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Disney's past meets future

The company's newest projects will share the stage with vintage films

September 10, 2009|Geoff Boucher

Walt Disney Co. launches its big new marketing event, the D23 Expo, in Anaheim today with predictably bright and shiny promotional messages about upcoming projects such as "The Princess and the Frog," "Toy Story 3" and the new-look California Adventure theme park and stars such as Robin Williams, Nicolas Cage and Kelsey Grammer plugging future Disney vehicles.

But on closer inspection, the four-day event is as much about the past as it is the future. The D23 Expo -- the name is a reference to 1923, the year Walt Disney founded the studio -- is a major moment in the archival life of the entertainment giant that holds on to its heritage with more intensity than any of its Hollywood rivals.

A "lost" Mickey Mouse cartoon from the 1950s will be screened publicly for the first time on Friday, and the bejeweled storybook from the opening live-action sequence of the 1959 classic "Sleeping Beauty" will be on display, as will Fess Parker's coonskin cap from "Davy Crockett" and dozens of never-seen-before props, costumes and art pieces representing every decade of Disney film.

There will also be screenings of vintage films with appearances by creators and cast (Tommy Kirk, for instance, will be on hand for a Friday night screening of "The Shaggy Dog," and Mary Costa, the voice of Princess Aurora, will be on hand for the "Sleeping Beauty" screening on Saturday) and panels that dig deep into company history.

"This is a major celebration of the heritage of Disney; there will be things that the true fans -- the ones who know the history and love it -- have never had the chance to see and hear," said Dave Bossert, creative director of special projects for Disney Animation Studios.

Disney officials have declined to comment on crowd expectations, but Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau, has cited 30,000 to 40,000 as the anticipated crowd for the event at the Anaheim Convention Center. The D23 Expo is $37 a day (or less with multi-day passes) -- for programming that runs from 10 a.m. past 11 p.m.

The event will have some high-interest presentations, such as director Tim Burton's appearance promoting "Alice in Wonderland" and a program devoted to upcoming Pixar projects. There are far more than films at the event, however, with a 20,000-square-foot trading floor for collectibles, appearances by television stars from Disney-owned ABC and promotions for Disney cruises, theme parks, music, etc.

Still, a considerable amount of the stage time and real estate at the event is devoted to history. Bossert will be on stage on Friday afternoon for one of the key moments -- a screening of Disney animation rarities such as "Stop That Tank," an instructional video made decades ago for the Canadian military that was "once classified and now is just this fascinating artifact," and "Winged Scourge," an educational video about malaria that he said is a bit shocking.

"Some of the techniques it presents are a bit startling now -- such as dumping a layer of oil on top of the water supply to kill mosquito larvae, or using insecticides that are outlawed now," Bossert said.

Those are kitschy artifacts but that panel, which will be hosted by Bossert and Academy Award-nominated producer and author Don Hahn, will also include two screenings of far more historical heft. One is "Destino," the collaboration between Disney and Salvador Dali that was begun in 1945 and was not completed and released until 2003, after Roy E. Disney championed it. The other is "Plight of the Bumblebee," a Mickey Mouse cartoon that Bossert called "a truly fascinating treasure," a cartoon from the Eisenhower era that was never completed nor shown outside Disney.

"It's hard to find references to it; it's off the radar for even intense fans of Mickey Mouse and company history," Bossert said, adding that Bernie Mattenson, with Disney for 55 years, had unearthed the six-minute cartoon, which is in various stages of animation but complete in plot.

"There are black-and-white unfinished panels, some parts are rough, others are cleaned-up, but it's an absolute lost treasure," Bossert said. "It's perfect for the Expo, which is tuned in to the past. This is a must-see and this is the only place to see it."


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