After years of fanfare and speculation about its impact in the streaming wars, Disney Plus finally launched this week—and it’s not quite the sprint out of the gate that the company surely hoped for. In addition to widespread outages and loading issues, the Disney Plus library of original content is, well, dreadful.
As cynical as I am about how bloated and fragmented the streaming landscape has become, I was actually excited about Disney Plus because of the back catalog. For just $7 a month, I could have a solid chunk of my childhood at my fingertips. I wouldn’t have to rifle through my parents’ attic in search of stacks of dusty VHS classics (I know you know the ones) such as The Fox and the Hound, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach. The Disney Channel shows and TV movies that were legit appointment television for me are just a search away. Add everything else that’s underneath the massive wingspan of Disney—Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, NatGeo, etc.—and I have a deep enough queue of material to sustain me.
In my rush to scroll through the “Movies” and “Series” tabs, I completely forgot Disney Plus had original content too. Curious to see what the company considers relevant content in 2019, I clicked “Originals.” Instant regret.
I honestly went in with an open mind, fully aware that this is largely programming that skews far younger than my big age. But so far, no good. Save for just a few gems, Disney Plus Originals is a hellscape I beg you not to enter.
Here’s what to avoid, what to watch if you have the time, and what’s actually worth your time.
The plot had promise: Santa Claus has passed away, and his son is expected to take up the mantle, but it’s his daughter who’s actually right for the job. It’s a story about finding your true calling and breaking out of societal boxes. But a stacked cast of Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Shirley MacLaine, and Billy Eichner can’t save this cloying live-action disaster that loses what very little steam it created when the plot repeats itself halfway through. (We get it—Nick is very much into yoga and has no interest in joining the family business. And yes, Noelle would make a better Santa if only she believed in herself.) But maybe the most egregious wrong is the shoddy CGI of various animals. This is Disney, the kingpin of CGI, and yet Noelle wound up looking more like a Lifetime holiday special than something coming out of the hallowed halls of the House of Mouse.
Kristen Bell goes around the country reuniting former high school classmates to restage musicals they performed in school. It’s supposed to be a magical traipse down memory lane, but it all feels like a sad grasp at yesteryear. In episode 1, they’re reliving their production of Annie, and there are a few touching moments in between the awkward practices where the former teens talk about more than who was the most popular couple. Jarron opens up about not having his parents around growing up, and Jeremy explains why he doesn’t want to shave the little hair he does have, even though he’s playing Daddy Warbucks (he was diagnosed with cancer at 16 and underwent chemo). But ultimately Encore! is just cringey. The star of the show, whose name is also Annie, inadvertently sums it up during an emotional confessional halfway through the pilot: “You know how they say you can never go home again? I just feel like we shouldn’t have gone home again. You have a memory of something, and I feel like it should stay that way.”
Forky Asks a Question
You pick one of the most obnoxious (and expensive) toys in the Toy Story chest and give him a question to ponder in every episode? Hard pass. This possibly could’ve been a fun little educational snippet for kids on how the world works (the first episode is “What Is Money?”), but, unfortunately, it’s more of a vehicle for Forky to do his clumsy, scatterbrain schtick than for teaching anything at all.
Pixar in Real Life
Yeesh. I truly don’t understand the purpose of this show. I mean, I read the description: “This live action series brings iconic characters and moments from Pixar films into the real world. Filmed on location in and around New York City, the series surprises and delights real people in real locations when they least expect it.” Okay . . . sure. But why? The first episode puts the control panel from Inside Out near Washington Square Park, where passersby push different buttons and watch staged actors in front of them get angry, sad, etc. It all feels staged—not just the actors. And I can’t get past my original question: Why?
Disney Family Sundays
DIY crafter Amber Kemp-Gerstel walks a family through how to make Disney-themed crafts. In episode one, she shows the Mai family how to make a mini circus tent similar to the ones in Dumbo. This show isn’t horrible per se. The craft is cute. The family is energetic. Amber is likable. But it’s basically a multi-cam YouTube tutorial. Also, it seems like a missed opportunity to have several crafts fleshing out the episode or even a stronger tie-in to the IP (more clips or insider factoids or original sketches would have been welcome). Right now, Disney Family Sundays feels like a segment of a web show rather than an actual show with the full backing of Disney muscle.
The World According to Jeff Goldblum
I wanted to like this one. I really did. It’s Jeff Goldblum digging into the history of everyday items—think Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown but with Goldblum’s quirky élan. His reportage into the history of sneakers takes us from Sneaker Con to Adidas HQ to a street ball game and beyond. But halfway through the episode, I had a thought that seemed blasphemous at first but completely rational the more I sat with it: I don’t need Goldblum in this context. More to the point, it feels like a show for another host—or a show with a host who’s meant for another platform. I just kept wondering how far Goldblum would be able to lean into his particular brand of out there without the constraints of TV-PG.
The Imagineering Story
I’m not surprised something like this is on Disney Plus, but I don’t need a whole series of navel-gazing. The Imagineering Story gives viewers behind-the-scenes access to the history of the design and development center of the Walt Disney Company. For a history as picked over as Disney’s, here’s hoping they have some true gems tucked away in that vault of theirs to make subsequent episodes more interesting.
I’m willing to grant The Mandalorian some grace in that all I’ve seen is the pilot, so there’s room for the story to grow. But the first 35 minutes are an absolute slog. Years after the fall of the Empire, an unnamed bounty hunter takes on a treacherous yet rewarding assignment. And thank God he did, because the reveal during the last couple of minutes made it almost worth the trek to get there. But I have a real question: If The Mandalorian had a reported budget of $15 million per episode, where did the money go, exactly? Kuill, the curmudgeonly guide who helps the bounty hunter, moves like an animatronic puppet at Chuck E. Cheese. The bounty hunter’s first target at the beginning of the episode looks like an early sketch of the creature from The Shape of Water. Please get more interesting (and more appealing to look at), The Mandalorian. You’re Disney Plus Originals’ only (commercially viable) hope.
Marvel Hero Project
This is what I needed from you, Disney Plus Originals. Marvel Hero Project profiles young people doing extraordinary things and honors them by turning them into their own comic book hero. In the first episode, we’re introduced to 13-year-old Jordan, who was born without part of her arm. After attending a makers-fair-type workshop, Jordan began designing and 3D-printing a glitter-shooting prosthetic to show that disabilities aren’t anything to be ashamed of and should, in fact, be embraced. She showcased her invention on the Rachael Ray show in front of the Shark Tank Sharks and even had her own TEDx presentation. Her personal project tumbled into full-on advocacy work for other limb-different kids—and landed her a place in the Marvel canon as Sensational Jordan. This show hits at an important intersection for Disney’s audience, in that it shows relatable kids making real change in the world.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series
I wasn’t ready for this one. I truly thought this was going straight to the top of the bad pile. But let me tell you something: This is Disney Plus’s strongest original show so far, hands down. I say that not as a fan of the original High School Musical (I definitely was not), but this show is highly aware of not only spin-off/reboot culture, but also the source material itself. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series takes place at Salt Lake City’s East High School, where the original High School Musical was shot. A new drama teacher, obsessed with High School Musical, arrives at the school with her dream of putting on a stage production of the movie. But her arrival coincides with major relationship drama happening among her soon-to-be star cast. The show is shot like a mockumentary (think The Office), which gives the cast a chance to play off the sharp writing with fourth-wall-breaking glances and gestures. It’s a structure that could’ve turned gimmicky, but the talented young cast makes it work.