Looking Ahead at the Announced Projects of the Walt Disney Animation Studios

Yesterday, Walt Disney Animation Studios got our attention through their announcements of a myriad of projects during the Walt Disney Company Investor’s Day presentations. Earlier today, I was joined by other members of the Laughing Place team to discuss these projects a little more deeply.

Raya and the Last Dragon travels to the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well. Raya and the Last Dragon features the voices of Kelly Marie Tran (The Last Jedi) as Raya, a warrior whose wit is as sharp as her blade, and Awkwafina as magical, mythical, self-deprecating dragon named Sisu.

New characters were revealed from the film, including  a street-savvy 10-year-old entrepreneur named Boun, who looks an awful lot like a more grown up version of the dancing kid from Moana, with a personality to match.

Other characters revealed include the formidable giant Tong, and a thieving toddler Noi with her band of Ongis.

The feature film is directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and produced by Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho.

The film, announced at 2019’s D23 Expo, was originally slated to be released late this year but had it’s slot adjusted as the release of numerous titles were adjusted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The movie is strikingly beautiful and looks to continue the current trend of embracing a cultural “trust” in development, focused in mythical Asia. The film also seems to skew from the musical trend, and based on an earlier released trailer, will channel more of a kung-fu film feel. The movie will be released theatrically where available, but will also be released simultaneously as part of Disney+ Premier access (with $29.99 upcharge) on March 5th, 2021.

Being formally announced for the first time, Encanto tells the tale of an extraordinary family, the Madrigals, who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift from super strength to the power to heal—every child except one, Mirabel. When she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is in danger, Mirabel decides that she, the only ordinary Madrigal, might just be her exceptional family’s last hope.

Aside from that storyline, not much else was revealed about the upcoming movie. However, a brief clip was shown to select audiences during the Investor’s Day presentation that showcased how visually appealing this movie is going to be, alongside a performance by Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, Moana) who wrote all new songs for the film that will be performed bilingually in English and Spanish. Could this be the film that wins him the “O” (Oscar) in his E.G.O.T.?

Also on board, the film will be directed by Byron Howard (Zootopia, Tangled) and Jared Bush (co-director Zootopia), co-directed by Charise Castro Smith (writer The Death of Eva Sofia Valdez) and produced by Clark Spencer and Yvett Merino.

The film has a lot of names that we’ve seen before, but with a release date of November 24, 2021, to not know more about it besides the brief glimpse and blurb we have, is a little jarring when you look at this history of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Typically, for the studio, this means there’s a lot still being reworked and redeveloped. However, if you look at the success of other animation studios (Pixar), being vague in their releases and trailers leaves a lot to the imagination and is part of the appeal of their films. For Example, the original teaser for Wall-E showed a robot on a trash pile looking at the stars with a banner that read “After 700 years of doing what he was built for, he’ll discover what he was meant for” and not much else too revealing. So, if Walt Disney Animation Studios is taking a similar approach to that of Pixar Animation Studios, we could be in for a real treat as well. It could go either way. I suspect as we get closer to the release of Raya and the Last Dragon, we’ll learn a lot more about Encanto.

Encanto is scheduled to open in theaters November 24, 2021.

Now here’s where the announcements from Walt Disney Animation Studios took some of us by surprise. For the first time ever, Walt Disney Animation Studios is producing several series specifically for television/Disney+. The studio had strictly stuck to Feature animation, with other studios like DisneyToon and Walt Disney Television Animation taking the reins of small-screen viewing. This implies a high-level of quality to expect delivered directly to consumers. The first of these series will be Baymax! 

Baymax! takes place in the fantastical city of San Fransokyo and features fan favorite healthcare bot, Baymax. Created by Don Hall, the Oscar-winning director of Big Hero 6, the series promises to be different than that of the other DisneyXD series, Big Hero 6 – The Series. From what it sounds like, this series will focus primarily on Baymax and his adventures in the city as opposed to the adventures of Big Hero 6 as a team. He has even been given his own way to get around the city! I’m excited as this seems like a more casual, less chaotic way of showcasing the character and the environment of San Fransokyo. Big Hero 6 The Series saw fast-paced action and battle scenes, and Baymax! Seems to be more about Baymax as a personal healthcare companion. Baymax! Is set to premiere on Disney+ in early 2022.

