Dawn of Disney+ – First Impressions and What it Means for the Future of Streaming

One day in the whole history of the Walt Disney Company holds very special significance.  It was a day after several years of planning, building, and long arduous hours for all at the company.  And the outcome was far from certain.  Everything was put on the line, and all that was left was to premiere their product before the public and hope that all that hard work was worth it in the end.  And that pivotal day was, December 21, 1937.  That monumental moment in their company was the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first full length animated feature ever made.  It may seem hard to think of it today, but the making of Snow White was the biggest gamble in Hollywood history up to that time.  Walt Disney staked his reputation and the future of his company on the success of this one feature.  Had it not succeeded, Disney as we know it would cease to be.  But, to Walt’s eternal gratitude, Snow White was a runaway hit, and it not only made all it’s money back, but was profitable enough to allow the Disney company to grow.  And you would think that after such an ordeal that the Disney company would back away from such gambles in the future, but no.  Another pivotal day came on July 17, 1955, when Walt Disney risked yet again his reputation and future in Hollywood on a new ambitious project; Disneyland.  Though it took some time after to make up it’s cost, Disneyland too became a smashing success for Disney, and again July 17 became a day of triumph for the media giant that is celebrated annually every year.  The post-Walt years have seen many rises and falls, but despite growing exponentially larger over the years, the Company hasn’t risked so much in a long time.  But this year, after much development and hype, The Walt Disney Company has introduced their first major project in years that could very well determine the direction that the company takes in the same way that Snow White and Disneyland did.  And because of it, we might be looking at November 12, 2019 as another one of those monumental days in Disney history.

That project of course is the new streaming platform known as Disney+.  Disney+ is only the first of several new direct to consumer streaming channels that are hitting the market over the next few years that is intended to challenge the supremacy of Netflix.  After a multi-year partnership with Netflix, Disney decided to strike out on their own with a streaming platform of their own based on the Netflix model.  Taking advantage of their valuable library of hits, Disney believed that this could give them a better chance of broadening their audience base, while at the same time taking bolder risks without having to worry about box office performance.  This is, of course, based on how well they can develop that subscriber base right of the bat, and there is where the risk lies in creating such a platform.  Netflix already has a decade long history of building up it’s subscriber base, to the point where they now reach nearly a billion households worldwide.  And with the capital that they make off of those monthly subscribers, they are able to reinvest into exclusive content that rivals anything shown in theaters.  Disney no doubt can bring on board it’s loyal base of fans, but it’s in expanding their audience in order to compete with the number of subscribers that Netflix has that they need to work on.  And considering the scale and scope of what Netflix is putting on their channel, Disney likewise has to put on exclusives that match and even surpass those of it’s competitor, and that is likely going to be costly.  Needless to say, Disney needs this new streaming channel to do well, right out of the gate in order for it to justify it’s cost.  Let’s not forget that a lot of investment has to go into all the infrastructure and programming costs, that will likely be tested by a large user base.  Streaming platforms don’t just program themselves; it takes a lot of pre-planning and engineering to make it work, and for any studio unused to such a enterprise, it could prove daunting.  But, then again, Disney has been here before.

Even with all their beloved classics, the Disney library wouldn’t have been able to stand up to the sheer magnitude of what Netflix has on their platform.  That’s why I believe Disney pursued that Fox merger so aggressively last year.  As a singular movie studio, it may not have carried enough properties to challenge the Netflix juggernaut on Day 1, but with two studios worth of properties, Disney might have a shot at it.  I’m not saying that it’s solely why Disney purchased 21st Century Fox, but it probably played a major factor in the process.  I’m sure Fox looked at it as a beneficial factor too, because it freed them up from having to invest in their own streaming platform, with Disney doing most of the work for them.  Disney also has the benefit of having all  their acquired properties over the last decade turning into major successes, including the Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel brands.  It ensures that by making them all exclusive to their platform that they’ll carry those red hot franchises with them and translate those fanbases into a loyal subscriber base.  Even still, there is the risk of what it will cost to keep people subscribing, and that’s where the exclusives come in.  Disney is not resting on the laurels of it’s theatrical hits hitting the platform, and have invested heavily on new properties that will debut only on Disney+ over the next few years, which includes new films and series based on their Star Wars and Marvel properties.  All of this marks a monumental shift in the way that the Disney company operates, and it is proving to be both an exciting and nervous time for the company.  The platform has especially been the labor of love for Disney’s CEO over the last decade, Bob Iger.  Like his legendary predecessor, Uncle Walt, Iger has staked his own legacy and reputation on a project that he strongly believes in.  Whether or not his gamble pays off the same way that it did for Walt will remain to be seen, but it is a testament to Iger’s boldness as the figurehead of the Company that he would put so much personal stake into something that will change the company forever.

