Yes, Disney now owns Marvel, Lucasfilm, Fox and at least half of the known universe, but the studio’s cornerstone remains its animation division.
Jennifer Lee, who leads Walt Disney Animation Studios — “the one started by Walt himself,” she said — took the stage at Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim on Saturday for a presentation that began with clips from Disney’s classic animated film library, from “Moana” to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Aladdin” and everything in between, before and after.
“I have an older sister, who reminded me when I was 2 years old, I was obsessed with these two books,” Lee said, holding up vintage “Mickey and the Beanstalk” and “Cinderella” stories. As if the director of “Frozen” and the upcoming “Frozen 2" really needs to prove her Disney bona fides.
Lee then announced the latest addition to Disney’s animated canon: “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which will open Nov. 25, 2020.
Disney story artists Paul Briggs and Dean Wellins will make their directorial debut with the film, with “Moana’s” Osnat Shurer producing and “Crazy Rich Asians” co-writer Adele Lim scripting.
The film is inspired by Southeast Asian myths, and Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia were some of the locales researched.
“I was born and raised in Southeast Asia,” said Lim, noting that the first movie she remembers watching is “Snow White.” She showed the audience a picture of her in a Snow White costume and appeared to hold back tears as she spoke of how proud her grandmother would be of her writing a Disney film, one she said would also nod to Hong Kong action flicks.
The film is set in a fantastical land called Kumandra, a re-imagined earth that venerated dragons and is made up of five clans. Raya is on a quest to find the last dragon, and, said Lim, is also a character who “can swing a sword like a five-star badass.”
The presentation included a clip of Raya, voiced by Cassie Steele (“Degrassi: The Next Generation”), venturing into ancient ruins, her quest narrated by a young boy who adds some drama by playing the flute.
A mystical figure arrives to blow out her torch. We learn this is the dragon, voiced by Awkwafina.
“That’s me up there,” she said on stage, pointing to the pink, blue and white dragon, named Sisu. “I look good, right?”
The character is inspired by water beings of Southeast Asia. Sisu the dragon, however, is trapped in human form. “She’s not like any dragon you’ve ever seen before,” the actress said.
But before audiences will meet “Raya,” Disney animation has the little task of releasing “Frozen 2" into the world — one of the most anticipated sequel’s in the company’s history; it opens Nov. 22.
“It’s a little labor of love for us,” said Lee of the film, and introduced her collaborator and partner, Chris Buck.
The film will aim to answer the question of why Elsa has powers: “Aren’t there two sisters in this story? Why was Anna born the way she was? Where were her parents going? Is there such a thing as happily ever after?”
“I don’t know if you know this about enchanted forests, where change comes whether you like it not,” said Lee, noting that “powers that were once too strong for the old are suddenly not enough.”
Buck said the two films will work together as one complete story. He apologized for killing off the parents in “Frozen,” and then said, “we’re bringing them back.” But don’t get excited — it’s a flashback. “Westworld” star Evan Rachel Wood will voice Elsa’s mother, Queen Iduna, while “This Is Us” star Sterling K. Brown voices a new character named Lieutenant Matthias.
New footage reveals Wood singing a lullaby to a young Anna and Elsa: “Where the north wind meets the sea, there’s a river full of memory / Sleep my darling safe and sound / For in this river all is found.”
“Frozen” is not only one of Disney’s most successful animated films, it also spawned one of the company’s most recognizable songs, “Let it Go.” So it’s no surprise Disney gave music the spotlight.
Before ending the presentation with a full-cast medley, guests got a glimpse of a scene early in the film when Elsa, voiced by Idina Menzel, shows off her ability to harness her diva-like belt. It was an extended clip, and one, noted Buck, that will arrive after a brief prologue. The film will start in the past, where we’ll hear a voice — a siren-like wail — that will later call out to Elsa.
This wordless tune will interrupt a game of charades, one in which Elsa awkwardly stumbles. She’s not a character who wants center stage if she’s not in song. Distraught, she exits the game, but not before Olaf gets in a playful dig at the queen. We saw the Josh Gad-voiced snowman being an expert player, and donning a runway strut worthy of the most regal chanteuse. “Elsa,” yelled Kristoff (Jonathan Groff).
Anna goes to comfort her sister, reprising the lullaby we heard sung by Wood. After the two drift off to sleep, Elsa is awoken by the hymn that’s been nagging at her. We hear a piano trickle, a brief nod, perhaps, to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” but Elsa soon takes control of the melody. What unfolds is a song with themes of personal growth, as Elsa swings open the castle doors to arrive on a balcony to sing of taking a leap into the great unknown.
The song has the patient build of “Let it Go,” but without the latter’s sudden jolt into over-the-top dramatics. We see glimpses of Elsa’s power as she sings, her magic conjuring images of autumnal forests and woodland creatures, the images pushing her forward into the wilderness and further away from her family.
Buck and Lee, however, sought to make it clear that in “Frozen 2,” the characters won’t be going on a solo journey, even as they seek to better understand their relationships to one another. Kristoff is shown attempting to propose to Anna, and we also see Anna get a pep talk from Brown’s Matthias near a campground.
Broadly speaking, the sequel looks to be a coming-of-age story, with the sisters, young adults in the first film, learning to be grown-ups.
A full cast song closed the panel — the third glimpse of music from the film and the punctuation to Buck’s promise that this film would be bigger and bolder than the first. Confetti made to look like fall leaves rained down, as Bell, Gad, Groff and, in the song’s final moments, Menzel performed. Lyrics referenced “uncertain certainties” and both the challenges and strengths of mature relationships.
Left unsung, but made perfectly clear, was that the “Frozen” marketing onslaught is ready to commence.
Times staff writer Ashley Lee contributed to this report.