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What to watch on Disney+: A critic's guide

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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+.

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