Since launching in November 2019, Disney+ has become an unequivocal powerhouse. In just over a year, the company’s direct-to-consumer platform has become a key destination and early leader in the great streaming wars of 2020. Disney+ is full of buzz-worthy series (The Mandalorian, The Right Stuff), multi-part documentaries (The Imagineering Story, Into the Unknown) and original films, alongside all of your favorite Disney animated and live-action classics, plus films from Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios and all of the goodies acquired in the Fox acquisition. (And considering in the first year they shattered all subscriber goals, amassing more than 100 subscribers worldwide already.)
With none of us going out to the movies these days, new and original films debuting on streaming platforms has become a lifeblood. And Disney+ has a continued commitment to releasing some very big movies through their direct-to-consumer platform, with 2020 seeing the release of The One and Only Ivan, Black Beauty, a Phineas and Ferb movie, and the long-shelved Magic Camp, Mulan and Pixar's Soul.
So we thought now would be a good time to look back at the Disney+ original films that have already been added to the platform. Some of these were designed for a theatrical release, while others were produced with Disney+ in mind. And, of course, we’ll be updating our list as new titles are released, forever and ever.
Note: Not included on this list is One Day at Disney, a grossly self-serving tie-in to an equally drab nonfiction book put out by Disney Publishing. Its runtime is only an hour and the doc has been divvied up into smaller, bite-sized portions since its December 2019 debut. It feels even grosser praising it now when so many Disney employees have been furloughed or fired. Also not included are a trio of Disneynature making-of documentaries: Diving with Dolphins, In the Footsteps of Elephant and Penguins: Life on the Edge. They all feature lovely footage and should definitely be watched if you love the Disneynature movies they’re exploring, but they feel more like a feature-length bonus feature than anything else.
Noelle was, like several other Disney+ debuts, originally scheduled for a wide theatrical release with the full might of the Walt Disney Company behind it. But it’s inconceivable that this movie was made for anything besides something you absentmindedly watch while making yourself a grilled cheese sandwich or playing Animal Crossing. Clearly designed to be the next Santa Clause, it instead comes across as a cheap spin-off to Fred Claus. Anna Kendrick plays Noelle Kringle, Santa’s daughter who is desperately trying to help her brother Nick (Bill Hader) take over Santa’s responsibilities following his untimely death. But Nick decides to run away, hiding out in photogenic Phoenix, Arizona. Kendrick is good at playing incessantly chipper types, and has fun with the role, but Hader looks like he would rather be anywhere else, and the strong supporting cast (including Shirley MacLaine, Michael Gross, Billy Eichner and Julie Hagerty) is utterly wasted. This movie feels so cheap and is so poorly shot that the considerable visual effects look like cardboard cutouts. Written and directed by rom-com veteran Marc Lawrence, Noelle was clearly designed to be an annual holiday classic but watching it even once feels more like getting a lump of coal in your stocking.
20. Artemis Fowl
Another intended big screen event was Artemis Fowl. Based on a best-selling series of YA books by Irish author Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl is set in a world where a technologically advanced fairy tale world, full of elves, dwarves and assorted creatures, exists just beneath us. Ostensibly about what happens when precocious child prodigy Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw) discovers that his father has a) been kidnapped and b) is renowned as a master thief stealing priceless antiquities from both the human and fairy tale world. (Big day for him.) Artemis Fowl is both dramatically inert (after vowing to break his father out of prison, most of the movie is spent in the family’s rambling mansion) and nonsensically busy (get ready for lots of indecipherable terminology and goofball names). Formerly highbrow filmmakers Kenneth Branagh offers slack direction, limply staging action set pieces and clumsily handling visual effects, with very obvious reshoots made more noticeable by how much the lead kid has grown up. Judi Dench, saddled with a ridiculous wardrobe and fake Spock ears, can’t even inject any dignity. Only Josh Gad, as a digging dwarf and our erstwhile narrator, brings any energy or fun. And there isn’t even any concrete resolution, since it’s set up for a sequel that will never happen.
