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Asian Americans integral to Disney/Pixar’s future success

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter

Several Asian Americans will play key roles in several future projects from Pixar and Walt Disney Animation this year and next, the studio announced at D23.

Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar’s chief creative officer, Pete Docter, noted that at Pixar, “We believe in the power of animation…It’s such a great medium to reflect those stories of our own lives, whether it’s a jazz musician, or a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl or a fish or a rat, these stories allow us to step outside of our own lives and into someone else’s. And when they celebrate unfamiliar peoples and cultures in a way that’s  celebratory, it can also help us understand a little bit more about each other so that’s why we ask our filmmakers to pull from their own experiences when they are crafting their stories.” He also said, “We want to make movies that entertain, that surprise, and that speak with authenticity” because, he added, “We want to make movies that connect with people all around the world.” 

Docter introduced producer Denise Ream and Korean American Peter Sohn. Sohn will be directing an all-new original feature film to be released on 16 June 2023: Elemental

Sohn said, “This is a very personal film for me,” because it started with his parents.  “They immigrated from Korea to the US in the early 70s, They had no money, no family, no English, but they managed to create a life here. A life in New York.” That life was in the Bronx as a small grocery store. “Just like them, many people and families have left their homes to come to a new land with hopes and dreams to do the same thing that my parents did. All mixing into one big salad bowl of cultures, languages and beautiful little neighborhoods. 

Ream added,  “So when we decided to make a new film, it felt right to make a story about everyone who’s ever made a sacrifice, or taken a risk and set it in the hustle and bustle of a big city, but with a bit of a twist.” 

The twist is elementary. The film is about residents of a city who are different elements: fire, water, land or air. Two of those residents, Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade (voiced by Mauritanian American Mamoudou Athie) find themselves discovering ways of blending their cultures as they start to have romantic feelings for each other.

Lewis was born in Shanghai, China and adopted from a Chinese orphanage as an infant. She grew up in Orlando, Florida and she’s portrayed Georgia “George” Fan in the Nancy Drew TV series. The two appeared on stage and gave a sampling of their good-natured water-fire chemistry.   

Sohn previously directed the troubled 2015 The Good Dinosaur and was recently heard as the voice of SOX in this year’s Lightyear and the voice of Ciccio in the 2021 Luca. Monsters University fans will recognize him as the voice of Squishy. 

Walt Disney Animation Studios

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee introduced director Don Hall and co-director/screenwriter Qui Nguyen. They went on stage to introduce the computer animated sci-fi flick, Strange World. In it, a family of adventurers is caught in a Strange World. In this 61st Disney Animation feature, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Searcher Clade, who ventures into a weird place full of danger and meets with his long-lost father, Jaeger Clade, voiced by Dennis Quaid. Searcher’s son, Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) is intrigued by the differences between his father and grandfather. The cast features Lucy Liu is as Callisto Mal who figures in the clip shown, but don’t expect Callisto Mal to look anything like Lucy Liu, including the hair.

Liu said, “She’s fearless; she’s tough; she’s a leader.  She’s somebody I would aspire to be because she wants to protect her people.”

Qui Nguyen is a playwright (Vietgone) and television writer who has written for AMC’s Dispatches from Elsewhere, Netflix’s The Society and co-wrote Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon with Adele Lim. 

Strange World opens in theaters 23 November 2022.

Scene from Wishes. Disney

Lee also introduced directors Chris Buck and Thai American Fawn Veerasunthorn who will helm Disney Animation’s next original feature film. Wishes will be released next year, during the studio’s centennial celebration.  

The story is set in Rosas, the kingdom of wishes where wishes can literally come true.

Veerasunthorn said, Rosas “is a fantasy fairytale kingdom that existed long before Snow White dreamed by her wishing well or Gepetto wished for Pinocchio to be a real boy.” 

The film will focus on the 17-year-old Asha, voiced by Ariana DeBose, who also appeared during the presentation. Asha is an optimist and asks for the stars to help. Her plea is answered in the form of a cosmic force, a small ball of energy called Star. Together, they will prove that with courage and a little magic wondrous things can happen. 

Disney Live Action

Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production (Disney Live Action), introduced some highlights of the upcoming feature films.

Hocus Pocus 2. Disney

Hocus Pocus 2 brings back the original witchy trio of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Lebanese American Kathy Najimy and adds Ugandan-born Whitney Peak, Mexican American Melissa Escobedo, and Los Angeleno Lilia Buckingham as three new young women who accidentally bring back the Sanderson sisters to modern-day Salem. Directed by Anne Fletcher and produced by Lynn Harris, this sequel also stars Sam Richardson, Tony Hale and Hannah Waddingham and will debuts exclusively on Disney+ on Sept. 30.

The 2023 slated Snow White will have Israeli actress Gal Gadot as the evil queen, the stepmother of Snow White, played by Colombian American Rachel Zegler. Directed by Marc Webb, produced by Marc Platt and features new songs by Tony-, Grammy- and Oscar-winning songwriters Pasek and Paul, Snow White will be released in 2024. 

While African American Halle Bailey plays the lead in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, Awkwafina is providing the voice of Scuttle, a seagull who is friends with Ariel. Other cast members include Melissa McCarthy as Ursula and Javier Bardem as Triton. In the 1989 film and the 2000 sequel, Scuttle was voiced by Disney Legend Buddy Hackett (1924-2003). Four new songs by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda will be included in this film which is destined for the big screen next summer. 

D23 Expo is a biennial fan event that features celebrity appearances, exclusive looks at upcoming attractions and projects from all Disney properties. Although originally scheduled for 2021, the latest D23 Expo was held 9-11 September 2022 at the Anaheim Convention Center. This panel was one of the two featured panels of the first day.

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