We’re at Disney’s D23 Expo for an early peek at new Indiana Jones, Avatar, MCU and Pixar movies

Although streaming continues to play a more central role in popular entertainment, Disney still offers up more culture-dominating theatrical films than any other studio by far. Across two panels over the weekend at this year’s D23 Expo in Anaheim California, they previewed their biggest upcoming movies. Dominic Corry was in attendance.

The first movie previewed at D23 has been a long-time coming—Disney has been threatening to make another live-action Haunted Mansion movie pretty much ever since the 2003 Eddie Murphy version came out. Inspired by what many consider to be the most iconic ride at Disneyland, D23 audiences were screened a preview of the film featuring leads LaKeith Stanfield and Owen Wilson (back in this sort of situation after The Haunting), and which teased cameos from the likes of Winona Ryder, Dan Levy and possibly Jared Leto.

They then announced that the “queen of horror” would also have a cameo in the movie, and out rolled Jamie Lee Curtis on one of the “doom buggies” from the ride.

Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) then showed up to preview some footage from his upcoming prequel Mufasa: The Lion King, which appears to be told in flashback by Billy Eichner’s Timon and Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa. The CGI is typically flawless.

The live-action cartoon train rolled on with brief glimpses of Rachel Zegler and Gal Gadot in Snow White, and an extended preview of The Little Mermaid in which Halle Bailey (as the title character) sings the song Part of Your World, some of which you can see in the newly-released teaser.

Director Rob Marshall teased that the live-action version would have four new songs. Still no sign of Ursula, though.

Pixar head Pete Doctor gave an extended look at their new film Elemental, specifically the main characters Ember (a girl made of fire) and Wade (a dude made of water), and their visual development.

After previewing an upcoming Pixar streaming series, Doctor previewed some imagery from a new original Pixar film called Elio, about a spirited 12-year-old boy who accidentally becomes Earth’s ambassador at an intergalactic summit. Looks pretty choice.

Doctor then excitedly announced Inside Out 2, and brought out returning star Amy Poehler. Doctor promised all-new emotions for the sequel, which will take place when Riley (the girl inside whose head the emotions all live) is a teenager.

As part of the Walt Disney Animation presentation, we got an extended look at impending release Strange World, for which only a teaser trailer has been released. We saw a full trailer (which should be out soon), and a couple of clips from the sci-fi adventure film presented by the cast, which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid and Jaboukie Young-White, who play three generations of the same family.

2023 marks the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney Animation (hence the convention’s name), and WDA head Jennifer Lee rounded out day one by announcing the film that will be released to mark that anniversary: Wish, which comes with a watercolour-meets-CGI aesthetic that has to be seen to be believed.

It takes place in Rosas, the Kingdom of Wishes, and the wishing star that has shown up in so many animated Disney films will be a character. That’s right, we’re getting the origin story of the wishing star. Whose name is Star. Anyway, it looks pretty amazing and represents a long-overdue evolution of the visual style of these films.

On day two, the Lucasfilm morning presentation wrapped by reducing 7000 grown-ups to tears with the trailer for the new Indiana Jones film, which didn’t reveal the title, or indeed, the Macguffin. It looked pretty incredible though, and carried with it a distinct note of texture drastically lacking from the 2008 film we don’t talk about.

The trailer begins with a wistful voiceover from Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), who previously appeared in films one and three.

“I miss the desert. I miss the sea. I miss waking up every morning, wondering what wonderful adventure the new day will bring to us.”

“Those days have come and gone,” replies a certain archeology professor with a sense of resignation.

“Perhaps,” replies Sallah. “Perhaps not….”.

Then, over an action-heavy montage including horse-riding in the subway, guns at a ticker tape parade, underground tunnels and lots of speeding-cars-next-to-each-other business, plus some shots of a young Indy (apparently a digitally de-aged Harrison), we hear Ford intone:

“I’ve craved adventure. But a few times in my life, I’ve seen things, things I can’t explain. I’ve come to believe it’s not so much what you believe, it’s how hard you believe it.”

There’s more action before we get a glimpse of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character, to whom someone asks: “Who is this man?” and Indy replies “I’m her godfather!” and then the trailer ends on a reversal of the classic whips-vs-guns gag from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Again, no title reveal, no glimpse of a villain, no sense of what or who Indy is looking for in this one. But it looks pretty amazing. It still feels wrong to me that Spielberg isn’t directing, but I have no reason thus far to think this film won’t live up to his. There was a golden, autumnal hue here that I appreciated. And the urban imagery felt fresh for Indy. Ten bucks says Waller-Bridge’s character is related to Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody.

After the trailer, an uncharacteristically earnest Ford came out and addressed the crowd, his voice cracking from the emotion. After expressing his gratitude and his enthusiasm for the film, the more familiar grumpy Ford returned, emphatically announcing that this would definitely be his last time playing the character.

“This is it! I will not fall down for you again!”

We then rolled into the Marvel panel. With so much having been announced at Comic-Con, Kevin Feige didn’t have much in the way of new information to impart—hopes for a possible Fantastic Four cast announcement were cruelly dashed when he pointed out FF director Matt Shakman in the crowd, then casually stated there was nothing on FF being revealed that day.

But he did have a few choice things to show us, such as a scene from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in which Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) addresses the UN, leading into an extended trailer.

We also got to see a trailer of sorts from Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantamania which in addition to setting up the plot of the film (Scott, now a successful author and businessman, Hope, Cassie, Hank and Janet get sucked into the Quantum Realm, and Bill Murray is there), excitingly revealed the return of Ant-Man supporting player Gregg Turkington. That’ll no doubt be out soon.

Feige also revealed that Tim Blake Nelson, set up as The Leader way back in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, will be in Captain America: New World Order, which director Julius Onah tantalysingly described as a “paranoid thriller”.

Feige then announced the super “heroes” that would comprise the previously announced new team Thunderbolts, most of whom were present: Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, first introduced in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), Red Guardian (David Harbour, first introduced in Black Widow), Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen, first introduced in Ant-Man and the Wasp), James “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier(Sebastian Stan, from all the Captain America movies) and John Walker/U.S. Agent (Wyatt Russell), who we saw being recruited by de Fontaine in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Florence Pugh sent in a message confirming Yelena Belova’s involvement, and Feige announced that Olga Kurylenko’s Taskmaster (from Black Widow) will also be a part of the team. Quite how closely they’ll be following the Thunderbolts comic book, which hinged on something of a twist, remains to be seen.

The Marvel panel finished out with an extended preview of Captain Marvel sequel The Marvels, which mainly centred around how Captain Marvel (Bree Larson), Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris, whose grown-up self we first met in WandaVision) keep switching places throughout the galaxy.

So again, not a lot of new Marvel news, but plenty of dazzling imagery to tide us over.

Speaking of dazzling imagery (and tides), the panel ended with a special preview of Avatar: The Way of Water, presented by James Cameron via video link from New Zealand. Dolby 3D glasses were handed out and we got to watch five scenes play out.

Most of them were comprised of smaller, character-centric moments—there were no epic action scenes or giant creatures to speak of. Speaking as someone who’s generally skeptical of high frame rate presentations, I thought the shots looked pretty good. There was definitely some degree of that “Noel Leeming In-Store Demo” sheen, but overall the CGI had considerably more texture to it than I may have feared.

We got to spend time with some of the younger characters (Jake and Neytiri’s children) and heard from Cliff Curtis’ Tonowari for the first time. We also got to see that Tonowari’s people, the more ocean-aligned Metkayina Clan, have developed fins along their forearms to assist with swimming.

I was encouraged by what I saw. And I want to see more. Job done, D23.