‘Star Wars’ @ D23: ‘Rogue One’ cast, ‘Episode IX’ director, theme park lands, ‘Force Awakens’ poster & more!

This weekend, Disney hosted its fourth D23 Expo in Anaheim, California celebrating all things Disney, Pixar, and the like. Saturday was dedicated to Star Wars and man oh man were fans in for a treat. With The Force Awakens opening this holiday season, Disney and Lucasfilm are ramping up anticipation for the massive return to George Lucas’ timeless creation. At D23, many exciting announcements were made regarding Rogue OneEpisode IX, and new theme park attractions.

It’s all packed inside, so what are you waiting for? Dive in!

We have an update on the first Star Wars standalone film, Rogue One. Lucasfilm announced today that principal photography has begun. To celebrate the occasion, a cast photo has been released which features previously announced star Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) front-and-center. The rest of the stellar cast was announced today and it includes Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline), Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen (Let the Bullets Fly, Devils on the Doorstep), Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The ButlerThe Last King of Scotland), Mads Mikkelsen (The HuntCasino RoyaleHannibal), Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler), and Alan Tudyk (Firefly), who is confirmed to play a performance-capture character in Rogue One.

I am especially happy to see Mendelsohn and Mikkelsen joining the Star Wars universe; their multifaceted villainous turns in Bloodline and Hannibal, respectively, are rich and subtle and ripe to take to the cinematic level.

Lucasfilms’ Kathleen Kennedy had this to say in a statement: “Rogue One takes place before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope and will be a departure from the saga films but have elements that are familiar to the Star Wars universe. It goes into new territory, exploring the galactic struggle from a ground-war perspective while maintaining that essential Star Wars feel that fans have come to know. Gareth is such an innovative director and I’m so excited to be working with him and the extraordinary ensemble cast he’s selected for ‘Rogue One.’”

Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters), tells the story of resistance fighters who have united to steal plans to the dreaded Death Star. It’s out December 16, 2016.

J.J. Abrams is steering The Force AwakensRian Johnson is helming Episode VIII, and now Disney’s made official the director of Star Wars: Episode IX. It’s Colin Trevorrow, who most recently directed Jurassic World and before that Safety Not Guaranteed.

“Colin is someone I’ve been interested in working with ever since I saw Safety Not Guaranteed,” said Kennedy. “The power of that film paired with the enormous success of Jurassic World speaks volumes about his abilities both as a storyteller and skilled filmmaker. We are thrilled to have such an incredible talent as Colin join our family and step into the Star Wars universe.”

Trevorrow also made a statement. “This is not a job or an assignment. It is a seat at a campfire, surrounded by an extraordinary group of storytellers, filmmakers, artists and craftspeople. We’ve been charged with telling new stories for a younger generation because they deserve what we all had—a mythology to call their own. We will do this by channeling something George Lucas instilled in all of us: boundless creativity, pure invention and hope.”

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. Trevorrow wowed me with Safety Not Guaranteed, a fun little film that he wrote and directed with emotional finesse and wonder. He managed to capture my attention during Jurassic World, but at the end of the day he didn’t reinvent the franchise or push it further; to me, it felt very been there, done that. Following Abrams and Johnson’s lead, my hope is that he’s able to better transfer his capacity to make audiences truly empathize with his characters as he successfully accomplished in Safety, and make a big movie that transcends the typical CGI action flick.

Episode IX is due out in 2019.

Here’s something that Disney attraction-goers have been waiting a very long time for: Star Wars-themed lands are coming to Disneyland park in Anaheim, California and Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Both lands have been in the works for some time, and the plans are incredibly ambitious. They’ll each cover 14-acres of land, making them Disney’s largest single-themed land expansions ever. The aim is to let fans “step into the stories from a galaxy far, far away” by transporting them to “a never-before-seen planet, a remote trading port and one of the last stops before wild space where Star Wars characters and their stories come to life.” See concept artwork in the gallery below.

Fans can expect stores and restaurants to be operated by local inhabitants, including alien beings and droids plucked straight of out the Star Wars universe. A Cantina is promised, as well!

The lands will be home to two signature attractions. Attendees will take control of the Millennium Falcon on a customized secret mission, and a second ride will take you on a Star Wars adventure that puts you in the middle of a climactic battle.

Ground-breaking on the new lands has yet to begin, but it don’t think it’s too early to say it: Sorry, Star Tours, but your days are numbered.

In the meantime, Star Wars fans at the aforementioned Disney parks will be privy to “new and enhanced” experiences. Star Wars Launch Bay, coming later this year to both parks, is an interactive environment filled with SW-themed goodies. Roller coaster attraction Space Mountain is getting retrofitted in Disneyland as Hyperspace Mountain in which guests will join an X-wing starfighter battle. Additionally, Tomorrowland will be themed with special entertainment and food locations. In Orlando, Disney’s Hollywood Studios will feature a new Star Wars-themed fireworks show set to the iconic score. Hyperspace Mountain and the other themed locations are all part of what’s being touted as “Season of the Force,” a seasonal (read: limited) event set to take place in early 2016. And last, Star Tours on both coasts will soon include a new adventure featuring locations and characters from The Force Awakens. Guess we shouldn’t count this attraction out for the count just yet!

Pictured above is a special poster for The Force Awakens, illustrated by iconic artist Drew Struzman specially for this year’s D23 attendees. Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the villainous Kylo Ren, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, and John Boyega’s Finn grace the poster. It confirms that Finn, who is seen wearing a Stormtrooper suit in the initial teaser, is in fact a Jedi since he’s wielding a lightsaber here. Do note that this is not the official theatrical poster for the film; Struzman’s final work will drop as we inch closer to the movie’s December release.

One more thing… Prior to D23, Entertainment Weekly released brand new stills from The Force Awakens as a part of its Fall Movie Preview issue. Check out all 12 images in the gallery below. Also, be sure to head over to EW for an exclusive interview with J.J. Abrams; in it, he sheds some light on the film’s main antagonist, the mysterious Kylo Ren played by Adam Driver. Did you know that “Ren” is not a name but a title from the Knights of Ren? I can sense your curiosity has peaked.

The countdown to Dec. 18 continues.

[Via Star Wars 1, 2, 3, 45Deadline; EW 1, 2]

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