'Avengers,' 'John Carter,' 'Brave': The 5 Coolest Presentations at Disney's D23 Expo

Disney gave several thousand fans a sneak peek at its film lineup, plus announced a few surprises, at the movie presentation portion of D23 Expo, the company¹s burgeoning Comic-Con-like convention held in Anaheim on Saturday.

Sean Bailey, production chief for nearly two years, said when putting together his live-action slate, he is guided by a quote from Walt himself, which goes something like: “I do not make films for children, I make them for the child in all of us, whether we are six of 60.”

Here are the five presentations that most impressed Heat Vision:

1. Brave

This could be the best thing coming out of the convention. The movie, set in medieval Scotland, is a first for Pixar in several ways: Its first fairy tale, its first period movie, and its first to star a female character.

The story follows a skilled archer named Merida, who is being forced by her parents to marry in order to keep the peace between the Highland clans. It features a witch, a demon bear, and stunning animation.

Director Mark Andrew and producer Katherine Sarafian, with an assist from voice actors Kelly Macdonald and Kevin McKidd, showed two clips. Both suggest Pixar will set another high bar for what animation can achieve.

It’s the second scene that really impressed. Three dorky suitors are forced to test their archery skills in order to win the woman’s hand. Merida, however, is the best archer in the land, and she bests them all, defying her mother, who tries to stop her from firing the third and final arrow.

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The scenes show Pixar at its best: they are funny, dramatic and action-packed, and each character is so sharply drawn that you become attached to them almost immediately. The slow-motion shot of Merida firing the last arrow as a total act of defiance to her mother had the audience collectively holding its breath.

2.   John Carter

Almost a tie for first place, this live-action adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs book might be the most ambitious film since Avatar. And yet most people don’t really know much about it.

“This is the first time I ever heard anything on this,” a woman named Desi told us after the presentation.

VIDEO: 'John Carter' at D23: Taylor Kitsch and Andrew Stanton Believe in Life on Another Planet

The four clips revealed perhaps the most thought-out world since James Cameron created Pandora. The story centers on a damaged Civil War vet who is transported to Mars, where dueling races vie for supremacy. (Burroughs wrote his stories at a time when Mars was thought to be able to support breathing, and the stories are more fantasy than science fiction.) The clips showcased elements of drama, romance, action and cute humor, positioning the movie as a modern-day Star Wars, if it works. (Which would be ironic, since John Carter books were a Star Wars inspiration.)

The Martian world looks believable and real, and left many (certainly me) feeling like the March 9, 2012 release date won’t be here fast enough.

3.  The Avengers.

Do we need to even explain ourselves? (More info here)

4. Frankenweenie

Only glimpses from the movie were shown since it's still early going, but this could be the coolest Tim Burton movie since the 1990s, maybe even since A Nightmare Before Christmas.

Burton is revisiting a short film he did in 1984, but this time as a stop-motion animated feature. And it’s in glorious black & white.

The design of the characters, the off-kilter sensibility and the look of the movie will have Burton fans salivating, and it will hopefully bring new fans into the fold. The story, about a boy named Frankenstein, who brings his dog Sparky back to life after it's killed in an accident—well, let’s let this young fan we met on an escalator say why he likes Frankenweenie: “Just about everyone’s lost a pet.”

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Disney could be sitting on a merchandising goldmine with this movie. Everyone is going to want to have their own Sparky and other cool characters. 

5.   The Muppets

Disney has a bit of a tricky wire act to perform with this movie. It has to appeal to the generation that first fell in love with the Muppet characters in the late 1970s via the TV show and the early movies, as well as to a new generation of youngsters.

So far, the much of the marketing has focused on the adults , with the hip parodies of Green Lantern, The Hangover, and romantic comedies.

The two big clips shown  on Saturday were effective and seemed to successfully hit both generations. The first one made fun of a movie trope, the long-lost character coming into view to angelic music (one of the reveals here is that a bus filled with choir members is driving by). It was funny.

VIDEO: 'The Muppets' at D23: Jason Segel Talks About Their Comedic Influence

The second clip, also humorous, featured a montage of the Muppets cleaning up their old theater set to Starship’s We Built This City. This second clip could be telling. The audience was humming and toe-tapping to the music; the 30-and-40-year olds were swept up in a song from their formative years, but the younger set, weaned on the music of Glee for the past few years, was right there with them.

Talking to some attendees at the Convention Center food court (because that’s what we do here at Heat Vision), The Muppets actually was this group’s top choice from everything they had seen in the presentations.

“This felt like Jim Henson was still alive,” said one man, who declined to give his age other than to say “early thirties."

The presentations were a hit with the audience. Saturday’s sell-out of all 17,000 tickets for the day was a testament to strength of Disney. The only hiccup, expressed by several fans, was the lack of audience interaction with the filmmakers and talent.

VIDEO: 'Avengers' Tom Hiddleston Talks the Return of Loki

The full presentation, more than two-and-a-half hours, moved quickly and efficiently, but some stars only had time for a quick wave and hello, leaving fans wanting more, and not in a good way.

Maybe next time, something billed as the ultimate fan event should allow for a few Q&As. If you have to break up the panel into two sessions, so be it. The audience will still love you.

Email: Borys.Kit@thr.com

Twitter: @Borys_Kit