Like a masked bounty hunter clanking into a bar, blasters locked and loaded, Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+, is about to stage its grand and slightly intimidating UK entrance. From a standing start, it has already made seismic strides in challenging Netflix’s market dominance in North America, acquiring 28 million subscribers in just three months.
In the US, the key to its appeal has been its doubling down on the Magic Kingdom’s family friendly image. Netflix signalled its intention to be a major player in home entertainment with the dark and grown-up Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. The former featured drugs, violence and a lot of prison shower sex, the latter featured murder, kidnap and – in the very first episode – Kevin Spacey breaking a dog’s neck. Suffice to say, there are no maximum-security snogs or murdered pooches in the Disney+ launch slate of original content.
Instead, the focus is on fare you can watch with your kids. The tone is fluffy and aspirational and the message – delivered with a slightly off-putting relentlessness – is that we should all dare to dream and that the sky’s the limit. It is inevitably a tad saccharine, too. But what were you expecting from a streaming service from the house that Mickey Mouse built? The Red Wedding re-enacted by characters from The Little Mermaid?
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With that caveat in mind, here is a guide to Disney+ original content as it launches today.
1. The Mandalorian
Jon Favreau’s series is set between Return of the Jedi and the new Disney Star Wars trilogy that kicked off with JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens. The good news is that it’s closer in spirit to Jedi than JJ. Pedro Pascal is the eponymous man in the shiny mask – an interstellar bounty hunter whose world is turned upside down when he has a run-in with the cutest entity in the galaxy, Baby Yoda. With an emphasis on practical special effects and self-contained episodic storytelling, showrunner Favreau has brought Star Wars back to its roots. The Mandalorian is crammed with weird aliens, thrilling shoot-outs and Nick Nolte playing a pig-like extraterrestrial. The show is stolen, however, by Taika Waititi’s assassin droid, IG-11.
2. Forky Asks a Question
The self-aware plastic fork with the googly eyes was the break-out character from Toy Story 4. He’s back in these bite-sized sketches, in which he – as per the title – poses a question and then pratfalls around hilariously. In one episode, he tries to tickle a mug with a smiley face and ends up rolling around on a desk. That may not sound very funny – it is.
3. High School Musical: The Musical: The Seriesâ
High School Musical gave the world Zac Efron, whether the world wanted him or not. Now Disney is returning to its hit tween franchise with a new tale of singing, jazz-handing adolescents and their romantic travails. American high-school cliches are laid on with the most expensive trowel Disney’s billions can buy. And so, watching as an adult feels a bit like gatecrashing your kids’ sleepover – wrong, weird, annoying and boring.
But the target audience will love it, even if it isn’t all that different from the sort of snappy adolescent dramas they can already catch on Nickelodeon. And unlike the majority of Disney+ shows it is hugely novel in that nobody’s parents are dead.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Seriesââ is described as a “mockumentary”. All that really means is characters occasionally speak directly to the camera. There is also a vague attempt to appeal to fans of the original, with the new cast performing songs from the 2006 movie. So if you’re 30 and want to reconnect with your 16-year-old self, Disney+ is here for you, you huge weirdo.
Willem Dafoe won rave reviews playing a backwoodsman with a bizarre accent in The Lighthouse. He essentially reprises the part – minus the Lovecraftian insanity – as a hard-bitten dog sledder on a vital mission in 1920s Alaska in this big budget movie. It’s directed by Ericson Core, who’s also responsible for the Point Break remake you weren’t aware existed and based (very loosely) on a true story.
The real star, though, is the eponymous Togo, a husky with an independent streak and a near-psychic nose for danger. The subject matter may be a bit on the (big wet) nose, however. Dog and man must fight their way through a storm in order to deliver a vital serum to a town full of sick children. Because if we need anything from our kids’ entertainment now, it’s references to out-of-control contagious illness.
Another high school caper, but this feature-length affair is aimed at quirky teenagers. Real-life pop star Grace VanderWaal plays a ukulele-strumming free spirit who wins the heart of clumsy introvert Leo (Graham Verchere).
Teenagers love their melodrama and Stargirl spoons it out with a ladle. Still, VanderWaal’s Joanna Newsom-meets-Fiona Apple ditties are arresting – even if it is impossible to believe her eccentric balladry would charm the high school football team, as we see her doing here.
As per House of Mouse regulation, the first thing we obviously discover is that Leo’s father is dead. Disney wouldn’t be Disney without an expired parent or three. The biggest disappointment, meanwhile, is that VanderWaal’s character turns out not be an actual alien. There is a small role for Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, who, acting against type, doesn’t turn up and immediately kill everyone or try to sell them crystal meth.
6. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made
Disney’s staple formula of a kid getting over the loss of a parent while accompanied by an animal sidekick is reprised here. Timmy Failure is directed by Tom McCarthy, who won an Oscar for Spotlight and probably won’t bag a second for this. He waxes whimsical in a breezy romp set in the Portland suburbs. A young boy (Winslow Fegley) has conjured a fantasy polar bear best pal, seemingly as a coping mechanism after his father walks out on the family. He also runs his own detective agency and keeps a close watch on the “Russians” – in reality, hipsters living around the corner. It sounds like a jumble but McCarthy guides the action with a steady hand. This is surreal rather than saccharine – which certainly sets it apart in the Disney+ launch roster.
7. The Diary of a Future President
Netflix had Frank Underwood backstabbing his way into the Oval Office. Disney, by contrast, brings us this life-affirming story of Elena Cañero-Reed (Gina Rodriguez, also a producer), the United States’ first female and Cuban-American president. When the commander-in-chief discovers her old teenage diary (with a little help from her mother), she is drawn back to her upbringing in Miami, where she is played as a rather annoying 12-year-old by Tess Romero. She shares her life with her single mother and an older brother grappling with his sexuality (can you guess what happened to the dad? Yes... he’s dead). The message that we should all follow our most vaulted ambitions and that we can be whatever we want to be cuts to the essence of what Disney is about (I’d never dared to dream I could be America’s first Cuban-American female president but now I’m determined to make it happen). Over-18s will find it unwatchable. Then again, as with Disney+ more generally, it isn’t meant for you.
8. Lady and the Tramp
Disney applies the live-action technique showcased in its Jungle Book and Lion King remakes to this follow-up to its lesser-known 1955 animation. There’s a whiff of the uncanny valley about Lady and the Tramp’s parade of pooches, whose mouths move in a creepily realistic fashion as they speak.
9: The World According to Jeff Goldblumâ
The Jurassic World actor presents a slightly – but not painfully – wacky science documentary. He’s charming company as he, for instance, goes behind the scenes at a trainer factory in Oregon and shoots hoops with some sports shoe aficionados in Los Angeles. At times, it comes worryingly close to Inside the Factory with Gregg Wallace, which is not necessarily what you want from a multibillion dollar new streaming channel (sorry Gregg). But there’s no denying the wattage of Goldblum’s charisma.
10: Pick of the Litter
Have you wondered how guide dogs are trained? No, you probably haven’t. This factual series is nonetheless here to show you the nuts and bolts of doggy bootcamp. It would require a stony heart to object to a documentary that begins with multiple shots of labrador pups being hugged by volunteers. Still, the stakes are never particularly high and Pick of the Litter ambles along, devoid of drama or tension but with loads of cute canines.
11. Star Wars: The Clone Warsâ
This Star Wars prequel cartoon was cancelled in 2014. Now it’s back – which may mean something to super-hardcore Star Wars fans but will leave the rest of us unmoved. The first episode features a rag-tag team of Old Republic “Clones” fighting evil droids. If you didn’t know, you could mistake it for something airing on the Cartoon Network on Wednesdays at 3pm.
12. The Imagineering Story
A behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Disneyland and the evolution of Disney’s theme-park empire. Panorama it isn’t, and the series glosses over a few things – such as the 1941 animators’ strike that prompted Walt Disney to go into live-action film. But it is honest about the struggles he faced getting Disneyland off the ground. As a love letter to Disney by Disney, The Imagineering Story is obviously sanitised to a fault. But it is quite watchable.
Disney was clearly eager to shoe-horn a reality show into its family-friendly platform. Encore! doesn’t really work, largely because its aggressive perkiness leaves no space for schadenfreude on the part of the viewer (and what is reality TV without schadenfreude?). In each episode, former high school musical stars reunite after decades apart and try to prove they still have the old magic. Everyone is endlessly upbeat, over-sharing and very, very American. You might consider tuning in to catch host Kristen Bell (The Good Place). But her screen time is limited to a brief introductory address. She clearly ploughed through them all in the one morning, too, as she wears the same outfit throughout. Once she’s gone, the saccharine flows freely.
14. Marvel’s Hero Project
Disney has promised action-packed shows featuring Scarlet Witch and Vision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, Loki and others. But for now, comic book fans must make do with this well intentioned but oh-so-cheesy reality series.
True, you would have to be the worst person in the world to roll your eyes at Marvel’s Hero Project, in which kids who have overcome disabilities or difficult life circumstances are made the heroes of their own Marvel comic book. Yet however commendable in theory, like a lot of Disney+ content, it is so positive that it begins to feel oppressive. Sitting through it is like swigging a bottomless mug of tea with too much sugar heaped in, while Mickey Mouse stands in front of you, arms folded, tapping his foot.