Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, the Muppets and John Travolta feel the love at D23 Expo


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That pirate guy was the showstopper on Day 2 at the Walt Disney Co.’s inagural D23 Expo in Anaheim, but there was a whole lot of show before him at the presentation led by Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. There were famous faces, some great music (and some not-so-great music) and way too many ‘Old Dogs’ puns by Cook during the 100 minutes or so that he promoted the upcoming slate of live-action films from the Mouse House in front about 4,500 cheering fans. Some of the highlights:

* Tim Burton may have gotten the second-biggest ovation (how can you really measure these things in memory?) and, really, he probably deserves a share of the applause that greeted his frequent muse, Johnny Depp, since Burton has shaped so much of Depp’s collective screen persona. Burton makes stylish and quirky movies about outsiders and in the hyperbolic corporate Disney setting he seemed like a bit of the sly and smart oddball himself. The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ director came out on stage and immediately corrected studio chief Cook, who had said Burton had got his start as a Disney animator. ‘I was an in-betweener,’ Burton said, instead of just letting the error slide. Cook asked the filmmaker why he wanted to adapt ‘Alice,’ and Burton answered that one big reason was his disatisfaction with every movie version to date. ‘Sorry,’ Burton added, looking at Cook, ‘I know Disney did one.’ Cook is a suit, Burton is an autuer, and it was funny watching their clashing rhythms. I can just imagine this is how they talk in meetings, too. Cook asked Burton why this version has been such a challenging production and the director shrugged. ‘Me.’ They could do this all day, folks...


* Cook also announced as news that there will be a full-length feature film version of Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie,’ the short film from his early 1980s career, which folks have been writing about for months, but now I guess it’s more official.

* John Travolta, wife Kelly Preston and their daughter Ella Bleu Travolta got a warm reception as they came out to promote ‘Old Dogs,’ a comedy featuring the whole family and starring the patriarch and Robin Williams as well Seth Green (who, by the footage I saw, gets hit in the testicles quite a lot in the film), Justin Long and Matt Dillon.The movie doesn’t look like my kind of film, but I have to say when Travolta put his arm around his daughter with obvious pride and talked about her acting debut in this film, you could feel a surge of emotion in the room. This is a family that has suffered a brutal loss with the death of 16-year-old Jett Travolta and it’s hard not to root for them on some level.

* John Travolta had an oddly arched (or perhaps ironically grandiose) line when Cook mentioned the actor’s string of success with Disney. ‘I always appreciated the audience love for me.’

* Miley Cyrus sang her hit song, something about climbing or overcoming life challenges with lots of hair-flipping and overwrought vibrato. I don’t get it.The crowd didn’t seem especially moved by it either, although to be fair I should note that there weren’t a whole lot of under-20 consumers in the audience (it is a school day) and I suspect there is not a lot of crossover between Burton’s core consituency and the most passionate ‘Hannah Montana’ fans. At one point, a Cyrus project was mentioned right before a ‘Wild Hogs 2’ reference and the geezer-on-bikes comedy got a more robust ovation. I’m not sure what that says, I’m just passing it on.

* There was a live orchestra playing to a long montage of film moments (more than 20 minutes) from the Disney library and it was pretty fantastic to see and hear. Much better than Miley. The singers on hand were great, too, whether singing to ‘Mary Poppins’ or ‘Sister Act.’

* Director Robert Zemeckis came out to talk about ‘Walt Disney’s A Christmas Carol’ and he was wearing a navy-and-powder-blue Hawaiian shirt under a sports coat. Interesting look. Later, the Muppets came out on a three-story riverboat that glided across the stage during a great musical number. I noticed Gonzo was wearing a crazy shirt that suggests that he shops at the same store as Zemeckis. The musical number was great, with about two dozen Muppets aboard the boat crowned with small American flags and blinking white lights. Kermit appeared at the end on top of the old Mark Twain paddle-wheeler and, with his banjo, sang ‘Rainbow Connection.’ I got misty -- seriously. Cook said that ‘very soon’ there will be a new feature, ‘The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.’ I thought that was a bit of executive humor, but apparently it’s not.

* The most compelling footage? That’s easy, it was ‘Ocean,’ the Disney Nature film that is simply staggering in its wildlife documentation. It opens on Earth Day. I know I’ll be taking my kids.

* The ‘Prince of Persia’ footage looked good but not great to me and ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ looked like a movie I might have to skip. Nicolas Cage, looking dapper, came out and spoke warmly about ‘Fantasia’ as ‘the most beautiful movie ever made’ and added that he watches it every year. That was nice, but Cage also made a somewhat strained linkage of this new revival and today’s date -- he says he feels a duty to ‘keep our children smiling all over the world’ when he considers the tragedy and dark fears stirred by Sept. 11. Hmm. Okay. Well, let’s hope they don’t catch a trailer for ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.’ Cage got a strong cheer from the crowd and there was a major surge of applause when he said he would be ‘absolutely’ interested in another ‘National Treasure’ film.

-- Geoff Boucher


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