Closing out a week of large-scale presentations from major American animation studios at Annecy, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ showcase had some flashy new footage from Strange World, Baymax!, and Zootopia+.
First extended look at Strange World shows visual promise
The presentation’s most invigorating stretch came with the first footage shown from the upcoming original feature film Strange World. Spearheaded by director Don Hall and writer Qui Nguyen, it sees the studio returning to the tone of early 20th-century pulp novels like that of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island, both referenced by producer Roy Conli.
As well as announcing the rest of the voice cast – including Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, and Lucy Liu alongside the already-announced Jake Gyllenhaal – the first (still-rough) footage of the film showed promise in its imagination of a subterranean world bristling with unfamiliar life.
Revolving around three generations – father, son, and grandson – some visual development of the film’s artwork and then animatics were used to establish the premise of the story. Gyllenhaal plays Searcher Clade, whose discovery of an energy-generating plant both changes the future of his secluded mountaintop village Avalonia, and causes a rift with his father Jaegar (Quaid), who promptly goes missing.
Searcher’s discovery accelerates Avalonia into becoming a technological haven, and 25 years later he turns to farm work with his son Ethan (Young-White). The first full clip from the film showed Ethan flirting with a boy named Diazo before his father embarrasses him in an attempt at wing-manning. As Conli put it, Searcher wishes for a better relationship with his son than the one he had with his father. He “wants to be his buddy,” but also “wants to leave his legacy, the farm, to his son,” and inadvertently continues the intergenerational angst.
Clip two of Strange World showed some of the incidents which incite the action of the rest of the film. Searcher goes on an expedition below the planet’s surface to discover the reason for his crops dying. Once there, Ethan is revealed to have stowed away on the craft used to travel down, a revelation interrupted by a quick and vertigo-inducing sequence in which the crew is attacked by pterodactyl-like creatures, the ensuing crash dividing and stranding them.
The day’s third clip picked up after said division, showing off the planet’s weird, blobby ecosystem and the first appearance of the silent alien character Splat, an amorphous blue creature that resembles a walking glob of paint, its movement changing completely based on circumstance allowing it to walk on any number of its multitude of limbs. Splat and the three-legged dog Legend (named for studio veteran storyboarder Burny Mattinson) showed perhaps the most characterful acting, though the wild energy of Gyllenhaal’s voice performance was also fully brought out in Searcher’s flailing attempts at camaraderie.
Jennifer Lee Honored
Earlier in the presentation, Disney started with a tribute to one of its figureheads, chief creative officer and Frozen and Frozen II co-director Jennifer Lee, who gave an impassioned speech about accessing the industry as a writer and the importance of diversity and collaboration.
During the event, Lee was presented with the Annecy Honorary Cristal award in recognition for “contributions to the animation community” and how she “fundamentally changed the studio” and “stretched the definition of who and what makes a Disney project.”
Baymax! Cute If Underwheming
Following Lee’s speech, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios Clark Spencer came on stage to introduce an episode of Baymax!, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first series produced in-house, and an episode of fellow spinoff Zootopia+. Sadly, the preview footage felt somewhat underwhelming, despite a few cute visual gags.
The first episode of Baymax!, which releases June 29 on Disney+, was mostly just fine. The roughly five-minute short follows the marshmallow first responder bot as he helps Aunt Cassie from Big Hero 6 with a sprained ankle before taking over to run her cafe against her will – ominously promising that “everything will be… fine” as he slinks around the corner, head twisting in an owl-like contortion.
It was hardly the most electrifying short, aside from some slapstick humor based around the robot’s cuddly frame and the contrast between his glacially paced movements and the frantic requirements of the service industry.
Zootopia+ Playful But Betrayed By Lack of Imagination
Anthology series Zootopia+ had a bit more playfulness with its portrayal of scale. Titled “The Godfather of the Bride,” the short shared at Annecy turned on Mr. Big, a rodent parody of Vito Corleone, as he sits on the day of his daughter’s wedding reminiscing about getting a boat from “The Old Country” across to Zootopia. The immigration story was funny and cute, but betrayed a bit by the lack of imagination in the title of the series, not to mention diminishing returns on the same joke from the movie.
Where is Disney Animation Headed?
Disney’s presentation as a whole didn’t offer much that felt truly new, but Strange World at least showed some divergence from company norms through an embrace of sensational pulp magazine aesthetics, pastel pink landscapes, and the peculiar physics of its uncharted land making a striking impression.
Even with a recommitment to foregrounding new voices in its crews and in its films, it’s hard not to wish that the animation studio would creep a little further outside of its comfort zone. That sentiment felt especially glaring during a week in which studios showed off a new, loving embrace of more hybridized, playful, and cartoonish aesthetics, such as the heavy anime influences in the visuals of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish or Across the Spider-Verse. Strange World looks like fun pulp, but it also clearly exists within the long-established Disney house style.