The Mouse House just added a new wing — and it has a hell of a basement.
Disney+, the new streaming service from the Walt Disney Company, debuts on Nov. 12 and promises to toss a grenade into the still-evolving Video on Demand industry. You possibly already subscribe to Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime; maybe other services like Hulu, FX, ESPN+, Criterion Channel, or horror specialty service Shudder. And all this on top of your Internet, phone, and cable service (unless you’ve cut some of those cords). Who needs another digital feed coming into your house and, more important, another bill to pay? ($6.99 per month or $69 per year; a combination Disney+/ESPN+/Hulu package will cost $12.99 per month.)
You might, if you have kids, since Disney+ will have first-dibs rights to all Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Fox, “Star Wars” movies and more, past, present, and definitely future. All those titles may be available on other platforms and services, but only at Disney’s say-so and whenever the company is done with them.
Which could be never, in some cases. Remember back in the VHS era, when the company under Michael Eisner employed a catch-and-release home-video strategy, making its crown-jewel “princess” movies available on tape every seven years and recalling them during down periods? Of all the major studios, Disney has always been the smartest, most ruthless, and most paranoid when it comes to content protection, and the new Disney+ is a bold gambit to wrest control in a highly competitive and increasingly confused streaming marketplace. Especially away from Netflix, the current lion king.
There are other new streaming services on the way — Apple TV+, DC Universe, NBC’s Peacock, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max — but Disney is liable to dominate the upcoming free-for-all, if only because the company has a near-monopoly on the most popular and profitable pop-culture brands and franchises. (With the company’s March acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Disney effectively controls a third of the US film industry.)
And it’s leveraging those franchises, hard. Among the early Disney+ offerings will be an original “Star Wars” series called “The Mandalorian” and a “High School Musical” series, plus many of the television shows the company has had a hand in producing over the years, including “Malcolm in the Middle” and all 30 seasons of Fox TV’s “The Simpsons.” There’s also something called “The World According to Jeff Goldblum,” which might be the single thing that entices me into signing up.
For lovers of old movies — and if you’re a regular reader of this column, you know we’d get here sooner or later — the most tantalizing aspect of Disney+ is the concentration of back catalog titles and a few films that have long gone unseen. On Oct. 14, the new service’s official Twitter feed disgorged a humongous list of movies and shows, old and new, that will be available at the November launch. Personally, I couldn’t care less about the endless permutations of DisneyTV tweener shows, but the company’s animated and live-action classics are very well represented.
You’ve got “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” of course, the first feature-length cartoon — a ridiculous idea in 1937 — on which Walt Disney bet the farm and won. The follow-ups are all here: “Pinocchio” (1940, and for my money the single greatest creation of Walt’s tenure), “Fantasia” (1940), “The Reluctant Dragon” (1941), “Dumbo” (1941), “Bambi” (1942). The World War II-era “good neighbor policy” releases are present and accounted for: “Saludos Amigos” (1943) and “The Three Caballeros” (1945).
The live-action nature documentaries Disney began purveying in the 1950s with “The Living Desert” (1953) will be available, including the notorious “White Wilderness” (1958), which convinced a generation of schoolchildren that lemmings “commit suicide” and for which the filmmakers imported the animals to Canada and herded them off a cliff. And “Old Yeller” (1957) is here to traumatize 21st-century kids afresh with its tender climactic dog homicide. I know men in their late 70s who are still working this one off.
Many of these titles are currently available for a cheap VOD rental on Amazon (but not on Netflix), at least until the new service launches. But the 1940 version of “Swiss Family Robinson”? That’s been a ghost movie ever since Walt Disney bought the rights from original studio RKO and buried all the prints, the better to let the 1960 Disney remake reign uncontested as the “only” adaptation of Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel. (You didn’t know there was a novel, did you? You’re welcome.)
Starring character actor Thomas Mitchell (“Stagecoach,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) as Robinson pere and Tim Holt (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) and child star Freddie Bartholomew as two of his sons, the RKO “Swiss Family Robinson” isn’t considered a lost classic — a lost pretty-good-movie is more like it — but the fact that Disney is finally releasing a movie they bought specifically to sit on is unexpected and welcome.
One title you won’t see on Disney+ is “Song of the South” (1946), the animated tall-tale anthology hosted by a live-action Uncle Remus (James Baskett) and a film that was controversial even in its day. “Song” has never been available on home video in the United States but it arguably should, if only as a complex historical document of cultural racism.
That Disney is keeping the film off their new streaming platform — and, more troubling, cutting the equally damning “black crow” scenes from “Dumbo” in the Disney+ streaming version — could be defended as keeping the kids safe from dated racist imagery. But it’s just as much about scrubbing history for the sake of protecting the brand. Disney+ aims to put all of Disney’s intellectual property behind a locked gate and charge admission; it’s a content silo for a new era of dis-aggregated entertainment. So how many “feeds” do you want to sign up for? How much is too much? And what happened to the idea of watching a movie rather than subscribing to a corporation?