19. Secret Society of Second-Born Royals
Basically, Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is the first Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) made specifically for Disney+. It has all of the established hallmarks of a DCOM classic – a cast full of familiar Disney Channel faces (in this case led by Peyton Lee from Andi Mack), subpar visual effects, iffy production value, and a tediously high concept storyline that is both overly simplistic and unnecessarily complicated (to the point of muddled confusion). Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is set in a mythical European country where royal kids attend a tony boarding school. During a summer school class, it’s revealed that the second-born kids in royal bloodlines are born with extraordinary superpowers and a boyish Professor X (Skylar Astin) teaches them how to use their powers and foil an evil plot. Honestly, none of it makes much sense and it comes across as an unconvincing superhero origin story movie weighed down with royal fairy tale flourishes a la DCOM juggernaut Descendants and a conspicuous lack of style. The problem is that it’s not very fun or interesting and the abysmally low budget makes it sort of depressing (especially when Elodie Yung shows up as the queen of the fictitious European country; she’s such a hoot in things like Netflix’s Daredevil and future cult classic Gods of Egypt). With so many genuine DCOM delights on the platform, you can judiciously skip this leaden cheapo.
18. Black Beauty
An international coproduction that was picked up by Disney after-the-fact, Black Beauty is occasionally quite beautiful but never as affecting or entertaining as it should be. Instead, it just is. A fresh adaptation of Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel of the same name, it follows the titular horse (whose inner narration is voiced by a surprisingly game Kate Winslet) and the young girl who connects with the horse (Mackenzie Foy from Disney’s Nutcracker and the Four Realms). The drama is fairly inert, punctuated by some surprisingly unsettling scenes of animal cruelty (when Black Beauty is sold to a little rich girl who doesn’t understand the power or soul of the horse) and some moments that are genuinely transportive, like a scene of the young girl riding Black Beauty along a beach. (The entire movie was shot in South Africa, which is doubling for rural Utah, which does give the movie a weirdly dissonant texture.) While it’s not outwardly awful, Black Beauty is mostly forgettable and there are certainly much better animal-focused features on Disney+.
17. Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe
Disney+’s first animated original feature returns to the world of Phineas and Ferb, the hugely popular series that ran on Disney Channel and Disney XD for nearly a decade (from 2007 to 2015). In Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe, the precocious brothers’ perpetually put-upon older sister Candace (Ashley Tisdale) takes center stage as she is abducted by space aliens and lands on a planet whose leader (voiced by Ali Wong) treats her like a princess. Meanwhile, the boys (Vincent Martella and David Errigo Jr.) team with the villainous Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz (series co-creator Dan Povenmire) to figure out what happened to Candace and return her to earth. If you appreciate the original series, then chances are you are going to love the movie, which continues the show’s mixture of silly songs, science-minded adventures, and occasionally groan-worthy humor (creators Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh co-wrote the screenplay). Sadly, the show’s inelegant visual style remains intact and the jokes miss as often as they hit. If you have spent the past five years dying for Phineas and Ferb return, then by all means please watch the animated feature. Those that could care less are encouraged to skip.
As part of the platform’s Earth Day programming this year, we got not one but two new Disneynature documentaries, but only one was any good. Elephant was not the good one. Elephants are, of course, a wonderful subject for a nature documentary, as is evidence by many, many other nature documentaries about elephants. The chief problem with Elephant is that it doesn’t offer anything new in terms of insights or educational asides. The other problem, and this is probably even more crippling (since the photography is so gripping and beautiful regardless of its freshness), is the narration by Meghan Markle aka “Meghan, Duchess of Essex.” Her narration is, in a word, horrible. And these Disneynature movies really do live or die based on their narration. There’s a combination of knowingness, intellectual and scientific curiosity, and goofy playfulness, that is required to narrate one of these movies. But Meghan just sounds off; stiff, unfunny and lacking in any kind of gravitas. (Watch Bears, narrated by John C. Reilly, to hear how it’s done.) When there’s actual danger, like when a baby elephant faces suffocation in a big mud pile, her narration is worse than bad, it’s condescending.
