Disney+ Is Live. Here's 25 Great Things to Watch

4:30 AM 11/12/2019

by John DeFore

A Hollywood Reporter film critic offers his picks for the best of the new streaming service.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Finding Nemo, Force Awakens  Split- Photofest -EMBED 2019
Walt Disney Pictures/Photofest

More ominous than Skynet, more cutthroat than Lannister vs.Targaryen are The Streaming Wars: an age in which rival mega-corporations fight to convince humans that each has the superior catalogue of "content" — a list of movies and shows justifying a monthly fee of $6.99 or $14.99 or whatever on top of the cable, internet and assorted subscriptions movie lovers have already signed on for.

Apple TV+ just made its underwhelming debut, and now it's Disney's turn. Having taken their toys from Netflix and gone home (or, in the case of still-binding contracts, announced their intention to do so), the company offers Disney+, a streaming service we're told will someday include every single movie Disney has made, along with all of Pixar's output, plus Star Wars, plus all the Marvel films and so on.

But that's a far cry from what's being offered to customers who sign up today. Perhaps worried that fans will be annoyed at what isn't on the service yet — Where's Pixar's Up? And the Captain America films? And was Robert Altman's Popeye as bad as they say? — the company refuses to make it easy to figure out what is on it. They won't give a list to journalists; there's no database you can search. Pressed for information, publicists point to a Twitter gush in which the company tweeted hundreds of pictures, each representing a single film with the kind of squashed-up quasi-posters you scroll through on Netflix. (God bless the graphic designers forced to make these visual atrocities. We know you're better than this, guys.)

A near-infinite scroll like this is a bad idea for everyone. It reminds prospective customers, for instance, why Disney's reputation had fallen so far before Pixar came to turn the studio around. The list gives new meaning to the word "filler," with seemingly 30 or 40 titles like Justin Morgan Had a Horse or Santa Paws 2: The Santa Pups for every title you'd actually consider watching.

That infinite scroll also makes it impossible to ignore something else: Especially when it comes to live-action programs, you're looking at a cascade of peachy-white faces, where any occasional actor of color is almost certainly standing behind a smiling white kid. Scroll through it all and you'll see a film with the Rock, one starring Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington's Remember the Titans. But tallying the white stars here against the nonwhite ones would give a diversity activist a heart attack.

Anyway. Let's say you live in a household where not subscribing to Disney+ is not an option. Someone you love is nuts for the personalities of the recent Disney-Channel past: the Jonases, the Montanas and McGuires, the High Schoolers who make Musicals. You've given in. Is there anything on this service that an adult might find worthwhile? Here are 25 options in no special order, culled from every corner of the D+ lineup as it existed at press time.

[UPDATE: When Disney+ went online Tuesday, users noticed they weren't always getting what they expected from the service — and were getting some things they didn't expect, like yet another silly George Lucas tweak to Han Solo's showdown with Greedo. At least one of the picks here, The Simpsons, no longer deserves the recommendation — explanation below.]

  • 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'

    Let the princess who started it all reign over those who'd follow in the '50s, teaching impressionable girls how to find the perfect shoe and the perfect prince. The first Disney feature remains a technical and artistic marvel, and takes a less squeamish approach to scary folklore than its predecessors would.

  • 'Fantasia'

    There's a "what might've been" quality to this early outing, an anthology that paired works of classical music to stand-alone flights of fancy. Expecting that viewers would appreciate everything from Mickey Mouse's cute "Sorcerer's Apprentice" to more abstract sequences inspired by avant-garde animator Oskar Fischinger, it wanted to edify and entertain on the same evening, freed from the requirement of telling a single 90-minute story.

  • 'The Jungle Book'

    Though a viewer today may be distracted by nagging complaints about colonialism and appropriation, this remains a classic example of mid-'60s entertainment, with lovable anthropomorphized animal characters taking wild liberties with Rudyard Kipling's stories and singing catchy songs while they did it.

  • 'Pinocchio'

    A wooden boy who just wants to be real is a classic innocent in danger in Disney's second feature-length cartoon, whose Oscar-winning tune "When You Wish Upon a Star" justifiably became the studio's theme song.

  • 'The Little Mermaid'

    Disney toons had wandered a very long time in the wilderness before this comeback, a huge hit displaying more animation talent than some might've thought the studio could still muster. The film certainly didn't solve Disney's addiction to pretty white princesses, but it had memorable songs and sidekicks aplenty, and pointed toward better things.

  • 'Toy Story' Trilogy

    Some would argue that these three movies, which cemented the studio's go-to ensemble dynamics and paired nostalgia with fresh comic attitude, still stand as Pixar's crowning glory. And far from wearing out their welcome, the sequels grew up with their audience, building to a heartfelt conclusion so aching that any viewer who didn't weep would be unwise to admit it. Early D+ adopters will apparently have to wait for the fourth installment.

  • 'Inside Out'

    Even in a filmography that has envisioned a rat's culinary career and humanity's post-Earth existence, Inside Out represented an astonishing work of imagination. And this one, which takes us inside a girl's emotion-processing center, was unusually well suited to be one of those rare entertainments that actually help children understand something about their lives. In other filmmakers' hands, didactic; from Pete Docter (whose Monsters, Inc. foreshadowed this blend of psychology and adventure), delightful.

  • 'Finding Nemo'

    With so many cute animals in toon history, how did it take this long to fully exploit the undersea world? (Mermaids who long to be human don't count.) Director Andrew Stanton did especially well in the action department, but kids remembered the colorful characterizations of go-with-the-flow sea turtles and sharks who just want to be good.

  • 'Monsters, Inc.'

