Universal and the Newly Merged Disney Offer Exclusive Previews at CinemaCon

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Universal Pictures was out to prove its blockbuster bona fides with an opening movie montage titled “The Universal Hero” during its product presentation at CinemaCon in Las Vegas. In a not-so-subtle dig at Disney’s Marvel and Warner Bros.’ DC Comics, the clip reel showed various Universal box-office successes, accompanied by the line “The Universal hero may not have superpowers, but they sometimes fly.”

Flying and plummeting vehicles of all kinds appear in the studio’s massively successful “Fast and Furious” franchise, and Universal displayed its muscle with an appearance by the stars of its first “Fast and Furious” spinoff, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. The outgoing Johnson and the taciturn Statham make an oddly complementary pair as titular daredevils Hobbs & Shaw. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) promised that the duo “bring it like you’ve never seen it,” while Johnson pledged another level of fun from this new franchise chapter. He also seemed genuinely moved that the movie honors his Samoan heritage and the battle rituals of the Samoan people. In a series known for its outrageous stunts, the sight of our heroes dragging a transport helicopter to an awful fate drew cheers from the Las Vegas crowd.

An unscripted highlight of the Universal preview was Kevin Hart grappling with a nervous rabbit in his arms (representing his character Snowball) while promoting Illumination Entertainment’s The Secret Life of Pets 2; his co-star Tiffany Haddish fared much better with her designated pet, a cute Shi-Tzu.

Universal has several comedies on its slate. Producer Will Packer touted his April 12 body-switching comedy Little and made sure the audience knew he had delivered for them before with Girls Trip. The idea for Little, by the way, originated with its 14-year-old co-star, “Black-ish” actress Marsai Martin, who Packer said is now the youngest executive producer in movie history. “Don’t act all brand new with me” when she has future projects to cast, co-star Issa Rae warned her.

The irresistible Emma Thompson was effortlessly droll describing the genesis of Last Christmas, the romantic comedy she wrote based on the classic George Michael Christmas song. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) and co-star Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) joined her onstage; the other lead, Emilia Clarke, they said, was off on “Game of Thrones” promotional duties. From the evidence of the trailer, the film could become a Christmas perennial.

While Last Christmas taps into the George Michael catalog, director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis’ Yesterday imagines a seismic event that erases everyone’s memory of The Beatles—except for one man, a struggling musician who cashes in on his ability to deliver hit after hit. Star Himesh Patel entertained the audience with a lovely version of the title song.

CinemaCon always reveals potential hits that weren’t on anyone’s radar, and that is the case with Good Boys, the latest irreverent comedy written and produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. R-rated sixth graders (kind of a younger version of the duo’s Superbad) is a high concept that was just waiting to be plucked, and the trailer was filled with outrageous laughs. Onstage, the movie’s three young stars, Jacob Tremblay (Room), Keith Williams and Brady Noon, played along with the notion that they’re not old enough to watch their own movie.

Other talent in Vegas included Octavia Spencer, director Tate Taylor and producer Jason Blum promoting Spencer’s change-of-pace horror film Ma, with Spencer promising “disturbing and freaky” acts much worse than her pie vengeance in The Help. And writer Lena Waithe, director Melina Matsoukas and stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith unveiled a provocative trailer from their lovers-on-the-run thriller Queen+Slim.

The Universal session ended with a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the motion-capture adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical CATS, whose star roster includes Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson and James Corden. Last year, Universal thrilled the Colosseum audience with a performance of ABBA’s “Fernando” by Cher; in that showman-like tradition, this year’s presentation ended with Jennifer Hudson giving a powerful rendition of CATS’ most celebrated ballad, “Memory.” What will Universal do to top that next year?

Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn set the tone for his Wednesday afternoon product presentation when he confessed, “I’m still getting my mind around all this.” “All this,” is course, is Disney’s historic acquisition of 20th Century Fox and its promise and repercussions. The opening sizzle reel made a point of including images from Fox triumphs like Alien, Avatar, Die Hard, X-Men and The Shape of Water alongside the usual Disney-Marvel-Pixar-Lucasfilm hits. And Horn saluted Fox Searchlight on its 25th anniversary with a montage of their huge accomplishments, including four Oscar Best Picture winners. Horn promised that the new Disney-Fox alliance would be “more than the sum of its parts.” He also reiterated that theaters are “the cornerstone of the moviegoing experience, period.”

Together, the two studios accounted for five of the top ten international movies last year, and six of the top ten domestic titles.

Cathleen Taff, executive VP of theatrical distribution, presented the first exclusive clip, a scene from the hugely anticipated Avengers: Endgame, in which new Avenger and billion-dollar woman Captain Marvel announces that she’s going to kill the evil Thanos. The newbie is met with skepticism and a little hostility from the surviving Avengers, but Thor (Chris Hemsworth) declares, “I like this one.”

Next up was Fox film vice chairman Emma Watts, who wondered if it was “some form of Disney hazing that I’m following Avengers.” But she emphasized the upside of the consolidation: “While we may be living through a lot of change, the good news is the formula for good movies and the studio role hasn’t changed, and that is a single dedication to filmmakers… Though much has been written about the Fox legacy in past tense, legacies are made every day. With the vast resources of the Walt Disney Studio behind us, we are ready to write our next great chapter.”

Watts then presented footage from three upcoming Fox features: the latest X-Men chapter, Dark Phoenix; the raucous Dave Bautista-Kumail Nanjiani action comedy Stuber; and James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, which recounts Henry Ford’s effort to build a new car to compete in Le Mans. All got a rousing reception, and Watts called Ford v. Ferrari “a triumph” and, tellingly, the kind of prestige film that’s “on the endangered species list.”

Walt Disney Motion Picture Group president Sean Bailey doubled down against the initial queasy Internet reaction to Will Smith in “blueface” as the Genie in Aladdin, showing his entire “Friend Like Me” production number. It’s as wild and elaborate as anything in the recent Disney live-action/mo-cap canon.

Especially impressive was the sequence from the new motion-capture The Lion King, with photorealistic (but talking) lion Mufassa teaching his young son Simba about the circle of life. The reaction from the Vegas crowd was ecstatic. It looks like this remake, directed by The Jungle Book’s Jon Favreau, is in very good hands.

Bailey observed, “We are never simply retelling. We ask ourselves: How do we take these timeless stories and expand and update them to make them relevant for the times?”

Finally, producer Jonas Rivera presented the first 17 minutes of Toy Story 4. Acknowledging that many people felt the Oscar-winning Toy Story 3 was the perfect conclusion to the series, he quoted veteran Pixar director Andrew Stanton: “It’s not the ending.” “Woody is the protagonist,” Rivera noted. “What if we put him in a new situation where he is questioning his own purpose?” Judging from those endearing opening scenes, I’m back on board the Toy Story train.

Unlike other studio presentations that invariably run overtime, the Disney session ended 40 minutes earlier than billed. Perhaps another sign that the new Disney is very much a work-in-progress.