15. Magic Camp
Poor Magic Camp. The movie was shot all the way back in 2017 and was originally scheduled for release in 2018. And then it just sat on a shelf (or maybe in a dusty corner of the Disney Vault) … for a while. It’s telling that the movie was inactive for so long that one of the performers in the movie transitioned (J.J. Totah became Josie Totah) and another was outright canceled (Jeffrey Tambor) thanks to alleged sexual harassment. (Also, one of the main characters is a taxi driver, which might speak more to the fact that it was made eons ago.) When it dropped on Disney+, Disney did zero promotion for its overdue debut. But the movie is pretty cute and funny and a cut above similar material on the platform. Adam Devine plays a magician who gave up on his dream but who is recruited by a former mentor (Tambor) to serve as a camp counselor at the Institute of Magic, a summer camp for budding magicians. Magic Camp clearly takes its cues from other, better misfits-make-good favorites, most noticeably The Bad News Bears and School of Rock, and while the stuff with the kids is pretty pat (aside from a story about a young magician who lost his father), but Levine elicits some genuine yuks and director Mark Waters, who directed Mean Girls and the Freaky Friday movie, keep things moving at lively-enough pace. Perhaps the biggest mystery is how Magic Camp, based on an original story by Steve Martin (who performed magic at Disneyland early in his career), was responsible for a screenplay credited to eight (!) writers. Still, if you told Magic Camp 2 was on its way, or a Magic Camp original series would be premiering soon, I wouldn’t be mad.
14. Lady and the Tramp
Lady and the Tramp is about what you’d expect from a Disney+ original film. It reestablishes a beloved Disney property (itself based on a 1945 Cosmopolitan article) while adding more depth and is handsomely produced without being too showy. Directed by The LEGO Ninjago Movie filmmaker Charlie Bean, this new Lady and the Tramp wisely uses real dogs, swapping them out seamlessly for digital doubles whenever they need to talk or do something particularly dangerous or stunt-y. The result is more convincing and more emotionally gripping, since they are really-for-real dogs. (Also the “We Are Siamese” musical number is gone.) Bean’s cast is refreshingly diverse, both in front of the camera and in the recording booth, with Thomas Mann and Kersey Clemmons as the human couple and Justin Theroux and Tessa Thompson as the voices of the dogs. And while Lady in the Tramp definitely hits all the major beats you’d want from it (including the spaghetti sequence featuring an appearance by Oscar-winning F. Murray Abraham as restaurateur Tony), it nimbly resists being a shot-for-shot remake, adding such flourishes as a tragic backstory for Tramp that will have you wiping away tears.
Godmothered is sort of the perfect Disney+ movie – agreeably low stakes, adequately shot, and warmly humored. The kind of movie that you feel good about watching but could almost forget about immediately after watching. (All the better for those younger family members who demand to watch things over and over again.) In Godmothered, the very funny Jillian Bell plays a fairy godmother who makes a desperate bid to answer the wish of a young girl before her enchanted realm gets turned over to tooth fairies. But the letter she’s answering turns out to be very, very old and the young girl she attempts to help out is actually a frazzled adult woman (Ilsa Fisher). From there, things get really wacky, with jokes you can probably imagine involving a fairy tale makeover of Fisher’s home, wardrobe, and life (big ups to the raccoon that attempts to clean the kitchen). Clearly borrowing DNA from both Disney’s Enchanted and the Christmas classic Elf, Godmothered is charming and funny, thanks to spritely direction from Bridget Jones’s Diary director Sharon Maguire and outstanding, wholly committed performances from the two leads. (Jane Curtain and June Squibb pop up as older fairy godmothers, and they make the most of their brief screen time.) There’s even a case to be made as Godmothered being a Christmas movie (it’s not explicitly Christmas-y but is set during the season), which means that it could sneak into your annual slate of favorites.
12. Dolphin Reef
The other new Disneynature film released on Disney+ this year was Dolphin Reef. Thankfully, Meghan is nowhere to be found. This one is centered around a tropical coral reef and all of the crazy creatures that inhabit it and help it grow (including, of cousre, bottlenose dolphins). Dolphin Reef is narrated by Oscar winner Natalie Portman, who succeeds in not only giving the narration some depth and dramatic dimension (like when a young dolphin is being hunted by killer whales), but also can be heard having an absolute blast, adding a mischievous knowingness while relaying facts about how a certain fish chomps on dead coral and poops out sand. (She also does a funny voice to personify a weird, googly-eyed shrimp crab.) The glittery underwater photography is mesmerizing, fully immersing you in an alien landscape full of otherworldly plants and animals. Dolphin Reef is one of the best documentaries on the platform and one of the best Disneynature movies, period.
11. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made
Based on a series of children’s books by American cartoonist and illustrator Stephan Pastis, you wouldn’t expect Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made to be director Tom McCarthy’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2015 drama Spotlight. But here we are. Timmy Failure follows the titular character, a pint-sized detective (Winslow Fegley) who attempts to solve crimes in his native Portland, but always ends up making things worse, frustrating his put-upon single mom (Ophelia Lovibond) and grumpy teacher (Wallace Shawn). One of the greatest triumphs of Timmy Failure is McCarthy’s ability to conjure a lovably heightened version of Portland, with all sorts of fantastical quirks and embellishments (none bigger than Timmy’s imaginary polar bear sidekick Total), while also sustaining an air of relatability and believable tension. It’s a tonal balance that could have gone spectacularly wrong in less capable hands, but McCarthy always keeps things in check. (There’s also a funny reference to Pixar’s Up, which McCarthy worked on the story for.) Timmy Failure might be 15 minutes too long, and like Artemis Fowl could have benefitted from an actual ending instead of a promise of future installments that will never be followed up on. But overall, this is a low-key gem.
Originally slated for a spring 2020 release (a glitzy Hollywood premiere had already taken place), Mulan was meant to be a different sort of live-action Disney adaptation of one of their beloved animated classics. Instead of slavish devotion, Mulan sought genuine reinvention. Many of the hallmarks of the original film (the bouncy songs, the wise-cracking dragon sidekick) were jettisoned completely in favor of a more musical, Kung Fu action epic approach. And, to be sure, the results are stunningly beautiful – epic in scope and meticulously detailed, with some truly thrilling fight sequences (and, honestly, some that aren’t-so-thrilling). But Niki Caro’s film, while intermittently spectacular as it is, suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of both the original film and the ways that it could have been reinvented for modern (and, more specifically, Chinese) audiences. Instead of an average farm girl who rises to find her inner power, as was in the original film, 2020’s Mulan (this time played by Yifel Liu) is basically a Jedi before she’s even enlisted, which undermines her sacrifice considerably since her joining the army now could be seen as indulging in her own militaristic fetishism. And the talking dragon’s replacement, a nonspeaking phoenix that shows up every now and again to help her like the Microsoft paperclip, is dull and visually uninteresting. (Also, the less said about the unnecessarily complicated new backstory for the villain played by a wasted Jason Scott Lee, and the addition of a shape-shifting witch, the better.) Sure, it’s exciting, and deviating from the source material should be encouraged with these remakes, but Mulan feels like it’s more interested in pandering to Chinese audiences (audiences that, eventually, never materialized) than in making a good movie. And the controversy surrounding the production’s decision to film in a politically fraught area of China, does help much either.
Disney used to release what they referred to as “brand deposit” films; films that speak to the legacy of Disney, were usually made in the midbudget range, and weren’t explicitly tied to preexisting franchises or widespread corporate initiatives. Many were based on true stories and tied to either a larger-than-life sports triumph or extraordinary event (think The Finest Hours or Queen of Katwe). With the introduction of Disney+, these movies found a new place to flourish. And Safety is a great example of one of these movies that could have been potentially overlooked in theaters but should be rightly celebrated on the streaming platform. Based on a true story, it follows a Clemson football player (Jay Reeves), who sneaks his younger brother onto campus after their mother checks into rehab. Energetically directed by Reginald Hudlin, with a soundtrack full of era-appropriate bangers, Safety is mercifully free of the “white savior” narrative that has hobbled similar stories (hello, The Blind Side!) and instead focuses on the brothers’ struggle and the camaraderie and charity that allows for them to succeed. While somewhat overlong, which leads to some pacing issues, Safety still packs the singular punch of an inspirational, based-on-a-true-story sports movie, a genre that Disney has perfected with things like Miracle and McFarland, USA but too rarely engages with these days. Thankfully Disney+ is here with the save.
