ANAHEIM, Calif. -- What if the asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaurs actually missed Earth?
That's the central "what if" at the heart of Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur," the hit animation studio's next film, which will be released in May 2014.
At the D23 Expo, Disney's fan-fest, on Friday the entertainment giant unveiled the most details yet on "The Good Dinosaur," as well as its summer 2015 film, "The Inner Mind," and fall 2015's "Finding Dory."
If the teasers Pixar showed during the presentation are any indication, fans of the studio can look forward to a creative resurgence after three films that have received lackluster critical response.
"The Good Dinosaur"
"So many [Pixar] films start with the big questions we ask ourselves," Disney Chief Creative Officer and Pixar head John Lasseter began. "What if toys were alive after you left the room....Or, what if a rat actually became the top chef in Paris? But this is the biggest what if ever."
It's an intriguing idea, and one that sets up the film's premise -- dinosaurs as the chief players in an agrarian society, with the dinosaurs themselves functioning as their own farm equipment. For instance, a triceratops is built like a bulldozer and a stegosaurus' spiky tail mows down acres of crops.
And then there's the apatosaurus, a long-necked dinosaur represented by the film's main character, Arlo. These huge beasts are best at lining up at the top of an untilled field, sticking their heads into the soil and plowing out perfectly straight rows.
Arlo, played by Lucas Neff, has a big heart, which serves him well when he encounters a small "bug," which turns out to be a very small human cave-child known as Spot. This, of course, is the first human that a dinosaur has ever seen, and for reasons not yet explained, Spot is all alone in the world. That solitude has forced him to be a tough kid who's not afraid of anyone -- even a dinosaur 20 times his size.
This being a Pixar film, a grand journey ensues, and we soon see Arlo and Spot thrust into an outside world they've never encountered. As producer Denise Ream explained, this adventure provided the filmmakers with the challenge of exploring the difference in scale between a character 3 feet tall and one who is 70 feet tall.
Over the course of that journey, director Peter Sohm said, we see Arlo and Spot visiting numerous locations unfamiliar to either species. And while Disney would not divulge much more of the film's plot, D23 audience members did get a chance to see short clips such as one in which Spot is chasing a flying bug up a long, green hill. Which, of course, turns out to be Arlo's neck.
The cast of "The Good Dinosaur" also includes John Lithgow as Poppa, Frances McDormand as Momma, and Arlo's three apatosaurus siblings, Bill Hader, Neil Patrick Harris, and Judy Greer.
Returning to the stage, Lasseter reminded the thousands of Disney fans in the room of the next Pixar project, and its whimsical working title, "The Untitled Pixar Movie that Takes you Inside the Mind."
Lasseter joked that Pixar had tried out that title by putting up billboards and bus ads around Hollywood, but company executives settled on "Inside Out" in the end.
Directed by Peter Docter, who made "Up" and "Monsters, Inc.," "Inside Out" has the very promising premise of investigating the emotions inside the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose family has just moved to San Francisco from Minnesota.
"This is about what happens inside her mind," Docter said, explaining that Riley is both the film's main character and its setting.
The other characters, then, are Riley's emotions -- Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, and Sadness, played, respectively by Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, and Phyllis Smith.
"Walt Disney had the Seven Dwarves," producer Jonas Rivera said. "We have the Five Emotions."
Playing around inside the mind of a little human girl is an innovative concept, allowing the filmmakers to explore things such as Riley's memory banks. One intriguing sequence shown at D23 portrayed Joy -- the main emotion character -- examining Riley's memories, each of which is stored in a small crystal ball, and which can be shown on a large screen. This "takes you places everybody has thought about," Docter said, "but never visited before, like long-term memory."
And that opens up the opportunity to investigate deeper areas of the mind, such as Daydream Land, Abstract Thought, Dream Production, all of which are connected by the Train of Thought.
Another sequence demonstrates how all of this activity inside Riley's mind plays out as the little girl sits at dinner with her parents. As the adults attempt to ask her about her day, we see her emotions battling for supremacy at what almost seems like a control center, directing her responses as if she was a puppet. What we see, then, is that each of her emotions are in turn controlled by their own motivations.
Though Pixar's last three films have been criticized for lacking the storytelling ingenuity that led the studio to unparallelled creative success, "Inside Out" is a very promising idea, and Pixar fans have reason to hope that, in Docter's experienced hands, the film will return Pixar to its days of complex storytelling that appeals to not just children, but also adults.
Although Pixar has been putting first-time directors and producers at the helm of its last few films, handing the reins of "Inside Out" to Pete Docter is a good sign for those hoping for quality movies from the studio. Similarly, its 2015 "Finding Nemo" sequel, "Finding Dory," is being directed by a veteran, in this case, Andrew Stanton, who previously directed "A Bug's Life," "Finding Nemo," and "Wall-E."
Stanton told the D23 crowd that over the 10 years since "Finding Nemo," many people have asked if he'd ever do a sequel. Only when he settled on "one unanswered curiosity" did he feel the time was right. And that "concerned Dory," the female lead in the original film, played by Ellen DeGeneres. Plagued by short-term memory problems, Dory had lost her family, and Stanton said that he wanted to answer the question of what happened to them. "How did she lose track of them," he said. "And a sequel was born."
Taking place about a year after the events of "Finding Nemo," "Finding Dory" portrays the problems that Dory's memory issues present to her newfound companions, Marlin and Nemo. So she heads out on a journey -- obviously, a common Pixar theme -- in search of her original family.
That's about all that was shown of "Finding Dory," though. Fans will just have to wait until 2015 to see what happens.
What was promising about the Pixar presentation Friday was that the studio is clearly committed to creating all-new movies, even as it nurtures its existing franchises. And while Pixar's first-time filmmakers deserve credit for their work -- including Sohm's so-far promising work on "The Good Dinosaur" -- fans who have missed the studio's cutting-edge filmmaking should be happy that the studio has turned to its most successful directors for the two 2015 films.