What to watch on Disney+: A critic’s guide
Once upon a time, there was a magic kingdom called Disney — more of a magic empire, really — which, having annexed ABC television, the Muppets, Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox, set its sights on streaming media.
Welcome to Disney+, a wonderland of film libraries, intellectual content, spinoffs, remakes and various forms of generally family friendly brand exploitation and cross-promotion throwing wide its gates Tuesday. For $6.99 a month (or $69.99 a year), it’s significantly less expensive than a single ticket to Disneyland — you’d have to be some sort of … Scrooge McDuck to argue it doesn’t give value for money.
Even in the age of home video, Disney operated on a model of scarcity, taking films out of circulation for years in order to boost sales on the way out and create excitement on the way back in. Streaming, by contrast, operates on a model of abundance, selling subscribers a dream of opportunity, more candy than they can ever eat. But so much candy! Most every animated Disney feature from then to now; the Pixar catalog; more “Star Wars” films and series than you can shake a light saber at; Muppet movies going back to “The Muppet Movie”; a trunkload of Marvel; Disney Channel tween-coms in buckets.
Although premium television competes largely by virtue of exclusive — which is to say, original — programming, I don’t imagine many potential subscribers will pull this trigger based primarily on what’s new. The Murderers’ Row of pop cultural brands it already has on hand would seem to be enough to spring for. Still, there will be new programs on Day 1, building on (and building out) those brands, and by and large, what I’ve seen of the initial offerings is quite good. (Still under wraps as of this writing are “The Mandalorian,” the first live-action “Star Wars” series — which even if it isn’t great will make it pretty much your average “Star Wars” movie — and “Noelle,” a star-powered save-Christmas movie with Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader. That sounds good, right?)
What’s new: “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” is not perhaps the first series you would expect to find here, or even the 101st, and it’s for sure the only one where you’ll hear, or would even expect to hear, the host, cruising a tattoo convention, casually explain his own lack of ink with, “Of course the Jewish people, you know, there’s an association with the Holocaust, and I’m sorry, I don’t want to be a downer right away, but they put numbers on us, and this and that.”
“I act, I jazz it up, and these days I’m a detective keepin’ my eyes peeled for the unconventional, the educational and the whimsical,” Goldblum says, by way of introduction. He ambles hither and yon investigating such everyday subjects as sneakers, ice cream and denim. Goldblum seems very much in life the talkative eccentric hepcat he is in pictures — it’s impossible to tell when he’s on script or just telling you what he knows. I would subscribe just to watch more of this. (This show comes from National Geographic, in whose media arm Disney gained a controlling interest with its acquisition of 21st Century Fox. There’s a lot of National Geographic Channel content available on Disney+ as well.)
I am quite in love with the Kristen Bell-produced “Encore!,” a machine for dredging up deep feelings, in which the cast of a high school musical reunites after many years to stage it again. (“Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast” — hmmm — were the shows in the review hopper.) It’s not cinema verite. Like Disneyland, it has been constructed to ensure a satisfying experience, with professional directors, choreographers, costumers, musicians, designers and the like guiding rusty adults, in a reality-show week, to a performance neither they nor their audience will regret. (“I know all my lines,” says the woman playing “Beauty’s” Mrs. Potts, “but I don’t always know when they happen.”)
Producers have massaged their cast and footage for maximum emotional effect. And yet it feels true, with moving things to say about time and maturity and roads taken and not taken; art as a refuge; and the lasting influence of a caring teacher. (I’m not crying — you’re crying.) It’s also, as one might expect, goofy fun.
If “Encore!” is a backstage musical in the form of a documentary, the smart, meta-theatrical “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is a backstage musical about a backstage musical based on a backstage musical in the form of a mockumentary, set in the fictional high school where Disney’s original “High School Musical” was purportedly filmed. “I’ve seen the original movie 37 times,” says the student stage manager, “and the first 15 minutes of both sequels.” All are available on Disney+.
Created by Tim Federle, whose writing credits include stage time in Broadway productions of “The Little Mermaid” and “Gypsy,” dance captaining “Billy Elliot the Musical,” a string of YA novels, three books of cocktail recipes, the 2017 animated film “Ferdinand” and the 2016 musical “Tuck Everlasting” (also a 2002 Disney film), “HSM:TM:TS” plays with the genre with an insider’s rude glee. Lines like, “And so I told my mom looking this fabulous while also fighting for intersectional feminism is my summer job”; “I’m all for the arts — I pay for ad-free Spotify”; and “When I heard that the high school where ‘High School Musical’ was shot had never staged a production of ‘High School Musical: The Musical,’ I was shocked as an actress, inspired as a director and triggered as a millennial” are set against musical numbers that do their work with brutal efficiency.
Less effective is “Marvel’s Hero Project,” which confers on extraordinary young people — a blind high-school athlete, a girl who invented a prosthetic arm to shoot glitter, a 10-year-old preaching against child abuse — the gift of a special jacket and a commemorative superhero comic book inspired by their person, work and/or journey. The real-world stories are inspiring enough. The framing device, in which the word “Marvel” is pronounced as often as is (slightly more than) seemly, is a distraction that feels like self-promotion.
