20 Nov 2019

Introducing Disney+

From Widescreen, 4:30 pm on 20 November 2019

The House of Mouse has joined the streaming wars and Dan Slevin has been delving into what’s available.

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and the Trandoshans

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and the Trandoshans Photo: Disney

After a few hours of glitches on the US launch day – caused no doubt by ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unexpected’ amounts of traffic – Disney+ has made it to Australasia. Giving themselves a week of grace to resolve technical issues was a smart move. It’s entirely possible that NZ viewers would have pushed them over the edge and led to Spark Sport-style protests and, frankly, who needs that in their life?

Browsing Disney+ is an intriguing experience. The big brands they represent are front and centre – Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and (you may not expect this) National Geographic. But not all the Disney brands are showcased. They bought Fox last year and – apart from James Cameron’s Avatar and The Simpsons – there’s no obvious signs of that merger. The talk is that the Fox vault – more tailored to cinephiles and older audiences – might find a home on the Disney-owned streamer Hulu, which is not available in Aotearoa.

And – because the other brands are much younger – it is the Disney catalogue that gets the deepest (and strangest) treatment. Seemingly un-curated, the Disney vault gives equal weight to Johnny Depp’s Alice in Wonderland, Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) and Disney Channel dross like the third version of Freaky Friday (2018).

But it is worth digging because you will no doubt find that film from your childhood that you thought no one else remembered (the all-animal animated Robin Hood musical) or that rare Disney “failure” that has become more interesting with time, like Newsies.

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Photo: Disney

The Mandalorian

Let us start with the headliner. Disney is betting that fresh Star Wars content rather than reheated Inspector Gadget is going to be the hook that drags subscribers in and I wager that they are right.

But this is Star Wars content and, at the same time, it is very unlike Star Wars. The story – bounty hunter who resembles the legendary Boba Fett is given a quest by Empire flunkey Werner Herzog to retrieve some precious cargo – is clearly set in the Star Wars universe. It is populated by familiar looking droids, jawas, spacecraft, speeders, blasters and a cantina full of rubber-faced aliens. We are back on what looks like the desert planet of Tattooine (although not this time portrayed by Tunisia).

But the filmmaking is different. The pace is unfamiliar. Slower, more like a spaghetti western than the Saturday morning serials that inspired George Lucas. And the music is less bombastic. There have been no hints of the John Williams theme that stirs the emotions so effortlessly, no “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” stretching into the cinematic distance.

Created and written by Jon Favreau – and overseen by the iron will of Kathleen Kennedy – this is an intriguing addition to the Star Wars mythology rather than a familiar one. I, for one, am curious.

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Photo: Disney

The Country Bears

My next stop was to scroll through the Disney archive waiting for something to catch my eye and, I confess, I had never before heard of this one before. Turns out it was quite a hit back in 2002, the second of Disney’s efforts to turn animatronic Disneyland attractions into motion picture franchises.

The Country Bear Jamboree is still one of the top attractions at Disney’s parks in Florida and Japan, nearly 50 years after the Imagineers first created them. In this picture, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop puppeteers the facial features of these life size brown bears who play country music in the style of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with the voices of John Hiatt and Bonnie Raitt.

When the legendary Country Bear Hall venue is threatened by an evil banker (played with panache by Christopher Walken) who wants to revelop the property, teen Bear-fan Beary Barrington (Haley Joel Osment) steps in to bring the band back together for a benefit concert.

So ‘of its time’ that it should be taught in history class, I was amused by the broad comedy and intrigued by the quality of star cameos, including Elton John, Wyclef Jean, Queen Latifah and Willie Nelson.

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Photo: Disney

Forky Asks a Question

Disney has never left a spinoff opportunity un-mined and one of the highlights for Toy Story fans (considering that the Disney+ service won’t have the latest movie for a few more months) are a set of shorts for youngsters featuring the new star of the Toy Story universe, Forky the Spork. In these five minute or less items, the recently-sentient piece of plastic cutlery asks other Toy Story characters about important subjects like “Money” or “Friends”.

Short enough not to outstay its welcome.

Disney+ is now available in Aotearoa/New Zealand on the web, Apple and Android devices, most smart TVs and third-party services. Subscriptions are $9.99 a month, or $99.99 a year. There’s the usual seven-day free trial.

Something else to bear in mind is that many of the recent features (and all the major Star Wars content) are in 4K with all the latest HDR bells and whistles but many are not. Disney does a decent job of labelling them as well as identifying content that might seem culturally inappropriate to the modern viewer.