You’re stuck at home in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. With most major American cities on lockdown, or something approaching lockdown, and only so many things to do in your house to keep yourself entertained, you’ll probably turn to a streaming service to be occupied. (Yes, we should all read more books now. But let’s be honest with ourselves. We’re streaming stuff. It’s OK.) One of the newest and most popular streaming options is Disney+. Whether you’re part of a family or not, you may wind up on the service, to check out a Marvel movie or Toy Story 4 or, hey, didn’t they just add Frozen II a couple months early?
And that’s all well and good. Streaming services such as Disney+ are likely going to see an upswing of traffic simply because there are fewer available distractions for the moment. (In fact, they’ve gotten so popular that Netflix and YouTube have lowered their speeds to handle the extreme traffic.) But if you spend enough time on Disney+ — and hey, you’ve got the time — you might start exploring outside the most obvious titles and be thrown off by what you find. Even if your knowledge of Disney is cursory at best, the problem isn’t you: the problem is Disney+, a streaming service with the power of the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the world, but with absolutely no coherent brand identity.
Back in February, before the world became [gestures around to everything] this, Disney+ wound up in the news as a source of frivolous frustration. First, there was the announcement that a spin-off of the recent dramedy Love, Simon would be moving from Disney+ to Hulu. The series, also taking place in the high school where the 2018 film is set, was apparently going to be much too adult for the Disney+ audience. Like Love, Simon, this spinoff, titled Love, Victor, would be about a teenage boy embracing his sexuality over time. Disney+ executives were apparently turned off by, among other things, “alcohol use and sexual exploration”. The show still survives, of course, but the implication is, Disney+ cannot be a home for such mature content.
That same week, it was revealed that the Lizzie McGuire revival, also set to be on Disney+, was now potentially going to shift to Hulu — by request of star and producer Hilary Duff. After the showrunner, Terri Minsky (who created the Disney Channel program that kickstarted Duff’s career), was let go from the project, it became clear the star was displeased. She went on to social media, after the Love, Victor announcement, and all but begged Disney to shift the project to Hulu so it could still be the story she and Minsky wanted to tell. From all accounts, the revival of Lizzie McGuire was going to be a natural extension of the original, single-camera comedy-drama, about a single woman at age 30 in New York City. So, in short, not automatically family-friendly material.
February also marked the arrival of another show once earmarked for Disney+, a TV version of High Fidelity, with a gender-swapped lead character, now played by Zoë Kravitz. The show eventually wound up on Hulu, which seemed like it was always the correct location for a program dealing with frank sexual situations, inspired by both an R-rated comedy and a Nick Hornby book that’s decidedly not for kids. The only surprise with High Fidelity isn’t that it went to Hulu; it’s that the show was ever considered as a Disney+ original. If all of these decisions aren’t baffling enough, consider an apparent recent poll sent out to some Disney+ subscribers, asking if they might want to see shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the service. How would any of these new shows be deemed inappropriate if Buffy is considered appropriate?
But all of these TV-related decisions reflect a larger problem Disney+ has, a problem that’s being given a lot more attention now that we all have a lot more time on our hands to stream stuff. While Disney owns seemingly everything in popular culture, they’ve managed to dilute their own identity to the point that they don’t have one anymore. A recent article in The Hollywood Reporter, focusing on Bob Iger’s priorities now that he’s not the CEO of the company, mentioned that “Disney’s guidepost for the service as a whole is to create a family-friendly, PG-13 environment that reflects the company’s core values”. Whatever you think of Disney, the PG-13 rating is likely not one of them, especially since it took the Walt Disney Pictures brand until 2003 to even release a film that was rated PG-13. Disney and family-friendly go hand in hand; Disney and PG-13 don’t.
The baffling dichotomy of something that’s “family-friendly” and also PG-13 is reflected in the catalog offerings you can find on Disney+, separated into five different tiles: Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic. Some of those tiles are easy enough to grasp — Pixar has only made so many films and shorts, and while some of them are creatively quite daring, the studio has always told stories that the entire family can enjoy, for no more than a PG rating. Star Wars, too, is easy enough to wrap your head around, with only a couple handfuls of feature films, and animated TV series like The Clone Wars that may be for older kids, but kids nonetheless.
Yet “Disney” is a large enough tile, even if you’re just considering the films they released before they started distributing Pixar movies. That’s where the confusion really begins.
Consider a couple examples. In the mood for a family comedy? How about a wacky live-action movie about three bachelors who find themselves being in the strange position of taking care of an infant. Yes, Three Men and a Baby, from the Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures, is on Disney+ for your viewing pleasure. The three bachelors get into some wacky hijinks after one of them (Ted Danson) tells the other two (Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg) to keep an incoming package to their joint apartment a secret. When a baby shows up on their doorstep, Selleck and Guttenberg think that’s the package; as they soon learn, the actual package is a kilo of heroin!