While weirdly marketed like similar-sounding, faith-based young adult dramas, Clouds is a cut above. It’s a wonderfully shot-and-edited, deeply felt, old-fashioned weepie that is vibrantly performed and very heartfelt. (Be warned: you will bawl.) Based on a true story, Clouds stars Fin Argus as Zach Sobiech, a young man suffering from osteosarcoma (bone cancer) while pursuing his dreams of becoming a singer-songwriter. With his best friend (played by Disney regular Sabrina Carpenter), he pens a song called “Clouds” that would up becoming a viral sensation. (Neve Campbell and Tom Everett Scott play Zach’s parents and, yes, there is a moment that explicitly references Scott’s turn in That Thing You Do.) There have been a number of movies recently that deal with sick children narrative, but none have had the sensitivity and artfulness of Clouds, one that intends to portray Zach’s struggle with realism and truthfulness while portraying the unlikely circumstances around his song’s success with an appropriate amount of wonder. Yes, it’s ultimately tragic, but the journey is profoundly rewarding and the movie, while consumed with this young man’s death, is vibrant and full of life. If you were scared away by the maudlin ad campaign, be advised: those advertisements are selling a very different movie than what Clouds really is. Touching, inspiring and immaculately made, it’s one of the very biggest surprises on Disney+.
Stargirl is, like many Disney+ originals, based on a beloved YA novel (this one by Jerry Spinelli, published in 2000). But there’s a sensitivity and grace to Stargirl that is unlike anything else produced for the platform. The title character (Grace VanderWaal) is an adorable free spirit who shows up in a drab suburban town and unlocks the inner creativity of her buttoned-up classmates. One of those classmate, Leo (Graham Verchere) quickly falls in love with Stargirl, despite her outsider status and his own repression and insecurity. These themes aren’t particularly inventive, but the story is refreshingly wonderfully told by Julia Hart (who directed last year’s brilliant Fast Color), who puts an emphasis on emotional honesty and storytelling clarity. Hart also allows VanderWaal, already an accomplished singer-songwriter, to take center stage in a number of rousing musical numbers (some set to the Beach Boys’ underrated “True to Your School”), letting some magical realism seep in without it ever detracting from its inherent truthfulness. Given its melancholic ending, the dreaminess of its visuals and music, and the earnestness of the lead performers, it’s easy seeing Stargirl taking its place amongst the best high school movies ever pantheon very, very soon.
6. The One and Only Ivan
Another 2020 theatrical orphan, The One and Only Ivan is based on the best-selling and award-winning children’s novel by K.A. Applegate about a group of exotic animals who live at a Florida strip mall circus in the 1990s. The circus’ animals, brought to life by the visual effects wizards behind Disney’s The Jungle Book and Dumbo, are lovingly brought to life with celebrity voices like Angelina Jolie, Helen Mirren, Danny DeVito and Sam Rockwell, soon hatch a plan to escape their humdrum life. While the movie initially seems like something of a shallow romp, with little concern for the welfare of its animal stars, it soon begins to show its true colors, with themes of conservatism and radical animal activism eventually coming to the forefront. (The fact that the movie didn’t use actual animals goes a long way in the movie’s production reinforcing its chief thematic concerns.) Rockwell, in particular, is nuanced and gut-wrenching as a gorilla who finds escape through self-expression, and Sam Rockwell, as one of the few human characters, does an amazing job at giving dimension and grace to a character that could easily have fallen into cartoonish buffoonery or oversized, mustache-twirling villainy. (He doesn’t fit either category; his performance is a gift.) While the ending might be a little too pat and tidy, it doesn’t do anything to diminish the power and vibrancy of everything that came before it.
Don Hahn’s deeply felt documentary chronicles the rise of lyricist and storyteller Howard Ashman, who was instrumental in the reviving Disney Animation through films like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Howard utilizes archival footage, vintage photographs, and new interviews that are presented as audio only, which gives everything an fascinating juxtaposition. (Ashman died of AIDS months before Beauty and the Beast was released to theaters, soon becoming the first animated feature to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.) There’s a moment that documents the press junket for The Little Mermaid, held at the Walt Disney World resort. Howard can be seen smiling for the camera and watching a parade roll down Main Street, while at the same time we are learning from his long-time partner that he was so sick that he was wearing a catheter the entire time, getting motion sickness on the simplest rides. The nearly uniform excellence of the documentaries on Disney+, whether its features or long-form series like Into the Unknown, has become one of the highlights of the service. And Howard is the very best documentary feature on Disney+, as it opens up some of your favorite animated features and exposes the deeply complicated man that gave them their voice.
