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Disney+ Has Power and a Plan

Disney is the second megacorporation to debut a streaming service this month, but unlike Apple, it comes to the table with an unbeatable gigantic library and a savvy strategy that should make it instant competition for Netflix

Disney/Ringer illustration

The most surprisingly fun show from Disney’s brand-new streaming service isn’t The Mandalorian, the mega-budget Star Wars show that is to this latest subscription offering what The Morning Show is to Apple TV+: a flashy marquee to drive interest and flex some corporate muscle. Instead, it’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, an über-meta sitcom that knows exactly how silly it is (check out all those colons). Rather than shell out for Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens or even reboot the saga of Troy and Gabriella, The Series is an Office-style mockumentary set in the (still-fictional) high school where the original High School Musical was shot, now staging its very own production of High School Musical. The setup is clever and offsets the tooth-aching earnestness of musical theater with a wry self-aware streak. It also acknowledges what anyone paying for, or even vaguely aware of, Disney+ already knows: People love their Disney properties, and they’ll do quite a lot—say, risk the humiliation of singing in public—to get their hands on them.

Disney+ is the second high-profile streaming service to launch in just two weeks. HBO Max and Peacock still linger on the horizon, but until they muddy the narrative, the new products from Apple and Disney form a clean, easy, and informative contrast. Apple debuted with just a handful of original series; Disney arrives with a full slate of scripted series, docuseries, and feature films, plus decades’ worth of archives from the always artificial, but still formidable, vault. Apple has a scattered approach and tries to spread its finite originals into a four-quadrant appeal through niche experiments, middlebrow dramas, and even kids’ shows; Disney is more targeted and shoots for straightforward family appeal even as the delivery device ranges from animated shorts to reality shows. And then there’s the distinction from which all these lesser divergences stem: Apple is a hardware company making its first foray into production, albeit with near-unlimited resources; Disney may be new to streaming, but it’s an old hand at making and selling entertainment to the masses.

I can’t exactly say I enjoyed the shows and films Disney made available to critics in advance. (The Mandalorian, taking a page out of Game of Thrones playbook in rollout as well as scale, was kept under wraps until its public premiere.) I do, however, understand the audience they’re playing to, and that said audience does not include childless millennial media members such as myself. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a $6.99 a month subscription to any of my peers. But I would to any of my friends with young children, even though I understand my advice stands little chance of being anyone’s deciding vote. Disney+ does a fine enough job of making a case for itself, not that the case needs to go much longer than three simple words: “We have Moana.

Through a near-century of existence, but particularly the years since its 2006 acquisition of Pixar, 2009 acquisition of Marvel, and 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm, Disney has almost established a monopoly on the imaginations of young children. Given the recent merger with Fox, not to mention the increasingly blurry line between children’s and adults’ entertainment thanks to properties like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that dominance has gradually spread into the realm of adults. But Disney is well aware of its core demographic, and has unabashedly centered them to the point of shuffling Zoë Kravitz’s High Fidelity reboot over to Hulu, which Disney now owns after subsuming Fox and buying out Comcast. Such diversification allows Disney, the company, to build Disney, the streaming service, around its core strengths. Hulu is where you can find Handmaids and auteur comedies and Sundance documentaries. Disney+ is where you can find Forky Asks a Question.

Ironically, given its claim to some of the few remaining pieces of monoculture in Marvel and Star Wars, Disney+ distinguishes itself by having a legible, focused, relatively narrow identity right off the bat. Its original series are a case in point: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is self-aware, but the kind of self-aware that helps adults tolerate what their tweens take at face value; The World According to Jeff Goldblum and Forky Asks a Question are essentially Patriot Act–style explainers for school-age kids and toddlers, respectively; SparkShorts is the anthology series version of the 10-minute clips one might catch before a Pixar film, minus the Pixar film and much of the budget. Features native to the service fit into their own well-established grooves, from wholesome Christmas comedy (Noelle) to the “live-action” remakes that filter animated classics through a fog of CGI (Lady and the Tramp). The Kristen Bell–hosted Encore!, in which the casts of high school theater productions stage a revival years later as adults, may center on grown-ups, but its upbeat messaging does not. Same goes for Marvel’s Hero Project, an inspirational docuseries some jaded cynics might see as a crass elision of real-life heroism with the fictional, for-profit kind—but those still playing with action figures won’t.

Disney+ has no reservations about embracing the G-rated vibe Apple initially aimed for, but eventually backed off of in favor of horny Emily Dickinson and binge-drinking Jennifer Aniston. Not only is the branding carried over from Disney’s in-theater options; the expense and star power is, too. Noelle costars Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader as Santa’s kids who take over the family business, while the title characters of Lady and the Tramp are voiced by Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux. (The screenplay is also cowritten by Support the Girls’ Andrew Bujalski, the Justin Theroux of mumblecore auteurs.) The message is that an entrance into streaming, and the Netflix-style production fire hose that comes with it, isn’t a dilution of Disney’s all-powerful name, but a lateral extension. Soon, secondary (but not by much) MCU characters like Loki and Hawkeye will have their own stand-alone shows on the platform, a marked contrast from Netflix projects like Jessica Jones, which alluded to events like Avengers Battle of New York without ever intersecting with them. Disney+ isn’t a lesser branch of the family tree, it’s a core pillar of the business in an age when home entertainment largely is entertainment—and Disney has invested accordingly.

For all the flash of its newcomers, however, the real heart of Disney+ is its back catalog. The service’s entire raison d’être is Bob Iger getting tired of direct competitors (read: Netflix) profiting off of his own content and deciding to get into the distribution game. Last month, Disney got some light flak for spamming our Twitter timelines with a barrage of less-known titles it would soon bring back into public view, from Sultan and the Rock Star to The Shaggy D.A. The strategy was a marked contrast with Disney’s historical pattern of hoarding popular properties, then staging a limited home release to satisfy pent-up demand. But once the reflexive 30 Rock jokes settled down, the cumulative might of lesser Disney Channel shows and the entire Star Wars saga spoke for itself. $6.99 is a pittance to pay for such an archive, particularly when the appeasement of one’s offspring is what’s actually for sale; with Netflix as a precedent, raising prices somewhere down the line is a when, not an if, and we’ll continue to oblige even once the sticker price is no longer falsely deflated. Until then, Forky has some questions.