Impossible though it may be to believe, we’re just one year removed from the first day that Disney+ was made live to the general public. Yes, it’s true. One year removed from the first episode of The Mandalorian, one year removed from Disney+ including generalized language warning parents about potentially inflammatory content, and one whole year removed from the fad known as MacLunkey. (Remember MacLunkey?)
A year later, Disney+ has become one of the most powerful streaming services available, though partially for reasons entirely outside of its control. The pandemic has made it so the service vastly surpassed even its highest ambitions for subscriber counts in just a year, with over 60 million worldwide. Disney+ has also become, due to the pandemic all but wiping out the movie-theater experience across the world, the place that you can go to watch new Disney content, from the current season of The Mandalorian to the filmed version of the trailblazing musical Hamilton to the upcoming streaming exclusive of Pixar’s Soul.
But there’s always room for improvement, and Disney+ is no different. So today, as we celebrate the streaming service’s first birthday, here are five ways that Disney+ can improve in Year Two.
Release more catalog titles
This should be a given, and yet, it’s been basically the opposite in the last five or six months. Over that period of time, there have been fewer and fewer catalog titles arriving on Disney+. If you’re a fan of National Geographic – one of the main tiles on the Disney+ home page, thanks to Disney’s acquisition of the Fox Corporation – then you’ve no doubt been in streaming paradise lately. Each of the last few months, the most catalog titles being added to the service are courtesy of Nat Geo.
The problem, of course, is that most of these titles have essentially no connection to the Disney name. If it weren’t for the Disney-Fox merger, these titles wouldn’t even be present. Though Disney+ does boast hundreds upon hundreds of titles, from the popular to the obscure, there’s still quite a lot left in the fabled, and not-at-all real, Disney Vault to unearth. Decades’ worth of Walt Disney anthology TV series? Still not available anywhere except via YouTube uploads. 70s and 80s live-action fare like The Watcher in the Woods and Condorman? Still languishing. Even the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon isn’t fully represented; the 1946 animated feature Make Mine Music was last released on home media in the United States in 2000.
Some people have argued that Disney is doing this intentionally, essentially reviving the old Disney Vault with these typically hard-to-find titles the way they did with animated favorites like Pinocchio and Aladdin. Putting it bluntly, there are two options when you consider this argument. Either this argument is flat-out wrong or it implies that Disney+ is overvaluing this content to a strange degree. Make Mine Music, for example, is a must-watch for any true fan or completist of Disney animation. It’s never been released officially in HD quality. (One of its segments, a riff on the Western battle between the Hatfields and the McCoys, has a fair amount of cartoon gunplay.) But the casual viewer won’t care quite that much about a 40s-era package film being made available on Disney+. The same can be said for the anthology episodes, and plenty of other examples. These all should be made available on Disney+, but treating them like some of the studio’s most beloved and popular films is…weird, to say the least.
It’s a head-scratching decision, too, when you consider the obscurities that are on Disney+, from Justin Morgan Had a Horse (and don’t you let anyone tell you that he didn’t) to The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World. These are not titles that will appeal to anyone other than a true completist. Why put these on Disney+ but not plenty of other titles with a more built-in audience? Would millions of people flock to stream Donald in Mathmagic Land in HD? Perhaps not. But more would be excited than the perhaps literal handful of people who have streamed Justin Morgan Had a Horse (including this writer).
Bring back The Muppet Show
One specific example of something Disney+ could bring back – one title that really would raise awareness among even casual viewers – is The Muppet Show. And that’s not an encouragement to revive the show for the 21st century. (Disney+ instead released the six-episode season of Muppets Now! in the late summer, and it was perfectly…OK.) Disney owns the Muppets, and that means that they own The Muppet Show. People like the Muppets. People especially like the original iteration of the Muppets, with performers like Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Thus, Disney+ should stream The Muppet Show.