What a picture! Togo dramatizes a true-life event: in 1925, a remote Alaskan town is gripped by a horrible outbreak of diphtheria. In order to bring the necessary medicine, a bold and potentially foolhardy plan is hatched to deliver the medicine via a dangerous sled dog relay across 828 frozen miles. Facing inclement weather and harsh conditions, the dogs and drivers have to come together to get the medicine in time and save a group of children from certain death. Willem Dafoe plays Leonhard "Sepp" Seppala, the lead driver, who has a special bond with Togo, who leads the sled. While that set-up sounds fairly straightforward and potentially dull, the kind of conservative live-action movie Disney would make in the late 1960s following Walt’s death, it’s not. Director/cinematographer Ericson Core and writer Tom Flynn stage the action so that it’s interspersed with flashbacks of Togo growing up with Sepp and his wife (Julianne Nicholson) on their farm, establishing just how deeply the man and dog are connected and how they will be tested on the long journey ahead. It’s brilliant, breathtaking stuff, equal parts thrilling and deeply moving. (If you have a dog, know a dog, or have ever lost a dog, be prepared to bawl your eyes out.) Togo was one of the best films of last year and one of the best movies available on Disney+. And it’s maybe the only Disney+ original that deserved a big screen exhibition. It’s truly epic.
3. Black Is King
As far as Beyoncé projects go, Black Is King arrived with little fanfare. Described as a “visual album” in the scant marketing materials that preceded it, Black Is King ostensibly is a tie-in to her album The Gift, itself an accompaniment to Disney’s CGI Lion King remake that was released last summer and where Beyoncé gave a new voice to Simba’s one true love Nala. But Black Is King is so much more. It’s an effervescent, totally brilliant and beautifully shot ode to the multifaceted amazingness of global Blackness that also doubles as a much better remake of The Lion King itself. There’s a young king, a rise to power, a villainous uncle (who could be a drug dealer or warlord), all shot through a prism of high fashion and historical accuracy. There’s so much to love about Black Is King that it is hard to wrap your mind around specific moments. An early review compared it to Black Panther and The Tree of Life and that’s about right; it is elemental, electric and frequently jaw-dropping, simultaneously contemporary and deeply entrenched in mythology and a kind of primordial power. The fact that the project was released during a summer that has seen racial tensions violently erupt, makes Black Is King feel braver and even more timely. Also, the songs are totally killer (try getting “My Power” out of your head). It’s an astounding achievement.
Originally planned for an October 2021 theatrical release, the coronavirus led Lin-Manuel Miranda and Disney to agree to unleash Hamilton, at home more than a year early, just in time for the long Fourth of July holiday weekend. It was a stroke of marketing genius that also felt like an altruistic gesture – a move to give back to the community during an incredibly turbulent time (there’s even a brief introduction from Miranda and director Thomas Kail, recorded at their respective homes) and turn the holiday into a living, breathing history lesson. The show, of course, is a staggering achievement (it’s rightfully won literally every award it possibly could), even more-so if you haven’t seen clips or heard the music, and Kail’s direction brings the energy and liveliness of the stage performance to life in a bold new medium. (Some have stated that the filmed version diminishes the cleverness of the play’s staging; it seemed pretty clever to me.) Crucially, Hamilton brings the life of Alexander Hamilton, the troubled foundation of our country, and the oversized personalities that required such boldness in the first place, to humanistic life. No longer words on a page, they are vibrant and alive, with Miranda and Kail’s decision to cast actors of color for the roles meaning even more in 2020. There never has been anything like Hamilton before, and it feels like a blessing to have it preserved for all time.
The full five-minute preview will play exclusively before IMAX screenings of the upcoming 'Fast 9.'
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