TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Yet another TV streaming service joins the increasingly crowded entertainment universe today, as Disney launches its new online offering called Disney Plus. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a preview and some thoughts.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There's no denying the influence of Walt Disney and the Disney empire on popular entertainment. Almost a hundred years ago in the 1920s, the earliest Mickey Mouse and musical cartoons helped pioneer sound in the cinema. In the '30s, Disney's "Snow White" movie was the first feature-length cartoon. In the '50s, Disney became the first movie studio to make a deal with the then-new and threatening medium of television. Disney attacked Broadway like a conquering army and now is approaching the streaming TV universe with the same well-planned, ruthless, all-out invasion force. Its inventory of old movies and TV shows is deep and rich, and its new programming, premiering on launch day, is impressively - even surprisingly - top-notch.
Disney Plus to anyone who is a parent or has been a child isn't really a streaming TV option. It's more like a requirement. I resent having to pay more to watch more TV as much as the next guy, and Disney Plus doesn't come cheap. Its subscription costs $7 a month or $70 if you prepay for an entire year. But what you get for that may be the best bargain around, better even than the long-established Netflix or Amazon or Hulu. With Disney Plus, just from the vintage inventory alone, you get the best of Disney and Marvel and Pixar and "Star Wars." You get three decades of "The Simpsons." Synergy and corporate dominance can do that.
What is less expected, and maybe even more welcome from Disney Plus, is the new programming. Disney didn't make the new TV series spinoff from the "Star Wars" cycle - "Mandalorian," available for preview - but did provide episodes of just about everything else. Take what might as well be called the live-action movie remake of "Lady And The Tramp." I started watching it with trepidation but almost instantly embraced it wholeheartedly. This new version of the 1955 animated movie has Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux providing the voices of Lady and the Tramp, who look like real dogs but speak like people - most of the time - like the time they first meet, when Lady spies Tramp through the backyard fence.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY AND THE TRAMP")
TESSA THOMPSON: (As Lady) Where is Trusty?
JUSTIN THEROUX: (As Tramp) Trusty, I'm sure, is somewhere.
THOMPSON: (As Lady) And what are...
THEROUX: (As Tramp) Trusty? (whistles)
THOMPSON: (As Lady) ...You doing in there? Get out of there.
THEROUX: (As Tramp) Trusty.
THOMPSON: (As Lady) Hey, my people are inside. I'm going to warn them.
THEROUX: (As Tramp) Oh, no, no, no. Hey. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's not warn the people, OK? Now, I would get out of here, but I can't. Now, I'm not here to make trouble. I'm just the one that's in trouble. And you could really help me out here.
THOMPSON: (As Lady) I'm going to bark.
THEROUX: (As Tramp) No. Please just - I can explain. Just give me a second. I'm coming over.
THOMPSON: (As Lady) Here? What do you think you're doing? Hey. I'm going to bark.
THEROUX: (As Tramp) No.
THOMPSON: (As Lady) I'm going to bark.
THEROUX: (As Tramp) Please do not do that.
THOMPSON: (As Lady) I'm going to bark.
THEROUX: (As Tramp) Absolutely do not do that.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
THEROUX: (As Tramp) Stop. Hey, hey. Shh (ph). Stop it.
THOMPSON: (As Lady) Don't tell me what to do.
BIANCULLI: The new TV incarnation of the "High School Musical" franchise is pretty much what you'd expect, but another new spinoff from the latest Pixar "Toy Story" film is much more clever and novel. It stars Forky, the goofy, loosely constructed character from "Toy Story 4" as the host of his own series, "Forky Asks A Question." Each episode is weird and funny and is only three minutes long. The programs are short, but the topics can be deep.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FORKY ASKS A QUESTION")
TONY HALE: (As Forky) Hey, Forky here. How's it going? I got another question. What is a friend? Hm.
BIANCULLI: What I enjoy most of these new series so far are the nonfiction ones. Disney Plus has found people and subjects that truly match the Disney spirit, and they all start out as winners. "The World According To Jeff Goldblum" is an odd success, taking this very likable actor and sending him out into the world to explore one subject at a time, like when he rides shotgun in an ice cream truck driven by a woman named Deana (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WORLD ACCORDING TO JEFF GOLDBLUM")
JEFF GOLDBLUM: And then Deana presses a button and in an instant...
(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CREAM TRUCK MUSIC)
GOLDBLUM: ...Oh, my gosh. It all comes flooding back.
Listen to this music.
DEANA: Isn't that awesome?
GOLDBLUM: (Singing) Do do.
I think that's "Little Brown Jug."
DEANA: It is "Little Brown Jug." Yes (laughter).
GOLDBLUM: Ah, I knew it immediately.
BIANCULLI: Another nonfiction series, Marvel's "Hero Project," focuses on real-life youngsters doing amazing things, detailing their accomplishments and, as a capper, presenting them with hero team jackets and a limited edition Marvel comic in which they're the hero. It may sound calculated and corporate, but the opener made me cry. It profiles 13-year-old Jordan Reeves, born with only the upper half of her left arm, who designed a unicorn horn, manufactured with help from an inventor and mentor, to fit on her arm and shoot out glitter.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HERO PROJECT")
JORDAN REEVES: I love it. I made this, and I like this unique idea. People with two hands can't shoot glitter out of their arm - might as well take your difference and make something really cool. This shows the joy of differences.
BIANCULLI: She goes on to become a mentor herself, passing on her enthusiasm and her pride to younger kids nationwide. It's inspirational, and so is what may be my favorite series of this initial batch, "The Imagineering Story." It's a multipart documentary telling of the people behind the scenes who worked with Walt Disney to create Disneyland and other imaginative wonders. These behind-the-scenes interviews and film clips are fascinating, and Disney himself comes off as truly stubbornly visionary. When he hosted the first episode of his weekly ABC television series in 1954 and called it "Disneyland," his California theme park of the same name hadn't even been built yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DISNEYLAND")
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Here now to tell you about it is Walt Disney.
WALT DISNEY: Welcome. We want you to share with us our latest and greatest dream. That's it right here - Disneyland, seen from about 2,000 feet in the air and 10 months away.
BIANCULLI: Disney had an amazing vision then, and Disney Plus has an amazing vision now. It would have been foolish to bet against Disney in the 1920s and the '30s and the '50s. And based on what Disney Plus is presenting out of the gate, it would be foolish to bet against Disney now.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and is a professor of television at New Jersey's Rowan University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be actor Willem Dafoe. The four-time Oscar nominee has portrayed a vampire, villains and soldiers, as well as Vincent Van Gogh and Jesus. He's currently appearing with Edward Norton in the film "Motherless Brooklyn," and he stars as a crusty lighthouse keeper in the drama "The Lighthouse." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Theresa Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.