Johnny Depp in deep with Disney

Actor to play Tonto, Mad Hatter in upcoming films

Move over, Mickey Mouse: Johnny Depp, having buccaneered his way through three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, is becoming the new mascot of Walt Disney Studios.

Depp, taking on the role of the Mad Hatter, has accepted an invitation to join the manic tea party in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland."

In a surprise piece of casting, Depp also will play the sidekick Tonto in the upcoming movie version of "The Lone Ranger."

A daylong preview of upcoming Disney movies and projects, held Wednesday at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, ended with a surprise appearance by the actor, outfitted as Jack Sparrow, walking onstage to the tune of "The William Tell Overture," the "Lone Ranger" theme.

The Depp castings were just a couple of the developments that Disney execs, led by chairman Dick Cook, offered up to a packed house of exhibitors and media types. In lieu of doing major presentations at industry confabs like ShoWest, Disney traditionally throws elaborate show-and-tells in Los Angeles every few years to promote its wares.

Pushing the pedal to the metal, Disney and Pixar have moved up the animated sequel "Cars 2" from summer 2012 to summer 2011. Another sequel, "National Treasure 3," has been put into development, as has a fourth "Pirates."

Oprah Winfrey will lend her voice to the traditionally animated "The Princess and the Frog." And on the Miramax front, Helen Mirren is set to play an Israeli agent in "The Debt," a post-World War II espionage thriller that John Madden will shoot early next year.

"Movies are constantly changing, and we want to be at the forefront," said Cook, hammering home themes of innovation and creativity throughout the day.

He began by showing graphs to make a point that movie attendance worldwide has remained relatively flat no matter how many movies were released. While not stating the point, it subtly underscored the company's recent decision to scale back the number of movies it releases each year.

Cook stressed that in order to stand out in the crowded marketplace, the company is focusing on what it calls "the Disney difference," a combination of its brand name mixed with a dedication to creativity and innovation.

"We add that extra increment of quality to everything we do," Cook said.

The starry presentation also trotted out such names as Jim Carrey, Dwayne Johnson, John Travolta, Robin Williams, Sandra Bullock, George Lopez, filmmaker Robert Zemeckis and Pixar/Disney Animation creative head John Lasseter. The company used the occasion to preview movies including "A Christmas Carol," "Bedtime Story," "High School Musical 3: Senior Year," "Hannah Montana: The Movie," "Race to Witch Mountain," "The Proposal," "The Surrogates," "Old Dogs," "Up," "Prince of Persia" and "Tron 2.0."



It also screened the Disney animated film "Bolt," which opens Nov. 21, in its entirety. Cook said the movie, screening in 3-D, was "80% complete."

While trumpeting Disney's 3-D track record and early commitment to the stereoscopic format, Cook took a jab at rival DreamWorks Animation, saying, "I read that Jeffrey might be releasing his first 3-D movie next year."

The event also featured an extensive demonstration of the making of Zemeckis' performance-capture-based, 3-D "A Christmas Carol," slated for November 2009.

Onstage with Cook, Zemeckis said of the performance-capture technique: "You're only limited by your imagination. It's purely virtual. The filmmakers have complete control."

"Alice," which begins filming this fall, is the latest collaboration between Burton and Depp -- the two first worked together on 1990's "Edward Scissorhands" and most recently collaborated on "Sweeney Todd," becoming one of the longest-running director-actor partnerships in modern Hollywood. When Burton committed to filming a new live-action/CG, 3-D version of "Alice," Depp was touted as the most likely candidate to play the Mad Hatter -- after all, having starred in Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," he's practiced in wearing a top hat.

Sony Pictures Imageworks' Ken Ralston is the senior VFX supervisor on "Alice." Imageworks is slated to do a substantial amount of the effects work on the film. David Schaub is the film's animation supervisor, and Sean Phillips and Carey Villegas are visual effects supervisors for Imageworks.

When talking animation, Lasseter said the studio is so high on the "Cars" sequel, which Brad Lewis is directing, that it will now arrive a year earlier.

In the meantime, Pixar will keep the "Cars" engine humming with a series of animated shorts that it will dub "Cars Toons." The first in the series will focus on Mater, the truck character voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.

"Cars Toons" will play on Disney Channel and also will screen theatrically.

Lasseter also revealed the story line for "Toy Story 3-D," which will reunite the cast as the beloved toy characters deal with their owner leaving for college.

In "Princess," due in late 2009, Winfrey will play Eudora, mother of main character Princess Tiana, voiced by Anika Noni Rose.
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