Zootopia+ heads back to the fast-paced mammal metropolis of Zootopia in a short-form series directed by Trent Correy and Josie Trinidad. This is easily the most unique, and arguably most appealing, concept of the series announced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Zootopia+ dives deeper into the lives of some of the feature film’s most intriguing characters, including Fru Fru, the newly married arctic shrew; Gazelle’s talented tiger dancers; and the sloth full of surprises, Flash, as though they were reality shows that the residents of Zootopia would watch on their televisions. For fans of Zootopia who were hoping for a series that would focus on buddy-cop adventures with Nick and Judy, this is not it. This is standalone programming like The Real Mousewives of Little Rodentia, and So You Think You Can Prance. The concept is stunning, let’s hope the execution of it is the same. We’ll find out when it debuts on Disney+ in Spring 2022.

Iwájú is an all-new original series coming to Disney+ in 2022. The series is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pan-African comic book entertainment company Kugali and its founders Tolu Olowofoyeku, Ziki Nelson and Hamid Ibrahim. Iwájú, which roughly translates to “The Future” in the Yoruba language, is steeped in science fiction. The long-form series is set in Lagos, Nigeria, exploring deep themes of class, innocence and challenging the status quo.

Iwaju is appealing simply because it’s an original idea. It’s not a series based on a franchise or IP we already know. It’s not a spin off of a side character from a decades-old movie. It’s brand new. The director, Ziki Nelson, had said this about the new series: “This show will combine Disney’s magic and animation expertise with Kugali’s fire and storytelling authenticity. Iwájú represents a personal childhood dream of mine to tell my story and that of my people.”

Tiana is coming to Disney+ in 2023, and is a long-form musical-comedy series featuring the extraordinary entrepreneur who’s now princess of the kingdom Maldonia. The all-new adventures explore both Maldonia and Tiana’s beloved hometown, New Orleans. Again, falling victim to lack of information, my main concern about this series is whether or not it will be a hand drawn 2-D series as that was not specified. I sure hope so. What is appealing however, is that we’ll get to see Maldonia in the series, a place that was really only mentioned by name in 2009’s The Princess And The Frog, wherein we first meet Tiana, who is now the first princess to get her own series from Walt Disney Animation Studios.  

Moana, The Series is coming to Disney+ in 2023, and is a new long-form musical series that follows spirited voyager Moana as she ventures far beyond the reef. The studio is once again connecting with storytellers from the Pacific Islands to help tell the stories of wayfinding and other traditions brought to life for generations through oral storytelling. Again, not much more is known at this time about the series, but if we get to see more islands and myths being told in the same way as the original Moana, I’m definitely interested. With so much already on his plate however, I can’t imagine we’ll see Lin Manuel Miranda return for a musical series, but perhaps only time will tell.

There’s a lot coming in the next few years from Walt Disney Animation Studios. As excited as I am about the foray into television series, I am slightly concerned that the quality may be diluted while the brand focuses on quantity. What separated Walt Disney Feature Animation/Walt Disney Animation Studios from their other arms like DisneyToon and Walt Disney Television Animation, was the immaculate detail, beauty, attention, and most importantly, time it took to create a feature-length film. With so much going on, and with as many resources needed to constantly pump out new episodes, I personally hope it doesn't affect the quality of various projects in the future.

We discussed each of these projects earlier today, and for more opinions other than my own, check out our Look Ahead at the Walt Disney Animation Studios below!

Tony Betti
Originally from California where he studied a dying artform (hand-drawn animation), Tony has spent most of his adult life in the theme parks of Orlando. When he’s not writing for LP, he’s usually watching and studying something animated or arguing about “the good ole’ days” at the parks.