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Nostalgia Overload: Disney Plus Originals Lean Too Hard on Hits of the Past (Column)

“It was often thought that nostalgia was a bad thing,” Jeff Goldblum intones in his new Disney Plus documentary series, “The World According to Jeff Goldblum.” “It was thought to be an illness. But nostalgia can be a potent psychological force for uplifting.” 

He’s talking, here, about ice cream. “It’s like a time machine,” he says, sounding like Don Draper describing a photo carousel, “this lovely sweet treat, in that it can take us back to a time when we were happy, when we first enjoyed it.” But he could as easily be providing the pitch for Disney Plus itself. The streamer, which launches Nov. 12, promises viewers something that delighted them in youth no matter what their age now: The Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar libraries are represented, with “The Simpsons” and National Geographic TV brand thrown in for good measure. Disney Plus’s catalog offerings are unmatched — indeed, they’re winning a game in which some other competitors, like the originals-only Apple Plus, aren’t even competing. But Goldblum’s show and its peers on Disney Plus suggest that, in crafting new programming, Disney has a rock-solid sense of its past and a deep uncertainty about how to move forward. Its launch is a milestone in making library material available, and — with one notable exception — a non-event for viewers seeking out new programming. 

That exception is “The Mandalorian,” a “Star Wars” TV series that was not made available to critics prior to air. The first live-action “Star Wars” series is obviously the marquee new offering, just as the Jennifer Aniston-Reese Witherspoon duet “The Morning Show” is for Apple.

Beyond those two similarly extravagantly attention-getting shows, Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus have opposite problems. Without any catalog at all to draw in viewers, Apple was forced to work each of its shows into something that could entice a different segment of the audience, resulting in a brand that has no brand profile at all. Leaning heavily on its history, Disney has made several shows that restage old stories, but nothing I’ve seen so far resonates too deeply.

Goldblum’s series relies on the actor’s self-styled nerd-suavity to place him on a half-hour journey each episode through the manufacture of some consumer good. It’s through this that we get his telling us that when you look at an ice cream cone, “maybe you see a torch that leads to a brighter tomorrow.” He sings “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie,” a song that comes up again in “Encore!,” about high school musical performers reunited to restage productions years or decades later. This show, at least, has the benefit of being at times thrillingly dark: A cast member resentful about being stuck playing Mrs. Potts in “Beauty and the Beast” again is asked what she’d tell her high school self, and replies “Sorry, but you will not outgrow your personality.” She later bursts into an allergic rash when trying on her teapot costume, and weeps while telling the thespian playing Belle she’s “a beautiful Disney princess.” 

The Goldblum show is as laconic as its lead, trying to do nothing more than be an amiable hang. (Those averse to Goldblum’s affectations or to the concept of a professional enthusiast will find it grating.) “Encore!” allows in the possibility of sadness or strangeness — with adults acting out high-school-musical roles, it’s a bit like a scheme on the humiliation-fueled unscripted series about desperate people “Nathan for You,” absent a punchline. In place of that final jolt comes the moment of uplift, the moment of Disney-princess-for-a-day branding.

That uplift is there no matter what, and one wishes at times the streamer would give up the pretense of trying to do something different. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” a mockumentary aimed at teens and at adults looking back fondly at the early Zac Efron era, adopts a sardonic attitude about the Disney Channel franchise. The series is a meta journey, as “High School Musical” fans and detractors perform in a stage version in their own, fictional, high school. And they confess their sometimes snarky thoughts on the process in “Modern Family”-ish asides to the camera.  But when the time comes for a big solo, the “HSM” house style re-emerges: swelling, titanic vocals emerge from a performer barely moving her lips. Is subverting the formula anything more than an academic exercise if the formula is where we return? 

Earnestness reigns: “Marvel’s Hero Project” has an unimpeachable mission of bringing the limelight to kids who’ve overcome challenges, granting them access to the Marvel mothership. (Only a churl would roll his eyes when a Marvel VP, in a staged conference of higher-ups at the company, says that a young woman with a congenital amputation who had learned to 3-D print had “almost a Wakandan point of view.”) But earnestness has its uses, and its shortfalls. “Lady and the Tramp,” a feature-length adaptation of the puppy-love cartoon, is as grave about what it sets out to do as have been other recent Disney reboots. It siphons away the brevity (bloating a 76-minute yarn to an hour and 40 minutes) and much of the levity. While “Forky Asks a Question,” a series of ultra-shorts built around Tony Hale’s “Toy Story 4” character, has the advantage of slightness, it seems in this somewhat cynical context like a brand extension more than a brief romp. It seems to be setting up the sequel more than existing for itself, or for viewers now. 

Disney has every right to flex. Today, it is the dominant entertainment conglomerate, and one whose supremacy lacks precedent. It is launching a service that trades off its history in a manner that virtually guarantees a splashy launch. But, whatever “The Mandalorian” will be aside, it’s surprising to see a new service provide quite so little to those outside its core audience. Disney Plus’ new programming adds marginal value for anyone deeply dialed into the Disney corporation and its legacy, and little else. Maybe that’s OK — maybe it would jeopardize Disney’s image to have any programming riskier than the emotionally raw “Encore!” available to stream. But it generates a lot of reiterative programming that feels disposable — not traditionally a Disney virtue.

This endless recycling explains why the best of the new offerings I saw on Disney Plus was “The Imagineering Story.” The documentary — directed by Leslie Iwerks, the granddaughter of the animator who co-created Mickey Mouse — indulges itself in nostalgia unstintingly, almost gluttonously. Its narrative is of a time in which the best way for the Walt Disney Co. to extend its reach beyond the movie theater was through the construction of theme parks, and it tells a lovingly wonkish tale of the “Imagineers” who made the park happen. In any other context, it’d be corporate propaganda. But listening to the voice of the late Walt Disney lecturing his designers “If any of you start to rest on your laurels, just forget it” in the aftermath of the Disneyland launch provided a moving counterpoint to quite so much laurel-sitting. Disney — the man and the company — changed the way we view entertainment several times over, and its legacy is laudable. But legacy is no substitute for a night’s entertainment, and the sweet treat of nostalgia only nourishes so much. That’s a message that, for now, this new streamer seems content to rest without heeding.

(Pictured: “The World According to Jeff Goldblum”)

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