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.