A Big Year - Glenwood Native Don Hall's New Disney Film Opens This Week
Don Hall’s 2022 started off with an Oscar nomination and it will wrap up his year with the release of his fifth animated feature film, “Strange World” opening on 3,000 screens across the country today.
Not a bad year for the 53-year-old Glenwood Community High School grad who has won an Oscar for “Big Hero 6” and helmed billion-dollar Disney hits “Moana” and last year’s Oscar-nominated “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
Oh, and that’s not even including Hall’s first streaming series, “Baymax!” dropped to rave reviews this summer on Disney+.
“Strange World” is expected to be Disney’s latest Thanksgiving holiday hit. The science fiction, fantasy tinged story follows a legendary family of explorers, the Clades, as they attempt to navigate uncharted, treacherous worlds alongside a motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog and a slew of ravenous creatures.
The film is based on Hall’s original story idea. He’s tight-lipped about the plot specifics but the film’s trailer asks “Have you ever wondered what adventures await beyond our world?” The film’s visual retro sci-fi look and fantasy story conjures both pulp fiction adventure magazines and Jules Verne influences.
“That’s a pretty fair assumption,” Hall demurred. “I like those stories, I’ll put it that way.”
He co-wrote the script with Qui Nguyen, who is also co-directing the project with Hall. Nguyen also co-wrote “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
“The seeds of this story have been with me for a very long time,” he said.
The voice cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Denis Quaid, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu and Jaboukie Young, White. Alan Tudyk, a mainstay voice actor in nearly a dozen Disney features, is also among the cast.
Hall worked on the $120 million budgeted “Strange World” for over three years. His fingerprints are all over the story, characters and world building. If his latest feature is indeed influenced by the sci-fi fantasy magazines of his youth, it would be well in line with his filmography.
He loves to plug audiences into fully formed worlds that are felt as much as they’re seen, whether it be a techno-near future San Fransokyo in “Big Hero 6,” the magical realm of Kumandra in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” or mythological Motunui in “Moana.’
“I think that’s the fun part of the process, especially early on in development where we spend so much time thinking through these different worlds,” Hall said.
“We’re trying to build a world that feels familiar and lived in, even if it’s a fantasy world. We want it to be realistic at least to the parameters of the logic of the world we’re building. I really enjoy that, but I think everybody at Disney does this as sort of a part of what we do. I think that’s what makes these movies feel so big and expansive.”
That sort of storytelling is how Hall fell in love with animation growing up in Glenwood. That affection carried him to an art degree from the University of Iowa and into the California Institute of the Arts and eventually Walt Disney Animation Studios. He worked his way up from storyboard apprentice – or as he put it, “a glorified apprentice – and cut his teeth in variety of roles on a half-dozen projects, including hits “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Tarzan,” and “The Princess and the Frog” before stepping into the director’s chair. His 2011 “Winnie the Pooh” reboot was a critical and commercial hit. It would also be the studio’s last traditionally animated – hand drawn – feature.
The next three features Hall directed or co-directed would all be computer-generated and combine to make more than $1.3 billion at the box office. His “Big Hero 6” won Best Animated Feature at the 87th Academy Awards.
It’s the drawing that still captures Hall’s attention. The sketched DNA of animation springing to life from pen to script to screen is still his first love.
“I still draw as much as I can,” said Hall, adding every one of his film’s rough character designs, visual development, and storyboards all began in hands-on collaboration.
Modern animated films are almost entirely computer-generated, but the foundation remains the hand-drawn image. Drawing that is typically done digitally, on Wacom tablets or iPads like Hall uses.
“Generally, I draw more at the early developmental stages of a film,” Hall said. “The deeper into our process we get, the less time I have to draw. I’ll do quick sketches in meetings to illustrate a thought, but that’s about it.
“Drawing is the thing I love to do most in life. Hard to imagine not drawing. Guess that’s one of the reasons I love animation.”