The result may be a comforting, reliable bundle for consumers. But Disney’s very dominion over old classics may make it more difficult for artists to create new ones.
The Walt Disney Co. has defined itself over the past 15 years by its acquisitions of large swaths of America’s pop cultural history. After he became CEO in 2005, Robert Iger engineered the purchase of Pixar Animation Studios. In 2009, Disney bought Marvel Entertainment, followed by Lucasfilm in 2012. And Disney’s biggest takeover began in the fall of 2017, when the company announced plans to gobble up 21st Century Fox. This concentration of cultural capital has given Disney enormous influence. And whatever original content it has to offer, the real pitch for Disney Plus is that the service offers a streaming version of your childhood, whether your youth is defined by one of the companies Disney snapped up, or even 30 seasons of “The Simpsons.”
Other Hollywood conglomerates such as NBCUniversal (with its streaming service Peacock) and WarnerMedia (with its streaming service HBO Max) are attempting to follow in the paw prints of Mickey Mouse and friends. And while each of these services promises new films and TV shows centered around already-familiar intellectual property, from “Game of Thrones” to “Battlestar Galactica,” none of them can match Walt Disney’s unshakable foothold in Americans’ collective memories.
Disney Plus will be the only digital home for the “Star Wars” franchise, for holiday perennials such as “Home Alone,” for animated fare including “The Lion King,” Disney Junior TV shows like “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” and more. Though Peacock and HBO Max have some older fare, Disney Plus has seemingly everything. If you have kids, subscribing to Disney Plus will be an inevitability. Even if you don’t, the service will have something for you.
In the interim, that’s the good news for consumers who want to bask in the familiar. But even in the early days of the service, the limits of this ouroboros of nostalgia are clear. Alongside that “Lady and the Tramp” remake, Disney Plus is reviving the 2006 TV-movie “High School Musical” as a new TV show called “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”; this is a case of millennial-era nostalgia for a project most notable for kickstarting its leads’ careers, not for being a genuine classic. The nostalgia isn’t even subtext: One of the service’s new reality shows, “Encore!”, is all about adults returning to their high schools to perform in encore presentations of stage shows they appeared in as teenagers.
This strategy is both cynical and largely successful. Both “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were massive, billion-dollar-grossing successes worldwide this year. If nostalgia turns into infinite piles of money, why would Disney ever make anything new? And by sending such a powerful signal about what it considers viable, Disney risks shrinking the ambitions of a generation of filmmakers, telling them that the only direction to look if they want to stay employed is toward the past.
By this standard, a genuinely creative remake, like the 2016 redo of “Pete’s Dragon” by director and co-writer David Lowery starts to look daring, if not enduring. But for all Lowery used the title and premise of a boy in the woods with a dragon for a best friend to tell a whole new story about friendship, loss and makeshift families, it’s hard not to feel like this new normal is a little depressing. It makes business sense for Disney to create new versions of what you fell in love with before. But what happens if familiarity starts to breed contempt?
This backward-looking approach isn’t just bad for consumers, who are encouraged to confine themselves for the familiar and safe. Eventually, it will be bad for the Walt Disney Co., too. Even nostalgia has its limits, both in terms of how much appetite consumers have for reliving their pasts, as well as for how much of the company’s past that’s available to resurrect. A vital part of the Disney tradition is genuine creativity: At some point, maybe the House of Mouse’s nostalgia trip will encourage Disney to start inventing the future again instead of merely mining the past.