With November 12 having already passed us by, we can now judge for ourselves how Disney+ performs and if it is worth the plunge.  The starting cost for a monthly membership is $6.99, or $79.99 annually, almost half of the current cost of a Netflix membership.  For a starting point, this is a fair price to pay to have this much access to the Disney library.  It will likely rise over the next few years, but so will the number of available titles to watch, so Disney is wisely matching their price with the quantity of things to stream on the platform.  I managed to take advantage of an exclusive discount price available only to D23 Expo attendees this year, which gives me three years for the price of two, so I’ve paid through all the way to 2022, which should give plenty of opportunity to venture through everything available on the Disney+.  Like most other people I’m sure, I am coming to this new platform as a long time Netflix subscriber, so I’m definitely looking at this with some preconceived expectations.  So, after a couple days of finally using Disney+, what do I think?  Well, first of all, I have to praise Disney for an A+ effort in it’s presentation.  The look of the platform is incredible.  It shares similarities with the layout of Netflix, but there are subtle little things that really make it shine.  The home page for instance features tabs for the different brands that make up the Disney Company; notably Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, and National Geographic.  Interestingly, no Fox tab is available, despite there being Fox Studio films on the platform, which I hope is just due to Fox still being fairly new as a part of the company.  What I like is the fact that every tab you click on leads to a home page for every movie, which feature beautiful background art.  Also, thank you Disney for not having an Auto-Play feature when arriving at these home page screens, which is one of my pet peeves about Netflix.  Disney+ as an interface is thankfully very easy to navigate and select what we want to watch.  It shows that they studied the Netflix model well and learned how to best utilize it for themselves.

What is also interesting is that Diseny+ is the first ever streaming channel to offer bonus features for their films.  These most fall into the range of theatrical trailers and deleted scenes, but on some films and shows, you even get more substantial things like Director’s Commentary and Making-of docs available. That in particular really shows how well Disney is serving it’s audience.  Disney has always delivered very well on home video bonuses with their numerous DVD and Blu-ray special editions, so to see them also available here on DIsney+ is a pleasant surprise.  Even more amazing is the fact that Disney has also made bonus features available here that are found nowhere else.  One noteworthy one comes from Avengers: Endgame (2019), which shows a deleted scene involving Tony Stark meeting a teenage version of his daughter in a spirit realm after he uses the infinity stones, in a scene reminiscent of the one at the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) with Thanos and Gamora. That deleted scene was not available in the Blu-ray edition, so it’s surprising that Disney made it available here, even with director commentary from the Russo Brothers.   For cinephiles like me, having exclusive bonus features is another major plus to justify our subscriptions to the service.  Not only that, but the presentations of the movies and shows are also top notch.  Apart from a few problems, which I’ll get to soon, the movies all have been given a polished HD remaster that gives them a beautiful pristine look.  You’d expect the newer films to look amazing, but what really struck me was how good all the older stuff appeared.  Disney not only put out their theatrical films on Disney+, but also a large amount of the many animated shorts from the heyday of the Animation studio.  And they all look the best they ever have.

Though there is a lot to be happy about with the platform, I do have a number of nitpicks to talk about.  First off, there are some bug to work out, which is not really too much of a problem, because those are pretty much expected for a newly launched service like this.  For the most part, I have not encountered any login, or access problems, as some other people have complained about online.  I have been able to login and click on whatever I wanted to watch without incident or experiencing the site crashing on me, which is pretty good for a first week.  I am using a direct Ethernet line connected to my PlayStation 4, so that may have helped out somewhat.  Even still, some of the bugs still manifest.  For one thing, every time I have watched something, the picture will freeze while the audio continues to run, which causes me to rewind a bit to put it back in sync.  I believed this has to do with the buffering capabilities of the video, as the movie plays while it still loads, just like on any platform.  But the thing is, I don’t encounter the same problem on Netflix or any other platform of the same ilk, so it’s got to be something on their end.  Hopefully Disney discovers this issue and patches it over time.  You got to remember this is only week number one; bugs are inevitable.  It’s kind of miraculous that we haven’t heard of a complete service meltdown considering the volume of activity that they had to deal with in the first week.  There are other problems though, and it does have to do with the actual content itself.  Some people have noticed that episodes of The Simpsons, which has made all seasons available on Disney+ day 1, have been cropped to fit widescreen TV’s, as opposed to it’s original 4:3 aspect ratio.  This has upset some fans, as some gags need the full picture to be fully appreciated.  I think it’s a major problem, because artistic intent is crucial for entertainment purposes, and cropping a movie to fit a format does hurt the product as a whole.  Luckily, word got out and Disney has publicly stated that the true aspect ration will be restored.  Another controversy came about with the realization that Disney was withholding problematic shows and movies from the channel as well. One such case is the Michael Jackson episode of The Simpsons, which presumably was pulled because of recent allegations made about the pop star.  Leaving the real world issues aside, it feels self serving on their part to not air the episode, despite the fact that it’s nearly 30 years old.  Withholding it only draws more attention to the controversy, which would have been lessened if they had just let the episode be.  It’s a similar situation that they’ve placed themselves into with Song of the South (1946), which is also notably missing from Disney+.  I’m on the side of hiding nothing from the public, and Disney is doing a disservice to both themselves and the audience by trying to sweep these controversial elements in their library under the rug.

