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One Week In: Does Disney+ Live up to the Hype?

The back catalog is great, but how does the platform's exclusive original content fare?
  • Kristen Bell's Encore, The Legend of the Three Caballeros, and The Mandalorian. (Disney+)
    Kristen Bell's Encore, The Legend of the Three Caballeros, and The Mandalorian. (Disney+)

    The launch of Disney+ made a big splash last week. The company claims that its new streaming service grabbed over ten million subscribers practically in the blink on an eye. Curiosity undoubtedly drove a lot of those sign-ups, especially with a 7-day free trial period (and a very generous one-year free trial for Verizon customers or LG OLED TV buyers). Now that the initial excitement is subsiding a little and we've had a week to play around with it, does Disney+ feel like it's going to be a keeper?

    Admittedly, one week may not be enough time to draw any lasting conclusions. Content offerings will change over time, and launch week technical glitches will get ironed out soon enough. Nevertheless, some impressions stand out.

    The Interface Could Use Some Refining

    The Disney+ user menu is a mix of some good ideas, some less-good ideas, and some failings that will hopefully get fixed sooner rather than later. The initial home page helpfully offers a choice of Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, or National Geographic categories up top, which seem like natural enough divisions. Below this, or within any individual category, is a grid of tiles with sub-categories in scrollable horizontal rows. This is fairly intuitive for browsing, and at least at the moment it's blessedly free of the type of obnoxious auto-play trailers that plague Netflix.

    Once you get past the most obvious and expected headings (Originals, Hit Movies, Trending, etc.), you might find some interesting topics such as Happy Birthday, Mickey! (a chronological tour through key Mickey Mouse cartoons over the years), '90s Throwbacks, or even a menu specifically for Ultra HD and HDR content. If you're feeling nostalgic for some Disney movie or show from your youth but can't remember the title, go to the Search page and try the "Disney Through the Decades" tile to help you narrow it down by era. While none of this may seem revolutionary, some thought clearly went into making the interface clean and functional.

    On the other hand, the sub-categories rarely go very deep. If you want something specific, you're forced to use a Search function that isn't always reliable right now. Say you wanted, for example, to find all the Disney movies Kurt Russell starred in as a young man, but you misspell his first name as "Curt," the search algorithm is not currently smart enough to find an approximate match and will give you nothing at all.

    One of the biggest frustrations of the Disney+ interface is the lack of a "Continue Watching" menu for TV series you've started but don't finish in one sitting. Perhaps someone at Disney honestly expects you to binge 30 seasons of The Simpsons without taking a break, but that doesn't seem very realistic. A marker for the last episode you watched is a standard and essential feature of almost every video streaming platform, yet one is missing here. The best available is the ability to add a show to your Watchlist, which will at least identify which series you plan to return to. However, as soon as you leave the menu page for that show, you instantly lose your place and will be prompted to start over from Episode 1 the next time you go in.

    Also problematic is the auto-play function for the next episode in a series. For some reason, that feature usually works for traditional TV shows, but often does not for collections of web shorts or interstitials. The delightful Muppet Moments from 2014 are only a minute or two long each, and the inability to progress through them without returning to the menu can wear a viewer's patience thin.

    The Disney Catalog Is Very Appealing, But How Much Can It Grow?

    Disney has banked a lot of its marketing hoopla around the premiere of the new Star Wars spinoff series, but an even bigger draw for many viewers is the breadth and depth of the Disney catalog. In addition to the many Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars blockbusters, the studio has opened up its famous Vault and released the majority of its classic animated movies all in one place, as well as countless short films, TV cartoons, Disney Channel shows, and live-action movies from across the decades. Although much of this material may have been released to home video previously, collecting it all into a centralized streaming platform makes it much more convenient to access.

