When completed in the fall of 2012, it will nearly double Fantasyland's current size and will feature a "Seven Dwarfs Mine Train" roller coaster (which looks like a milder, kid-friendly version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but with individually swinging cars) as well as an east coast version of The Little Mermaid ride, among other new attractions. I can't wait to visit and check it out once finished.

Details were also shared at the Theme Parks presentation about Disney's new park in Shanghai, China; the company's beautiful new Hawaiian resort, Aulani, which opens next week; the "Cars Land" addition and overall makeover of California Adventure; and magnificent new ships under construction for Disney Cruise Line. A pending expansion of California's Fantasyland was also announced, which will take over the current Carnation Gardens concert area at the end of Disneyland's Main Street USA. The expo also hosted a 45th-anniversary celebration of "It's a Small World" with special souvenirs and a panel of artists, including songwriter Richard Sherman, who helped create the mostly beloved but sometimes hated attraction.

The presentations and pavilions throughout this year's D23 Expo were very satisfying all in all, despite the larger crowds and long lines for everything, including food and restrooms. The only truly disappointing aspect of this year's D23 Expo was the "Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives" exhibition. Most of the noteworthy artifacts featured were repeats from the first expo's display, and the new additions from less well-regarded Disney films such as Hocus Pocus, Father of the Bride and The Rocketeer were decidedly underwhelming. One newly-included treasure well worth checking out was Walt Disney's personal limousine, but it was on display in the main showroom.

It will be interesting to see what Disney does next with the D23 Expo, now that it is well on its way to becoming a Comic Con-esque success. Will they offer it annually? Will it be moved beyond Anaheim as it increasingly outgrows the convention center there? All it will take is a little time... and some continued pixie dust.

Report by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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