Controversy aside, what do I think about the exclusive content available.  Well, or one thing, Disney made the smart choice of turning to Star Wars to deliver a Day One exclusive.  This comes in the form of the hotly anticipated series, The Mandalorian.  This ambitious new show is from the minds of director Jon Favreau and producer Dave Feloni (who previously created the Clone Wars animated series).  They wanted to create a Western style show within the Star Wars universe centered on a Mandalorian bounty hunter in the same mold as the iconic Boba Fett.  Though Disney+ had a lot of projects that were buzz-worthy leading up to it’s premiere, The Mandalorian was no doubt the one at the top of everyone’s list, and Disney was smart to make this one of it’s figurehead shows.  Having seen the only two episodes available so far, I can say that The Mandalorian is everything you want out of a Star Wars series.  It’s epic in scope, features incredible gritty performances from it’s cast which includes Pedro Pascal, Carl Weathers, Taika Waititi, and Werner Herzog of all people.  And it offers up an intriguing mystery that will likely open up a new chapter of Star Wars lore.  If there was ever a winning horse to bet on in Disney+’s early days, this was the right one to pick.  There are other shows available too, like the Kristen Bell produced Encore as well as a High School Musical series.  One show that I have found to be a delightful surprise is a National Geographic produced docu-series called The World According to Jeff Goldblum, which of course stars it’s titular host.  Goldblum is a delightful oddball and the show is tailor made for him, as he takes his unique perspective and investigates various small industries across the country with infectious fascination.  I have yet to look at the exclusive feature films debuting on Disney+, which includes a live action remake of Lady and the Tramp and the Christmas themed Noelle, starring Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader.  Those films no doubt show what’s in store for the future for Disney, as they begin to make more films that will be made exclusively for the platform and not for theatrical distribution.  And there is still many more on the horizon as well, including the very anticipated Marvel limited series, which are going to play a key role in the MCU Phase 4.  The only question remains is how bold will these exclusives be?

And what does this mean for streaming in the long run?  Will this begin to chip away at Netflix’s dominance in the streaming market?  While I do think Netflix will be affected in the short run, I don’t see Disney+ being a Netflix killer either.  Disney+ is just the competition, and if anything, competition will help to make Netflix even better.  Competition leads studios towards making bolder choices, and that is always a good thing for entertainment.  You are already seeing Netflix investing heavily in new talent and acquiring exclusive streaming rights to various properties, like their recent deal made with Nickelodeon.  And as more platforms hit the market in the coming years, like HBO Max and Peacock, both Netflix and Disney+ will only continue to raise the bar higher, hoping to gain the edge in the ever expanding market.  And that’s good news for creators out there, because now there is more demand for their ideas and talent.  Also, without the pressure of box office performance, these platforms can put together more films and shows based on outside the box concepts and perspectives.  It will give representation a boost as people who normally were not given the chance to put something that spoke to their community on screen before.  Up to this point, Netflix had been the kings of online streaming, and because of that, they were the ones who dictated the direction of the market.  Now, with competition from Disney, they are in the position of trying to find the fresh new thing that will keep them on top, and likewise, Disney will find fresh new ideas of their own to meet that challenge.  Like the past big gambles Disney has made in the past, Disney+ could be one that determines what kind of company they will be in the years and possibly decades ahead.  In my opinion, they are off to a solid start, albeit with just bit room for improvement, which they no doubt will take care of as time goes along.  It’s honestly one of the most exciting moments in Disney history and could indeed stand alongside Snow White and Disneyland as one of their greatest triumphs.  One can only hope that they’ll be able to sustain this outburst of creative fervor for a long time.  As for now, sit back in the comforts of your own home and enjoy all those Disney classics that you grew up loving, now just a simple click away.