    Nostalgia is a major component of the Disney business model, and Disney+ plays right into that with 90 years of content designed to hit almost every demographic and every generation of viewer. Not every movie or show Disney produced turned out to be a classic, but even the truly goofy stuff (no pun intended) still has fans eager to revisit it and share it with younger generations. On the first day of subscribing, my wife was very excited to introduce our young sons to The Love Bug, which had been one of her favorite movies at their age. And they had a blast with it.

    Ironically, Disney+ may ultimately wind up being hampered by its focus on… well, on Disney. As much as it may feel like the company owns half of Hollywood right now, at a certain point the catalog will slow its growth once all the brands and studios under the Disney umbrella finish migrating away from other streaming services. A platform like Netflix constantly refreshes its catalog by licensing movies and TV shows from as many sources as it can, all around the world. Disney+ will not have that advantage (unless Disney buys out another major studio, which is probably not inconceivable).

    Once viewers go through all their personal favorite movies and shows available on Disney+, will they remain subscribed to the service for the long term? If subscription numbers trend in the wrong direction, might Disney actually consider reintroducing the Vault system and cycling popular titles into and out of availability, hoping that fans will stick around to wait for something they like? If so, could that potentially backfire and alienate the subscriber base?

    Disney+ Original Content Feels a Little Paltry Right Now

    Based on the marketing, you'd be forgiven for assuming that Star Wars: The Mandalorian is the only original series that Disney+ has at launch. While Disney hasn't necessarily placed all of its eggs into that particular basket, frankly a lot of them did go in there. That's to be expected. The show is the first live-action spinoff TV series from a beloved blockbuster franchise, and the studio clearly poured a lot of money into making it as a flagship property to draw subscribers to the service.

    With only two episodes available at the time of this writing, The Mandalorian seems to be off to a promising start. The show has strong production values, pretty decent writing, and a premise that might appeal to fans who didn't care for the last couple (or several) Star Wars feature films. At the same time, the series feels a little unexpectedly slight. It tells a side-story on the distant fringes of the main Star Wars narrative that does not appear like it will tie in with any of the movies, and the episodes are surprisingly short. The pilot was only 40 minutes long and the second episode an even shorter 32 minutes. The first season will also have a quick run of just eight episodes.

    Once those run out, the remaining slate of Disney+ originals will have a very hard time of acting as an anchor for the platform. The best of them is Encore!, the reality show hosted by Kristen Bell in which former high school classmates are reunited to restage their class musical. Primetimer's Kevin O'Keefe assessed its charms last week and found it heartwarming and entertaining. Even so, a simple reality show like this isn't flashy or innovative enough to act as subscriber bait.

    High School Musical: The Musical: The Series feels like it would function better on Disney Channel where its franchise originated, while the Nat-Geo produced The World According to Jeff Goldblum could easily play as daytime filler programming on just about any cable network.

    My kids enjoy the Donald Duck cartoon series The Legend of the Three Caballeros a lot, but the show has gotten almost no buzz and isn't even listed on the menu for other Disney+ originals.

    Forky Asks a Question and Pixar in Real Life are both more accurately described as web shorts than TV shows. Each is only a few minutes long, and neither is particularly good. (The first Forky short doesn't even answer the question it sets up.) Beneath its surface veneer of inspirational uplift, Marvel's Hero Project is ultimately a self-serving commercial for Marvel Comics.

    As for the original films available at launch, the live-action Lady and the Tramp remake and the Christmas comedy Noelle are cute enough, but both are indisputably of TV movie quality. Clearly there's a reason neither went to theaters first. Although TV movies have a valid place on a streaming service like this, they compare poorly to some of the theatrical-quality movies that Netflix and Amazon offer their viewers.

    Of course, Disney+ is still in its formative stages. Whether it will grow into a streaming giant on par with Netflix remains to be seen. Based on its first week of its life, the potential for that may be possible, but the service has quite a bit of work to do to get there.

    Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.

    TOPICS: Disney+, Star Wars: The Mandalorian, Disney, Marvel Studios, Pixar, Star Wars