    CGI human characters were still an iffy prospect when Monsters, Inc. gave us the adorable Boo, a little girl who finds her way into the scream-generating workplace of one-eyed goblin Mike (Billy Crystal) and his lovable-lug partner Sulley (John Goodman). Still early enough in the CG-animation game to wow us with its detail and textures, the movie's boogeymen-as-hero conceit was the real star.

  • 'Ant-Man'

    The MCU, despite being one of D+'s big selling points, is poorly represented as the service launches, with many of its best films unavailable. Who wants to watch Age of Ultron without the other Avengers films, or to be reminded what a sexist Tony Stark was in the first Iron Man? Instead, go with the rip-roaring and laugh-filled Ant-Man, a very rewatchable superhero movie aimed at the whole family.

  • 'The Mandalorian'

    For a non-parent who doesn't need 24/7 access to animated films we already know by heart, the only real reason to consider subscribing to Disney+ at the moment is to see Jon Favreau's gritty-looking Star Wars spinoff series. It's still unclear why this saga isn't about Boba Fett himself — this is a different bounty hunter in similar armor — but presumably that will be become clear in time. With luck, it'll be explained in slow, measured tones by the character played by Werner Herzog.

  • 'The Empire Strikes Back'

    It's a truism to say that this is the best piece of cinema Lucasfilm ever produced. But it's also the most rewatchable as a popcorn movie, spreading its action over a memorably diverse array of worlds (snow planet, swamp world, Cloud City), while introducing a funny-talking green gnome, a rogue more rascally than Han Solo, and the aforementioned Boba Fett.

  • 'The Force Awakens'

    In mere weeks, we'll know if J.J. Abrams can do justice to the space-opera saga George Lucas started in 1977. What we already know is he jump-started his part of the series with a bang, introducing a great new gang of characters — who, for a nice change, were all played by gifted actors.

  • 'Mary Poppins' and 'The Sound of Music'

    Nothing says "wholesome Disney fantasy" like Julie Andrews and Mary Poppins. How much does the studio respect this honest-to-goodness classic? Unlike their roster of famous cartoons, they waited more than half a century to risk making a sequel. Julie Andrews' follow-up The Sound of Music hasn't aged as well, but try telling that to your mother.

  • '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'

    Kirk Douglas and James Mason go on a Jules Verne adventure with director Richard Fleischer, whose long career ran from family adventures like this and Fantastic Voyage to nasty crime films including The Boston Strangler.

  • 'Old Yeller'

    A boy, his dog and an ending that nobody ever forgets, this may be the purest distillation of the kind of plain-folks Americana Walt Disney often celebrated on his long-running TV series.

  • 'The Absent-Minded Professor'

    You could pick a half-dozen or so titles from the '60s/'70s and be rewarded with the same kind of silly fun as this romp, which stars Fred MacMurray as an inventor who makes something called Flubber. Hard to believe this is the same actor who, several years prior, got tangled up in Double Indemnity. Don't worry, Disney won't tell the kids that film exists.

  • 'Miracle on 34th Street'

    More modern than its probably more popular peer It's a Wonderful Life, this Santa-is-real fable has enduring charm, but is interesting on this list for another reason: Produced and released by 20th Century Fox (which was acquired this year by Disney), it's almost the only vintage feature on the list that doesn't hail from Disney Squaresville. If and when D+ gets serious about putting old Fox films on its platform, it will demand attention from movie lovers who currently rely on TCM as their portal to film history.

  • 'The Simpsons' [No longer recommended]

    At first, Disney seemed to understand the value of the beloved series they got with the Fox acquisition. But early D+ subscribers quickly went online to report that the company was mutilating the series' earliest, classic episodes, which were made before widescreen TVs were available. Frames are cropped and/or stretched, it seems — an insult to the artists who created the show. One more reason to hang on to those DVDs, kids — or to hop over to Hulu, where the excellent Bob's Burgers seems never to have hit the kind of creative slump The Simpsons did.

  • 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit'

    Corny (if beloved) old Disney films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks had combined live-action and animation decades before, but Robert Zemeckis' 1988 gem both outdid them technically and brought riotous wit to the party, appealing to kids and pop-culture scholars equally.

  • '10 Things I Hate About You'

    One of the extremely rare films here (nature docs aside) that was not made mainly with preteens in mind, this high school-set take on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew was a breakthrough for stars Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Check it out quickly, before Disney bosses realize they intended to put the 2009 TV series on the service instead of the 1999 feature.

  • 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' and 'James and the Giant Peach'

    Henry Selick's two mid-'90s gems represent a rare opportunity to see stop-motion puppet animation here, which prompts an observation: Shouldn't a streaming service from Disney have room for a wider range of animation techniques? In any case, these charming features (inspired by Tim Burton and Roald Dahl, respectively) don't need animation-nerd cred to merit inclusion on this list.

  • 'Free Solo'

    There's an awful lot of generic-looking National Geographic stuff on the Disney+ roster, but this story about climbing Yosemite's El Capitan without ropes is not one of them. Watch it on the biggest screen in the house, and expect sweaty palms.

  • 'Big Hero 6'

    Who needs Avengers when you have this underrated Marvel-derived adventure? Animated instead of live-action, calling it a superhero team pic is technically accurate, though the core story — of a grieving teen inventor and his emotionally sensitive robo-protector — feels more like a classic kids' movie that wins grown-up love as well.

  • 'The Muppet Movie'

    Jim Henson's adorably shaggy band of oddballs have seen many ups and downs since their 1950s origins, including a much-derided ABC series in 2015. Disney has assorted plans for them on this new service, but viewers' best bet is this 1979 big-screen debut, a cheeky adventure following Kermit the Frog's dreams of success in showbiz.