“The Imagineering Story” is a documentary series on the birth and growth of Disneyland and its theme-park progeny. Hagiographic as regards Uncle Walt, who is present through much of the early episodes, and skating over whatever does not redound to the glory of the enterprise, it is nevertheless, like Disney+ itself, packed with good stuff. If you thrill to names like Mary Blair, Xavier Antencio, Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump (pretty great names even if you don’t know who they are) and go all wobbly over concept art, dark-ride models and pristine color footage of theme parks under construction, this is a series for you, as it is for me. Fun fact: Disney’s first television series, “Disneyland,” — on ABC, funnily enough — was a sort of prospectus for the park, undertaken to help pay to build it. It’s directed by Leslie Iwerks, daughter of Disney innovator Don Iwerks and granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, who, among other services to the arts, designed Mickey Mouse.
“Lady and the Tramp,” the latest product of Disney’s live(ish)-action remake mill, is the service’s first feature. It’s perfectly fine though also, perhaps, pointless, if not a slap in the face of the glory that was 2-D cel animation. The script, co-written by mumblecore auteur Andrew Bujalski (“Beeswax”), has been tweaked to give cocker spaniel Lady (Tessa Thompson) more agency and attitude; terrier Tramp (Justin Theroux) remains a dog of a dog. (Tramp, meeting a pair of well-groomed standard poodles on the street: “Are you two twins?” Poodle: “She’s my wife, pal.”) Classicists will be glad to see “Bella Notte” present and accounted for —with its spaghetti gag intact — and that the pound scene, in which Peg the Pekingese (Janelle Monae) performs “He’s a Tramp,” is computer-modeled closely on the cartoon original. “The Siamese Cat Song,” on the other hand, has been replaced, for reasons of racial sensitivity. (The 1955 animated feature will also stream on Disney+, for comparison.)
I note with interest the color-blind casting, which produces a post-racial turn-of-the-last-century Midwest Mississippi River town where a mixed marriage is not a remarkable thing. (In fact, it was illegal in Disney’s home state of Missouri until 1967.) It’s a good thing, for modeling the future, rectifying the past and serving the present — with rare exceptions, Disney product, to the extent it represented humans, was very white for a very long time. Still, parents might at least make this a teachable moment: This place was as imaginary as Neverland, kids, and here’s why.
What’s old: There are innumerable paths through this material. My Disney/Marvel/Muppets/“Star Wars” is not your Disney, etc. (And it’s worth noting that, taste aside, not everything in this bottomless carpetbag is good.)
All the big animated Disney and Pixar features are here — the old classics, the old less-classics, the graphic-y “Xerox camera” films, the weird ’80s works, the post-”Little Mermaid” princess parade — with various straight-to-video sequels and TV spinoffs. (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame II,” anyone?) But so are these anthological features from the 1940s: “The Reluctant Dragon” (1941), built around a tour of the new Burbank studio by humorist and comic actor Robert Benchley; “Saludos Amigos” (1943) and “The Three Caballeros” (1945), born out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pan-American “Good Neighbor Policy,” painterly and abstract; and “Melody Time” (1948), which includes Disney takes on Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed and the tugboat saga “Little Toot.”
Without necessarily making claims for their quality, I am happy to see among the live-action theatrical selections “That Darn Cat!” (the 1965 original), with Dean Jones and Hayley Mills ; titles from the Kurt Russell oeuvre (“The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” and “The Barefoot Executive”); and the 1985 “Return to Oz,” the second best of all “Oz” movies, with Fairuza Balk as Dorothy and Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh getting in her way. See also: the 1950 “Treasure Island,” with Robert Newton as Long John Silver (it is Newton you’re imitating when you talk like a pirate); the 1960 “Swiss Family Robinson,” because it gave birth to the Disneyland treehouse; “The Journey of Natty Gann” (1985), a Depression-era tale of a girl and her wolf; man-with-a-jet-pack period action comedy “The Rocketeer” (1991); and the 1950s nature films “The Living Desert” and “The Vanishing Prairie,” because if you’re not going to go outside, you can at least appreciate what does.
Television. Again, there’s scads. From the afternoons of the 1980s, when Disney was making better television cartoons than features, there’s the old Carl Barks-inspired “Duck Tales” and what-new-to-do-with-Balloo “TaleSpin,” my familiarity with which suggests I had my afternoons free once. From the Disney Channel sitcom warehouse (“Hannah Montana,” “Even Stevens,” “Phil of the Future,” “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody”), I offer you “JONAS” — all caps because it was originally an acronym — from Disney stalwarts the (then-teenaged) Jonas Brothers. Its first, anomalously single-camera season was whimsical and droll in a “Monkees” vein. It was subsequently less whimsical and droll.
Also: 30 seasons of “The Simpsons” and “The Sound of Music,” scooped up along with Fox.
What’s missing? It seems rude even to ask, as there’s enough stuff at launch to last a sane person a lifetime. (Indeed, if there’s a reason not to subscribe, it’s that you and/or your kids are already watching too much TV — life is short, people.) And, of course, content will circulate. Not every Marvel movie will be available at once. Tommy Steele fans may wonder, “Why no ‘The Happiest Millionaire’?” If any Disney+ programmers are listening, I am making a pitch for “The Moon-Spinners,” a Crete-set, Hitchcock-esque Hayley Mills film from 1964, the very first thing I thought of when this whole business was announced. And as far as I can tell, “The Mickey Mouse Club” — from the Annette Funicello years to the Britney Spears years — is not on the menu, and that is fundamental Disney television. (Bring me my “Spin & Marty.”)
In any case, M-I-C you real soon.