Disney and Universal bring animation exclusives to CinemaCon


At CinemaCon in Las Vegas, it’s interesting to see the different approaches the major studios take in promoting their upcoming product to the exhibition community. Yesterday, Sony and especially Warner Bros. made a point of flying in big stars like Will Smith, Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper to introduce footage from their new films. Disney, by contrast, today put its promotional chores squarely on the shoulders of Dave Hollis, executive VP of theatrical distribution, abetted only by Finding Dory director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins. And Universal Pictures’ chair Donna Langley recruited directors and producers, not stars, to promote her slate for 2016 and beyond.

Disney had no need for superstar glitz, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens achieving $2.1 billion globally and a record-setting $900 million domestic, Zootopia creeping up on $900 million worldwide, and tomorrow’s The Jungle Book looking like yet another box-office smash. (It’s already opened at number one in several foreign markets.) Hollis surveyed what’s to come from each of Disney’s five powerhouse brands: Disney live-action, Disney Animation, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. He noted that all of Disney Animation’s recent hits have been based on original ideas, and was high on yet another: November’s Moana, featuring the voice of Dwayne Johnson, songs by Broadway sensation Lin Manuel Miranda, and direction by the Little Mermaid team of Ron Clements and John Musker.

In the live-action realm, he touted a formula that’s been “in the Disney DNA from the beginning, the modern fairytale.” The studio’s recent live-action fairytales like Maleficent and Cinderella have averaged $700 million in worldwide grosses, and The Jungle Book looks to be joining the club. “It’s the reason why movie theatres were invented,” he said of its big-screen impact.

Disney’s live-action slate includes Queen of Katwe, with Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo in the story of a poor girl from Uganda who becomes a champion chess player. “If you do not weep, you’re a cyborg,” Hollis promised. And The BFG, from the novel by Roald Dahl, reunites the E.T. team of director Steven Spielberg and the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison.

Praising Marvel for transcending the superhero genre with characters of great individuality and humanity, Hollis ran the trailer for the next, decidedly different Marvel offering: Doctor Strange, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, supported by a strikingly bald Tilda Swinton.

The Disney program ran over three hours, thanks to the company’s decision to offer a double feature of sorts: an exclusive look at the first 27 minutes of Pixar’s Finding Dory, and a full screening of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. The first, of course, centers on the endearing Finding Nemo supporting character voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, a blue fish with severe short-term memory problems, as she suddenly becomes obsessed with the parents she hasn’t seen since childhood. Director Stanton said the sequel to the 2005 hit came about because he was haunted by Dory’s fate after re-watching the original. Dory embarks on a new oceanic journey in the follow-up, and the Vegas audience seemed well-invested in her story by the time the 27-minute sampler ended.

Captain America: Civil War, meanwhile, manages the very tricky feat of forging credible reasons for the various Marvel superheroes to become fierce adversaries, all while introducing Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and young Tom Holland as a very entertaining new Spider-Man (a groundbreaking crossover with Sony’s ongoing Marvel character). If first-weekend audiences were lured by the deadly duel of DC Comics’ Batman and Superman, they’ll be thrilled by Marvel’s battle royale to the fifth degree.

Universal’s afternoon product preview began with a very cleverly edited audiovisual montage of characters from their 2015 parade of hits making the same exclamations like “Oh my God!” “Go, go, go!” and “No!”—suggesting that all blockbusters share a certain emotional DNA. Donna Langley noted that all the footage CinemaCon delegates were about to see was prepared exclusively for them, and that the select films highlighted were intended to illustrate the high-flying studio’s range. Director Duncan Jones introduced an action-packed extended trailer for his videogame adaptation Warcraft, filmmaker Tate Taylor did the same for his film of the best-selling thriller The Girl on the Train, and producer Frank Marshall presented a muscularly exciting look at the return of Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass in Jason Bourne. Kevin Hart entered the Colosseum amidst a flurry of Vegas chorus girls to introduce his new standup comedy film What Now?, which uses an action-thriller plot as a framing device.

And, taking a page from Disney, the portion of the program devoted to producer Chris Meledandri and his mega-successful animation house Illumination Entertainment treated the audience to the first ten minutes of The Secret Life of Pets and the first 20 minutes of the December release Sing, both showing hit potential. (We also got a look at the entire Minions short, Mower Minions, that will accompany Secret Life in theatres.)

Illumination has quite an impressive track record in a short period: $5.5 billion worldwide gross, with every film opening at number one, and two of the top five animated films of all time.

Meledandri also revealed details about two other upcoming projects. Despicable Me 3, opening in June 2017, will be about the sibling rivalry between Steve Carell’s evil Gru and his handsome, charismatic identical twin, Dru. The villain will be a former ’80s child star who did not transition well to adulthood—that terror will be voiced by Trey Parker in his first animation vocal performance outside the world of “South Park.”

And in December 2017, Illumination dares to compete with the immortal Chuck Jones classic with a new animated version of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. Who could possibly follow in the shadow of Boris Karloff? Why, none other than the voice of The Hobbit’s Smaug, the formidable Benedict Cumberbatch.