The Irishman – Review

Netflix has made huge in roads over the last couple years to not only be the top dog in streaming content straight to the consumer, but to also be recognized as a legitimate production studio of it’s own.  As more and more of the established Hollywood movie studio giants are pulling out of their licensing deals with Netflix in order to launch platforms of their own, Netflix has become more and more reliant on their own exclusive content to help maintain their dominance in the market.  It has been a risky and expensive plan for Netflix, with the streaming giant spending billions of dollars already just on production, but it seems to have been working so far.  Not only did Netflix meet their new subscriber expectations within the last quarter, it actually surpassed them, which is good news for their bottom line as their toughest competitions are about to launch within the next week and months ahead.  A large part of this is the fact that they have put their money behind films and television shows that otherwise would not have found a home in the theatrical market, and in turn it has sparked more interest in the home viewership of Netflix’s audience.  Filmmakers with bolder, less mainstream visions who have had their outside the box projects rejected by the mainstream studio system have found Netflix to be a more welcoming environment, as there is less pressure on this platform to submit to box office appeal.  That’s why you are seeing so many filmmakers flocking to Netflix, which has benefited the streaming giant greatly.  With Netflix benefiting from this influx of top tier talent, their focus lately has been to break through the stigma home entertainment within the industry and be fully acknowledged as a worthy platform for cinema on par with the rest of the business, especially when it comes in awards form.  And after being denied last year with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) losing out in the Best Picture race, Netflix is more determined than ever to push forward again for that elusive prize.

In walks living legend Martin Scorsese, unarguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Scorsese has been a fixture within the industry for nearly half a century, making some of the greatest movies ever made.  So, when he suddenly announces that his next feature, The Irishman, would be a Netflix exclusive production, people are going to take notice.  Scorsese has been circling Irishman for a long time, working off and on for the better part of more than a decade.  It wasn’t until Netflix stepped in that the project finally found it’s footing, and Scorsese was finally able to see this dream project to completion.  Chronicling the life of Frank Sheeran, the notorious mob hitman and bodyguard/confidant of legendary Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa, The Irishman bears many similarities to previous mob movies that Scorsese has had his hands on over the years; particularly Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).  Given how Scorsese and his longtime collaborators, notably actors Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, are all entering old age, this new film project no doubt feels like a swan song for this particular team, and I’m sure that’s what made it so appealing to Netflix.  The endeavor, however, was not going to be a quick and easy one.  Netflix reportedly spent close to $160 million dollars on this production, which is their most expensive single expenditure to date on a project; and you’ve got to remember, Netflix doesn’t rely on box office profits to earn that money back.  This is a bold risk to take for Netflix, but when the trade off is that you are the exclusive home to the last mafia movie made by the master of that genre, it may be the best possible decision in the long run.  No doubt Scorsese agreed to the deal because he knew that Netflix would allow him to make the movie that he wanted to make, without the interference that he normally would’ve received from a major studio.  The only question is, does The Irishman manage to live up to the incredible legacy of the master director’s previous work and was it worthwhile for Netflix to make a such a move in the first place.

It should be noted that though the movie features true events and real life historical figures, it is at the same time a work of speculative fiction.  The real life Frank Sheeran (played by Robert DeNiro in the film) went to his grave having never spoken out about his true involvement in the death and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  The movie is framed through an imagined confession from Sheeran as he addresses the audience directly from the comforts of his retirement home; telling the story his way, which he was never able to do in real life.  The movie does chronicle the things that we do know are true about Sheeran, and uses his point of view as a way of dramatizing the stuff we don’t quite know for sure in a belivable way.  We learn how he got involved with the Mafia in the first place, after a chance encounter with a well connected member named Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) puts him in their good graces.  After helping them with a few scams, Frank is given a new assignment by the local don, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), to take advantage of his other set of skills; cold-blooded murder.  Pretty soon, Frank earns the reputation as the most reliable hitman in the mafia.  After a while, Frank’s old friend Russell hooks up another job for him; a gig working as the bodyguard for their associate, Jimmy Hoffa, the most powerful union boss in America.  Sheeran accepts and over time he and Hoffa form a close bond.  Sheeran remains by Hoffa’s side over the course of many historical events and through some very turbulent rivalries as well, including with then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Huston).  But a dispute over union leadership with another mafia connected rival named Anthony “ton Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) suddenly puts Hoffa in conflict with the Mafia dons, who are worried that the temperamental politico will turn “rat” and sell them out to the government.  As a result, Sheeran becomes torn between the two alliances that have meant so much to him and made him who he is.  Does he betray a friend to appease the powers that put him where he is, or does he stand up against the might of the American Mafia?

The Irishman, like all Netflix productions, is intended to be available to stream exclusively on their platform.  However, in order to qualify for the Awards contention, it must screen for a minimum of three weeks in theaters within the crucial media centers of Los Angeles and New York City.  So, Netflix agreed to a limited theatrical run for The Irishman in anticipation of it’s late November release on it’s channel in order to meet that crucial awards criteria, as well as a limited nationwide roll-out.  Even still, major chains have refused to screen the film, objecting to Netflix’s small window before it’s streaming debut, so most markets will not be able to have the movie available on the big screen.  Thankfully, I live in one of those key markets that does have the movie available to watch on the big screen.  In fact, I was able to watch the movie in the first ever theater owned outright by Netflix themselves; the legendary Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in the heart of Hollywood.  Seeing any movie in a theater as legendary, and nearly 100 year old, as the Egyptian is a treat, but seeing one as exclusive as Netflix’s own Scorsese feature is even more appetizing.  And I can tell you that this is a movie that absolutely must be seen on a big screen while you still can; if you can.  Scorsese is a filmmaker at the absolute peak of his craft, and every time he steps behind the camera, you know that you’re going to see something special.  After taking on two wildly different projects in the last decade with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Silence (2016), it’s interesting to see him return to familiar ground with The Irishman, which feels like the continuation of his previous work.  In a strange way, The Irishman almost feels like the finale of a trilogy, working as a spiritual successor to both Goodfellas and Casino; probably because of the presence of DeNiro and Pesci.  And as far as trilogy cappers go, this is definitely Scorsese’s Return of the King, because everything we love about those other mafia movies is taken to their absolute zenith with The Irishman.

