What is the Disney brand? Is it family-friendly entertainment? Princesses and Pixar? Franchise-swallowing media monopolies? I would argue that it is the intersection of all of those things and more.
Disney exists in that strange, in-between world where capitalistic cynicism and childlike wonder meet. Even as we complain about rising ticket prices, there’s still a part of us that wants to believe that Disneyland is the “happiest place on Earth.” And maybe “Toy Story 4” was just another unnecessary sequel meant to wring the money out of our pockets, but we can’t help but leave the theatre a little less jaded, a little more fulfilled and nostalgic.
In that regard, Disney’s new streaming service Disney+ is quite on-brand. When plans for Disney+ were first announced, I was more than a little annoyed at the thought of once again succumbing to Disney’s money-hungry power move to consolidate all of its properties and sell it to us for $7 per month. You already have Hulu and ABC — what more could you ask for, Disney? Let Netflix have “Ant-Man!” Yet upon checking out the original shows that the streaming service has released already, I must admit that Disney has created some quality programming worth coughing up money for. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
So far the most compelling original show on the platform is the Star Wars spinoff “The Mandalorian.” Though it was marketed as a gritty, “darker” take on the Star Wars universe, it is much more of a whimsical, fun, compelling romp through the galaxy, the main conflict of which is that our protagonist doesn’t know how to parent his newly adopted son, Baby Yoda.
Like the original, pre-Disney Star Wars trilogy, “The Mandalorian” manages to keep you genuinely invested in the characters’ stories without mistaking itself for a prestige drama. Exciting action pieces, Easter eggs, and a crowd-pleasing adventure-mystery plot combine to make an entertaining show for Star Wars diehards and first-time viewers alike.
Disney+’s only other original narrative TV show is the less-entertaining but acceptable “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” If you’ve never heard of the series until this point, it is exactly what you would expect a show with that title to be: meta, tongue-in-cheek, and cringeworthy all at once. “HSMTMTS” is a straightforward teen dramedy á la “Glee,” only without the spontaneous singing and injected with awkward mockumentary-esque asides.
Like most entries in its genre, “HSMTMTS” is riddled with unrealistic dialogue, teen cliches, and a weird lack of actual schoolwork, considering it takes place in a high school. Over the course of watching this high school drama department rehearse for their school musical (“High School Musical: The Musical,” obviously), we meet a quirky drama teacher, an underdog female protagonist, a love triangle, a mean girl, and a supportive best friend. Drama happens, not nearly enough singing occurs, and it all feels a bit like a cynical marketing ploy to make people feel nostalgic for the actual High School Musical movie itself.
Still, the actors aren’t half bad, helped by the fact that the teen characters are played by actual teens for once. Olivia Rodrigo in particular has good moments portraying Nina Salazar-Roberts, the show’s protagonist. For all its cheesiness and sub-par writing, “HSMTMTS” is actually quite entertaining at some points, and I can see it garnering a sizeable audience.
Most of Disney+’s original fare so far is nonfiction, with titles like the delightful (but conflicting) “The World According to Jeff Goldblum,” the inspiring (but conflicting) “Marvel’s Hero Project,” the enjoyable (but tear-jerking) “Encore!,” and the fascinating (and nostalgic!) “The Imagineering Story.”
“The World According to Jeff Goldblum,” a half-hour documentary series hosted by the eccentric actor, manages to be charming while also making it hard to forget that it is really just a blatant promotion of consumer culture. Each episode covers a different consumer item, ranging from “Ice Cream,” to “Denim.” In the pilot “Sneakers,” Goldblum wanders around a sneaker convention, a sneaker research facility, a custom sneaker manufacturer, and Hypebeast’s studio. But even as I was turned off by the gross glorification of consumerism, I found it hard to remain cynical when faced with the childlike glee with which Goldblum greeted every new experience or fact.
“Marvel’s Hero Project,” which highlights kids making positive changes in their communities and the world, is also a bit of a weird mixture of heartwarming empowerment and brand promotion. Undoubtedly, the kids who are featured each episode are extraordinary, truly “heroes” who should be recognized for their accomplishments and struggles. While watching the series, there is no room for a jadedness, only inspiration. In the end, the series succeeds in overcoming the corporate brand-name wrapping to be something truly worth watching.
“Encore!” and “The Imagineering Story,” while vastly different from each other, are the easiest to swallow of the docuseries. “Encore!” is actually more of a reality show than documentary. Produced by Kristen Bell, it reunites grown alumni of high school musicals to perform the musicals again with professional help. Even though it struggles to strike a good balance between a depressing and uplifting tone, it is often enjoyable and emotional, and is especially entertaining if one is a theatre fan.
“The Imagineering Story,” which is more traditionally a documentary, follows the story of the creation of the Disney theme parks, from their conception to their realization. It’s fascinating to learn about the team of artists, engineers, and creators who came up with the whole crazy idea. And while it seems to be blatant self-promotion, its unabashedness is actually refreshing. Yes, it is a Disney-made documentary about Disneyland, but at least it’s upfront about its motives. In fact, “The Imagineering Story” is arguably the best Disney+ TV show after “The Mandalorian,” an endlessly captivating documentary series.
At this point, Disney+ is just warming up. In addition to the series I’ve mentioned, its original programming already includes several short series, a few movies, and Pixar shorts. The projects that have been announced are already generating a lot of hype, especially the live-action Marvel TV shows “Loki and Hawkeye.” With the power of the Mouse behind it, Disney+ is certainly a force to be reckoned with in the streaming wars.
Perhaps one day the Disney empire will fall. But until we stop letting ourselves be drawn in by their singular mix of innovation and nostalgia, they’ll keep on going, with nothing standing in their path to world domination. At least they’ll be making some quality brand-name entertainment along the way.