It’s such a hilarious mix-up…hmm? Yes, you read that right — one of the heroes of this movie is helping traffic some heroin for a director friend of his, but the other two leads of the film are unaware. So when some nasty drug dealers come calling for their payment, Selleck and Guttenberg’s charcters think the hoodlums want the baby. So what do the good guys do? Hand off the baby…to a pair of drug dealers. This is in a film on Disney+.
OK, maybe Three Men and a Baby isn’t quite appropriate for the whole family. Let’s try another wacky live-action comedy on Disney+: Splash. It’s the film that kicked off the big-screen career of Tom Hanks, and is a very high-concept story indeed: a New Yorker is stunned to meet and fall in love with a real mermaid, played by Daryl Hannah. Splash is an under-the-sea Meet Cute, and once these two young folks have met each other, they … have sex. A lot of sex.
You might wonder why Disney would ever release a raunchy sex comedy to begin with. Fun fact: Although Disney was the only studio to greenlight this pitch, its CEO at the time, Ron Miller, instinctively knew that Splash ran against the values of the Walt Disney Company. So, he commissioned the aforementioned new distribution unit, Touchstone Pictures, and Splash was its first release. Second fun fact: Go to Disney+ right now, search for Splash, and note that its MPAA rating is listed as PG-13. This is … wrong. The movie was released a few months before that rating existed, and Disney never re-submitted it to get a different rating. It’s not that Splash wouldn’t earn a PG-13 rating. It would. But it didn’t.
OK, so maybe a comedy with drug dealers is out, and so too is the movie about a dude shtupping a mermaid. Let’s leave behind movies entirely. How about something animated, you may think? Well, one of the biggest Disney+ titles is one of the longest-running TV series ever made, The Simpsons. No need to debate the quality of this program; at its best, it’s the funniest show ever aired on American television. But you could choose any number of episodes, from The Simpsons’ early days or the last five years, and find lots and lots and lots of inappropriate content.
Sexual content? How about “Natural Born Kissers”, in which Homer and Marge’s sex life is revived because they have sex in public places? Drug use, real or implied? There’s always “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”, in which Homer eats some “Guatemalan insanity peppers” and hallucinates a talking coyote voiced by Johnny Cash. Alcohol use? Aside from thinking about the many hundreds of times you see Homer down a can of Duff, how about “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment”, in which Bart gets drunk at a St. Patrick’s Day parade and Homer leads an anti-prohibition crusade?
Many of these are brilliant half-hours of television, and quite funny too. And yes, they are animated. They’re also arguably not remotely appropriate for little kids. At the very least, they pose the same content issues that Love, Victor would have, if not also the Lizzie McGuire revival. The Simpsons no doubt would often be a PG-13 rated TV show; many of its episodes get the TV-14 rating. But the show, and the 2007 film, are both available on Disney+, right next to Frozen II, Toy Story, and the like.
There is a kids-only function on Disney+, which severely limits the content you can access. That’s the good news. But the reality is, the all-encompassing version of Disney+ is largely a Wild West of content with very little policing available. You can, of course, find the “outdated cultural depictions” tag associated with many titles on Disney+ (though notably not something like The Simpsons, which only recently came under fire for having white actor Hank Azaria voice the Indian convenience store owner Apu for so long). But that tag is deliberately vague, and if you just click Play on a title, you might not even notice it.
Thus, Disney+ has a splintered brand identity: all for one, no matter what. This is the result of the Walt Disney Company gobbling up as many studios and distributors as possible. But it results in confusion, because even the five tiles displayed on Disney+ don’t tell the whole story. There are still only a few 20th Century Fox films on the streamer, but Disney does have Fox content aside from The Simpsons. (They have, for some reason, not yet used Hulu for more mature fare the way that they do with new TV shows.) No doubt, some of the Fox titles are hung up in distribution deals with other streaming services. But one day, they’ll all belong to Disney.
What can Disney do to better identify what Disney+ stands for? First, use Hulu for more than just new TV shows. (And for shows like Buffy … keep them on Hulu.) Arguably, even films like Splash and Three Men and a Baby should go to that service, too. And other films, especially those from Touchstone that are undoubtedly inappropriate for Disney+, could also be sent to Hulu, strengthening that service’s brand without causing any grief for families watching Disney+. For the hundreds of remaining films on Disney+, something more than just bland umbrella tiles could refocus the situation.
But the most important part is that whoever’s running the show at Disney+ should do more than just throw hundreds of titles on to the service and hope they stick. That mentality is why you can watch a PG-13 comedy where three bachelors have to elude a drug dealer, or a movie about a yuppie shtupping a mermaid, right in between selecting Mickey Mouse shorts or the latest Marvel entry. After all, Disney+ is getting an even bigger, more unexpected bump right now at a time when they don’t even have a lot of flashy new titles. So, it’d be a shame if they don’t take advantage of the spotlight for once.