If you’re a fan of Scorsese’s other mafia movies, you’ll find a lot to love with The Irishman.  The movie carries over the same dark sense of humor, the same shocking bursts of violence, and the same uncompromising portrayals of humanity found in those other films.  Scorsese is definitely in familiar territory here, but at the same time, he’s not just resting on his laurels.  He spends the movie’s very lengthy run time building up a spectacular narrative that takes us deep into this world, with a great amount of care devoted to making us care about these characters.  All the while, Scorsese digs into all the tricks he’s learned over his long career and even surprises us with a few new ones he’s picked up along the way.  One of them includes some of the most beautifully shot slow motion that I’ve ever seen used in a movie; which is a technique that he picked up recently  from Wolf of Wall Street.  I should also note just how beautifully edited this movie is; a testament to the artistry that Socrsese’s longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, brings to every movie that she works with him on.  Here, she goes above and beyond and each scene movies so gracefully from one shot to the next that it shows just how amazing she is at what she does.  These two legends have made so many classic films together, and The Irishman just brings out the best in both of them.  Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, working with Scorsese for the third straight time, also delivers some beautiful shots in this movie as well, picking up the mantle left by previous Scorsese cameramen like Michael Ballhaus and Robert Richardson perfectly.  It’s his work in particular that I’m worried might lose it’s impact through streaming at home, as it demands a bigger screen to be fully appreciated.

What I’m sure most people are going to respond to the most with this movie is the all star cast, which almost reads like a list of the Martin Scorsese All-Stars.  In particular, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci sharing the screen once again is going to be one of the most talked about stories about this film for a long time.  Though Scorsese had no problem securing the still very active DeNiro into the role of Frank Sheeran, continuing their decades long partnership, he apparently had to do a lot of coaxing in order to get Pesci to say yes.  Joe Pesci has been fully retired for several years, and was very reluctant to step back in front of a camera again.  But, eventually he agreed to the offer, probably after Scorsese promised that this was going to be their final go around together, and it’s a blessing to see Pesci back in form in this movie.  Many of the movie’s best scenes are the ones shared by DeNiro and Pesci, as you can feel their long standing, real life friendship coming through in their performances.  Pesci in particular is a revelation here, as he is far more subdued than his past characters in Scorsese’s flicks.  Some viewers may be startled at first by the movie’s usage of the de-aging CGI effect to make both Pesci and DeNiro look younger in flashback scenes, but after a while you get used to them and the actors’ performances shine through.  The movie also features a stellar ensemble cast as well.  Fans of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire will be happy to note to that many of that show’s cast, including Bobby Canavale and Stephen Graham to name a few, litter the film throughout.  But, if the movie had an MVP, it would be Al Pacino in the role of Jimmy Hoffa.  Surprisingly marking his debut in a Scorsese directed film, Pacino is fully unleashed in this movie, delivering a delightfully scene-chewing performance as the controversial figure.  If anything, Pacino will be this movie’s best shot at securing an Oscar come awards time next year.  Given the movie’s already top tier cast, it’s amazing just how much Pacino commands every scene he has in the film, and it’s any wonder why it took this long for him and Scorsese to finally cross paths.

For the most part, the movie uses it’s run time effectively.  The Irishman is long, even for a Scorsese movie, running at a staggering 209 minutes (or nearly three and a half hours).  But it doesn’t waste it’s epic length, devoting much of it’s run time to a rapid fire pace.  Even still, I would say that the movie’s one and only fault is the fact that when it enters it’s epilogue like final stretch, it does take it’s foot off the gas and slows to a crawl.  I notice that it happens pretty much after (SPOILER) Jimmy Hoffa is taken out of the picture.  While the movie doesn’t crash and burn afterwards, it is a bit disappointing that the final 30 minutes of the movie doesn’t have the same energy as the previous 3 hours.  Indeed the first 3/4 of the movie is some of the best time I have spent watching a movie in the theater this year.  The movie was this beautiful mixture of humor, shocking turns, and edge of your seat tension, so I was a little saddened to see the final stretch feel like such a slog.  It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it also feels like a missed opportunity.  More could have been made of the strained relationship between Frank Sheeran and his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin), but the movie only gives it a passing glance.  Perhaps it’s comparison that I make with Goodfellas and Casino that reflects badly on this film, because those movies ended on more critical notes.  The Irishman instead ends in a more contemplative tone, which may be truer to the character of Frank Sheeran, but it feels in conflict with the rest of the movie we had seen up to that point.  Even still, the movie, for as long as it is, is still a thoroughly engaging cinematic experience that represents everything we love about Scorsese and more.

