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D23Expo: The Future Classics of Disney Animation

Disney is a household name. From the moment we learn to walk or talk, we are exposed to the most legendary stories and cinematic classics that the company has produced over the past 100 years; from Snow White to Encanto.

As a brand, its consistently associated with quality storytelling, and has stepped up its game in recent years since even before Frozen. So it’s to nobody’s surprise that one of the most eagerly anticipated events during Disney’s own D23 Expo this year was the reveal of the upcoming projects from Disney Feature Animation. And I can honestly tell you, the House of Mickey didn’t disappoint.

The concluding third of a massive 2.5 hour panel, including the latest news from Disney Live-Action Studios and Pixar, the Walt Disney Feature Animation segment was massive, covering both streaming projects on Disney+ and theatrical features, in the grand tradition of Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and more. And Feature Animation head, Jennifer Lee (who also co-directed and co-wrote Frozen I and II) was on hand to facilitate the presentation, introducing her various colleagues and the upcoming projects they’re bringing to life.

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 09: Jennifer Lee, CCO of Walt Disney Animation Studios, speaks onstage during D23 Expo 2022 at Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California on September 09, 2022. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

From a streaming standpoint, things kicked off with a very short look at two Feature Animation series coming to Disney+. The first was Zootopia+, a spin-off of the terrific $1B grossing Oscar-winning film. The series is meant to be a short form program that takes a peek into the lives of some of the franchise’s fan favorite characters via their own little micro-series episodes.

Following that, Lee revealed a collaboration with the South African comic book company Kugali, to create an afro-futuristic series called Iwaju. Truly the first of its kind, Iwaju will follow the adventures of a poor boy and a rich girl (and a lizard) against the backdrop of a true African setting. They also shared a first look at the series which will be coming to Disney+ soon!

“IWÁJÚ” is all-new original long-form series created in collaboration with Pan-African comic book entertainment company Kugali. Kugali filmmakers Olufikayo Ziki Adeola, Hamid Ibrahim and Tolu Olowofoyeku call the series a love letter to Lagos, Nigeria. Their futuristic depiction is bursting with color, unique visual elements and technological advancements is inspired by the spirit of Lagos, which is physically divided into an island and a mainland separated by both water and socio-economic status. The coming-of-age story introduces Tola, a young heiress from the wealthy island, her best friend Kole, a self-taught tech expert and loving son from the mainland, and Tola’s calculating robotic pet lizard, Otin. “Iwájú” streams on Disney+ in 2023.

Moving on to feature animation, Lee brought out filmmakers Don Hall and Qui Nguyen to talk about their November release; The 61st Disney Animation feature film — Strange World. The film will of course be an adventure set in an uncharted world, but ultimately will be about the messiness of family. Nguyen brought out the voice cast: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lucy Liu and Jaboukie Young-White.

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Lucy Liu, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Jake Gyllenhaal, Don Hall, and Qui Nguyen speak onstage during D23 Expo 2022 at Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California on September 09, 2022. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

They introduced a full trailer for the film, and a very cool clip as well. The world Hall and Nguyen have built is astonishing, as are the creatures introduced in the film. But the biggest selling point about the film is that the Clade family feels real, and broken. So getting to see them come together as a unit to get themselves home is going to be terrific and heartfelt.

UNFORGETTABLE ADVENTURE STORY – Disney’s “Strange World” is an original action-packed comedy adventure in the spirit of pulp novels. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 61st animated feature film features the voices of Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal, fearless leader of the mythical Avalonia who spearheads an exploration into a strange world; Dennis Quaid as legendary larger-than-life explorer Jaeger Clade; Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade, a family man who finds himself out of his element on an unpredictable mission; Jaboukie Young-White as Searcher’s 16-year-old son, Ethan, who longs for adventure; and Gabrielle Union as Meridian Clade, an accomplished pilot and Searcher’s partner in all things. Also featuring a mischievous blue blob called Splat and a three-legged dog named Legend, “Strange World” opens in theaters on Nov. 23, 2022.

The panel ended with the reveal of Disney Animation’s 2023 release. Just in time for the 100 year anniversary of The Walt Disney Studios, Lee, director Chris Buck, and Head of Story for Raya, Fawn Verasunthorn, came out to reveal that (in honor of the legacy of Disney’s messages about following dreams and wishing big) their next film would be the story of a wishing star.

Per the filmmakers, the film, called Wish, will be a musical about a girl named Asha, who makes an impassioned plea to the stars, which is answered by a cosmic force; a little ball of boundless energy called Star. Together, they face the most formidable of foes to save her community and prove that when the will of one courageous human connects with the magic of the stars, wondrous things can happen.

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Jennifer Lee, CCO of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Fawn Veerasunthorn, Chris Buck speak onstage during D23 Expo 2022 at Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California on September 09, 2022. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Verasunthorn and Buck revealed that the animation style for this original tale would make use of Computer Animated graphics by giving the film a very classic watercooler look, that harkens back to the days of Snow White and Pinocchio. They revealed that Disney Animation’s good luck charm, Alan Tudyk, would also be coming back, this time voicing a talking goat.

However the biggest draw about Wish appears to be that it’s going to be a classic Disney Animated musical. All of the songs were written and created by Grammy Award winner, Julia Michaels. And to close out the panel, Lee, Buck, and Verasunthorn brought out the Oscar-winning actress who will voice Asha, Ariana DeBose. Ariana sang a powerful ballad from the film called “More for Us”.

HOW DID THE WISHING STAR, UPON WHICH SO MANY CHARACTERS WISHED, COME TO BE? — Walt Disney Animation Studios’ original fairytale adventure “Wish” is an all-new story is set in the magical kingdom of Rosas, where Asha, an optimist with a sharp wit and a deep caring for her community, turns to the sky in a moment of need, and makes a wish. Asha’s plea is answered by a cosmic force, a little ball of boundless energy, Star. Together, they will face the most formidable of foes to save her community and prove that when the will of one courageous human connects with the magic of the stars – wondrous things can happen. The voice cast includes Ariana DeBose as Asha and Alan Tudyk as the pajama-wearing goat, Valentino. Featuring original songs by Julia Michaels, “Wish” is helmed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, and produced by Peter Del Vecho and Juan Pablo Reyes. The feature film releases Fall 2023.

The future blockbuster chart-topper sounds incredible and DeBose sang it beautifully. As the panel came to a close to the beautiful melody playing for all of us, we were all reminded about why Disney Animation has been such a huge part of our lives, from childhood to adulthood, and even parenthood for many. There’s just a level of quality and high standards in the heart and storytelling from the studio that keep them as the original and greatest example of the potential that can be done with animation as an art form.

From the release of Snow White to the Disney Renaissance in the ‘90s, and now their contemporary Renaissance, Disney Animation has been an absolute game changer, and, as evidenced by their strong presentation, the studio seems to be aiming to continue that trend. I suppose the only thing that they won’t ever be able to change is the expectation that they will continue to do so for every generation to come.

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