The hurdles to clear here are – it should be noted – not minimal. Each episode of The Muppet Show, which lasted five seasons comprising 120 episodes, was hosted by a different guest. Some were actors, some comedians, and some musicians. Even the episodes not hosted by musicians, though, featured songs whose licensing rights may simply be a little too hefty. Having said that, there are ways to resolve the licensing problem. Disney+ could follow in the footsteps of Peacock, which recently made all the seasons of Saturday Night Live available to stream…though some episodes are incredibly short, in part due to music clearance rights. Streaming The Muppet Show doesn’t mean each episode needs to be available in full.
Or, hey, there’s another option: Disney could just pay the licensing rights! It would no doubt be expensive, but among the various catalog titles the company has that have yet to stream on Disney+, The Muppet Show is perhaps the most famous and the one that would inspire lots of casual viewers to check it out. Instead of letting the Muppets continue to collect dust, Disney+ should make them available to everyone.
New commentaries/special features
Disney+ is intended to offer something for just about everyone, but there’s at least one area of its existing library that remains fairly dormant: special features. Physical-media fans and collectors are no doubt aware that during the DVD craze of the 2000s, Disney didn’t skimp on its special-feature offerings. Animated classics like Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty would include multiple commentary tracks, including film historians and animators, as well as a bevy of behind-the-scenes documentaries. Newer animated films, both from Disney and Pixar, often had even more since there could be in-the-moment documentaries created, as opposed to looks back at the past.
If, however, you go to Disney+ and access these titles, you’re more likely than not to find very little of the sort. It’s not that these features don’t exist. It’s that they haven’t been added. And even now, during the pandemic, there’s an opportunity to create something new. Here’s a free idea for Disney+: reach out to various celebrities (having a cadre of performers in Marvel and Lucasfilm projects allows the net to be pretty wide) and have them do a commentary track with a film critic or historian on their favorite Disney movie. It’s an easy sell, and likely a very low-cost project on which to embark.
Disney+ recently updated some of its older films with a brief title card that speaks in vague generalities, implying that whatever film is about to play features racist or sexist depictions. Honestly, it’s a fill-in-the-blank description that simply lets the viewer know that the movie might be an awkward sit for one reason or another. Two things can be true: this is a more forthright way for Disney to acknowledge the flaws of its past films, and it’s not nearly enough.
This writer won’t spend too long explaining why Disney+ needs more than just title cards, and that a host would be better. (You can read this column for a longer explanation.) But the title cards are exactly why. It’s possible that you’ve watched an older Disney film in the last few weeks via Disney+, and thus seen that title card. Possibly, you weren’t even aware of the warning’s existence until you clicked Play. And of course, the title cards aren’t unique to a given film. You may have a guess why it will appear in front of, say, The Jungle Book, but there’s no further background or context given.
Enter a host. The basic idea here is that Disney+ could easily treat some of its older films and TV shows as if they’re Turner Classics Movies programming. It’s not intended to imply that these are fusty objects of the past, but to burnish them and add to their legacy. A host could be a Disney stalwart like Leonard Maltin, who once hosted the Walt Disney Treasures DVD sets of the early 2000s (and has been known as an expert on the subject for decades), or it could be someone younger and/or not a man, like TCM’s Alicia Malone. The options are limitless. And they’re necessary.
Create streaming events
One of the many pop-culture events that’s begun to proliferate during the pandemic is the YouTube reunion. Think of what Josh Gad – a Disney stalwart by now – has done with his Reunited Apart show, in which he’s brought together the casts of films like The Goonies and The Lord of the Rings. Something along those lines for Pixar films or recent Disney efforts would likely get a lot of interest from fans of these films.
And if not, there are other streaming events Disney+ could embark upon. But the pop-culture reunion special is viral catnip. Even more so than some of the ideas above, this one’s also likely going to be cheap – just ensure that each actor or filmmaker has a decent microphone and camera set up in their house. These specials would perhaps have a short shelf life, but if there were enough built out – a Marvel one, followed by a Lucasfilm one, etc. – this could be an easy monthly event for Disney+ to help drive up subscriber interest and demand.
Disney+ has a lot of room to grow. It’s just one year old and has grown so much in that time (compare it to how long Netflix Originals had to get off the ground). But it’s yet to mine the rich history of the studio that bears its name. Hopefully that’ll change in Year Two.
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