It will be interesting to see where The Irishman‘s place will fall within the legacy of Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker.  I for one believe that it stands shoulder to shoulder with his now decades old mafia classics, and indeed the trilogy analogy does feel apt.  I can see this working as a the finale of a Scorsese triple feature with Goodfellas and Casino, since they are all very similar in tone and execution.  I for one am just amazed that even into his late 70’s that Scorsese still has a movie like this in him, and that he could execute it so effectively without losing a beat.  No doubt the free reign that Netflix gave him enabled him to make this movie the way he wanted to make it, and it just shows how great a filmmaker he continues to be as he makes good on that trust.  If anything, this movie is worth seeing just as the marking of an end of an era.  We may never see Scorsese create a Mafia movie ever again, and certainly not with all these same actors.  And if this is truly the end for this kind of movie, then it’s a very fitting end.  It’s certainly a treat to see that we got one more out of these guys, and that’s something that we should both cherish and praise Netflix for making it happen.  If anything, this has been the thing that really makes Netflix deserve a place in the pantheon of top Hollywood studios.  They are granting filmmakers the chance to experiment and work on projects that appeal to them personally, and by putting it out on their platform, it gives each of those projects the best chance of finding an audience.  I don’t know how The Irishman might have performed if given a traditional release, but there’s no doubt that it’s place within the legacy of the director is going to be one of high esteem.  If it’s playing on a big screen in your area, please take advantage and see it that way first.  But if not, then please show your support when it starts streaming on Netflix starting on November 27.  Either way you watch it, this will be a movie in the collective conversation for a long time, and proof that the future of film-making will indeed by influenced by the likes of Netflix and other streaming platforms.  It may be a turbulent change, but at least great movies like The Irishman are the result of it.

Rating: 9/10

Part of Our World – How a Little Mermaid Helped a Studio Find it’s Legs 30 Years Ago

When I was seven years old in 1989, I had a surprisingly acute sense of the different styles of animation out there.  That is to say, I could tell when something was a Disney production and when something was made by say Don Bluth or the like.  This was mainly due to the fact that my little film buff mind in the making had seen quite a few films already in the mid to late 80’s, as my mom had taken me and my siblings to the movies often.  And this was also a time when animation was beginning to see a bit of a rebound.  The previously mentioned Don Bluth had struck out on his own as a force in animation and created a string of hits during the decade, including The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), and The Land Before Time (1988).  But curiously enough, the studio that had revolutionized the medium in the first place was notably quiet during the 1980’s.  Disney Animation was still a big deal to me as a kid, but unbeknownst to me at the time, most of what I was seeing during those formative years were movies far older than I realized.  Disney, in the days before home video, kept their library of classics in regular rotation with movie theater re-releases.  I can recall that the first movies I ever saw in a theater when I was about 2 or 3 were 101 Dalmatians (1961) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  It’s to the strength of how well those movies hold up that I never caught on how old those movies were as a child, but it is interesting how reliant Disney was on their classics to see them through what were surprisingly turbulent times.  As I grew up and became more informed about the history of Hollywood and the medium of animation, I would soon learn that the 1980’s was a transitional time for Walt Disney animation, and one film in particular would change the course of it’s future forever.

That movie of course would be The Little Mermaid (1989).  Mermaid came at a crucial time for Disney, when it seemed like the future of animation at the studio was in serious doubt.  Since the untimely passing of Walt Disney in 1966, the studio was in a constant state of flux.  Walt’s brother Roy would hold the studio together for a while, but his passing in 1971, mere weeks after the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida, left a significant power vacuum at the studio.  Ultimately, Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, would take up the position of CEO of the company and he oversaw the continuation of the animation division that had been the backbone of the studio since it’s inception.  During the 1970’s, Disney had modest success with films like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but some of the spark that had been present in the animated film’s of Walt’s era felt noticeably absent in these newer films.  The core group of animators, affectionately called the Nine Old Men, were all aging and about to retire, so animation at Disney was facing an uncertain future.  Re-releases of the classic features became much more frequent for the studio as they were trying to milk them for more cash in these cash strapped days, leading Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney to complain that it felt like they were running a museum instead of a studio.  Eventually, Ron Miller ended up greenlighting a new film that would hopefully turn the tide, hoping to capitalize on the fantasy film resurgence of the 1980’s, due to the popularity of movies like The Never-Ending Story (1984).  That movie, The Black Cauldron (1985) was a financial disaster, going way over budget and falling well short at the box office, even losing to The Care Bears Movie (1985).  As a result, Miller’s time as the head of the Disney company came to a disastrous end.

The failure of The Black Cauldron nearly wiped out the credibility of Disney animation forever, and perhaps more than at any other time, it seemed like the house that Mickey Mouse built may actually have turned it’s back on animation forever.  Ron Miller’s exit from the company came out of a shocking turn of events, as Roy E. Disney helped to lead a shareholder revolt which led to his ouster.  In his place, Disney convinced a trio of executives from Paramount to come over to the Burbank studio to help revitalize the company.  These included Michael Eisner, who would become the new CEO, Frank Wells, the new COO, and Jeffrey Katzenberg who would become the new President of the Movie Division, which included the animation department.  Initially, the shake-up of the company put animation in a lower priority, as Eisner and Katzenberg were more intent on turning Disney into a more productive studio for live action films, which was their forte.  But Roy, who was now the Chairman of the company, convinced them to retain the animation department.  However, to appease the new executives wishes, animation was moved out of the Studio Lot offices in Burbank and relocated to a temporary facility in nearby Glendale; another sign of animation’s precarious position at the studio.  Already greenlit features like The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988) were allowed to continue production, but Katzenberg and Eisner needed convincing for what would come after.  In what Disney animators at the time refer to now as their “Gong Show”, members of the animation department were allowed to present pitches for potential new features that would receive the green-light.  One of the teams that made their pitch were young animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who came in with two ideas.  One idea was Treasure Island (but in Space) and the other was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale classic, The Little Mermaid.  Of course one got the go ahead, while the other went on the shelf for another 15 years.

Though The Little Mermaid had been given the okay from Jeffrey Katzenberg, it’s production was still not without it’s risks.  The studio had fewer resources at their disposal, and creating an animated film with an undersea setting was going to require a significant level of ambition.  Musker and Clements also had to deal with the fact that all of their team would have to work off site at the new Glendale offices, which were less than ideal for animation production.  Yet, a couple of factors helped to give them the boost they needed to not only see this production through, but to also go above and beyond what others expected of them.  First of all, the new studio heads saw greater potential in the marketability of animation, as they saw surprising success with a 50th Anniversary re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) as well as having a box office hit with the hybrid film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) which combined animation and live action to incredible effect.  Also, Musker and Clements looked to Broadway to give this Mermaid a whole different kind of voice.  Up until this point, Disney films had turned to Tin Pan Alley curated songwriters to fill their ever expanding songbook, with the celebrated Sherman Brothers being among the most influential.  But for the Little Mermaid, it was felt that  a more Broadway sounding score would help to elevate the story even more, so the directors reached out to the pair of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.  The duo of Menken and Ashman had just come off the success of their musical Little Shop of Horrors, and they were eager to lend their talents to a Disney animated film.  Ashman in particular became very involved, taking on a role as producer and giving significant input into the script as well, particularly when it came to the character development of the mermaid herself, Ariel.  With a confident team now in place, the movie went full steam ahead and what ended up happening after was surprising to a lot of people, and a wake up call for Hollywood in general.

The Little Mermaid took Hollywood by storm.  It outperformed expectations at the box office, and helped to earn Menken and Ashman their very first Oscar wins, both for Original Score and for Original Song (Under the Sea), which was a feat that an animated Disney film hadn’t done since Pinocchio back in 1940.  More importantly, it put Disney back on the map in animation.  After so much doubt in it’s future viability as a part of the Disney Studio during the post Ron Miller years, it became clear, Animation was there to stay.  The Glendale offices were closed and the animators triumphantly returned to their old offices on the Burbank lot.  And with a hit now under their belt, Eisner and Katzenberg were eager to loosen up the purse strings and green-light a whole new batch of animated features, all with the same ambitious scale as The Little Mermaid.  In the years after, Disney kept building on each success, with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) breaking every box office record thereafter and racking up award after award.   This era would become known as the Disney Renaissance, which The Little Mermaid is often cited as the catalyst point for starting.  As a result, The Little Mermaid holds a special place in the hearts of Disney and Animation fans across the world.  It’s hard to imagine a world where this movie did not exist.  How different would animation be had The Little Mermaid not come out at that pivotal time.  I for one am grateful for it’s existence, because it ushered in a whole new era for Disney animation, rising to the same level as those classics made in Walt’s time.  But it’s also interesting to reflect on exactly why this movie in particular was able to make this significant change in the medium.

I think a large part of why the movie connected was because it fulfilled a need that both the industry and audiences were looking for.  It should be noted that animation is a very costly form of film-making, and a large reason why the medium suffered for a while is because it became too expensive to make movies like them for a while.  Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, while a celebrated masterpiece, was also a financial burden that nearly caused the studio to fall into the red.  That’s why Disney resorted to cheaper methods in the years after, because he couldn’t confidently pull something as ambitious as Sleeping Beauty off again.  Sadly, in the years after Walt’s departure, they became complacent in this cheaper mode of animation, and it made people less interested in the medium for a while.  Don Bluth notably quit Disney to set out on his own because he was tired of the studio taking fewer risks and playing it safe.  By taking on something ambitious like The Little Mermaid, Disney was bucking this trend that they had found themselves in, and were finally embracing the fact that they could do a whole lot better.  It’s clear that Musker and Clements were looking to reach that higher standard that was set during the Walt era, and their team of animators were hungry to prove their worth and show just how great animation could be once again.  From the lush backgrounds, to the vibrant colors, to the expressive animation of the characters, The Little Mermaid just shines with every frame, and it shows that this team of young artists were determined to bring animation back in a big way.  It may not break new ground in the same way as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty had, but the confidence behind it helps to overcome it’s artistic shortcomings in order to earn it’s place alongside those beloved classics.

I believe that a large part of why The Little Mermaid works so well is because the characters are so vividly portrayed.  In particular, Ariel is a real breakthrough of a character that more than anything has helped to make this movie the classic that it is.  Though Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora are iconic Disney princesses in their own right, Ariel was very different.  She was not a damsel in distress waiting for her prince to come; she was very much in charge of her own destiny.  Sure, it still involves falling for a handsome prince, but her strong will made her very different from her predecessors.  She was willing to stand up for herself, speak her own mind, and do whatever it took to find her happiness.  She would lay the groundwork for so many free-thinking Disney heroines in the years ahead, including Belle and Jasmine, and in many ways was the thing that really helped to bring about a Renaissance for Disney animation.  For the first time, a Princess was the driving force of her story, and not a passive player in a grander narrative (though I would argue that Cinderella is often underappreciated in that regard).  A large part of Ariel’s character was no doubt influenced by the casting of a young Broadway ingenue named Jodi Benson, who was brought on board thanks to her close friendship and association with Howard Ashman.  In Ariel, you see the care and attention that Ashman instilled into the character, and it was important to him that her powerful voice would come through, which Benson absolutely delivers on, both in voice and song.  But the strength of a heroine is only measure by how well she reflects against a great villain, and The Little Mermaid has one of the all time greats.  Ursula, the Sea Witch, is an incredibly well designed and performed character, voiced unforgettably by Pat Carroll.  Everything we love about Disney villainesses is found in this character and she stands as one of Disney’s best alongside Maleficent, the Evil Queen, and Lady Tremaine.  Interesting enough, and showing just how risk-taking Disney had become, the visual inspiration for Ursula came from drag queen Divine, who just so happened to be an acquaintance of both Menken and Ashman, who no doubt modeled the character as a tribute.  In both Ariel and Ursula, we see how the Disney animated film came roaring back because these were characters that weren’t just following in other characters’ footsteps, but were instead meant to raise the bar for all those who would come after.

You can imagine how thrilled I was as a seven year old kid to see something like The Little Mermaid.  This movie just had everything I already loved about animation, but was entirely fresh and new.  Only after learning about how much it had to overcome in order to be the classic that it is just makes me appreciate it all the more now as an adult.  There’s a wonderful documentary about the turning point years of the Disney Renaissance called Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) that I strongly recommend.  It chronicles the years leading up to and after the making of The Little Mermaid and it shows you just how important that movie was in changing the culture at that studio.  Had The Little Mermaid never become the success that it had, Disney may have abandoned it’s animation wing altogether, and animation in general may been lost to the fringes of the industry, relegated to a niche market.  Who knows how much the fortunes of the company may have changed.  Would Disney have continued to grow like it has over the years?  Would it have been bold enough to take critical moves like purchasing Marvel and Star Wars?  Would it have been put on the market and sold to some conglomerate, instead of retaining it’s independence like it always has?  So, many uncertain futures, all of which never happened because one little mermaid helped this struggling company find it’s footing again.  Musker and Clements would go on to become two of the most prolific animation directors of all time, including finally making their Treasure Island in Space project with 2002’s Treasure Planet.  Alan Menken would end up winning so many Academy Awards with Disney, even after the tragic passing of his partner Howard Ashman who succumbed to AIDS related illness in 1991, that the Academy had to change their own rules as a result.  And the animation team, who were once exiled off the studio lot, are now celebrated legends within the industry.  The animation department at Disney continues to be a crucial part of the company, cemented forever because of The Little Mermaid, and they now enjoy their home in the lavish new Roy Disney Animation Building adjacent to the Burbank lot.  If there was ever a movie in the Disney Animation canon that made the most difference, it was The Little Mermaid, because it was the one that ensured it’s survival.  This little mermaid gave Disney back it’s voice, and allowed it to sing strong for my generation in particular, and for all those thereafter.  We got no troubles, life is the bubbles, under the sea.