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The best of Disney+

HOME KINO! The House of Mouse has rolled out its streaming service in Germany. Whether you're debating a subscription or just looking for some home kino inspo, here are our critic's top pics,

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Disney+ has rolled out in Germany. Should you subscribe?

After having given Netflix plenty of spotlight these last two weeks – somewhat begrudgingly, since let’s not forget these are the people who have the tendency to exploitatively and undeservingly give platforms of notoriety to people like Joe Exotic or Gwyneth Paltrow and her smug peddling of harmful Goop bullshit – it’s time to give another entertainment juggernaut some attention.

That being said, do check out our top documentary pics and the ideal pandemic and confinement streams. And before you think we’ve gone all corporate in a bid to cater for the widest streaming audience possible (in today’s case, for the sake of topicality), we remind you that – amongst others – Arsenal are offering access to their film vault for free and Yorck Kinos and MUBI have teamed up for VoD goodness. Also, don’t forget that Berlin Revolutionary Film Festival is livestreaming their 4th edition this weekend.

But timeliness is a cruel mistress and last week, Disney+ rolled out in Germany. Previously only available in the US, Canada and the Netherlands, the new direct-to-consumer streaming service has been made available to several European countries as of March 24. Considering the House of Mouse fills its Scrooge McDuck vaults of gold doubloons on the back of films and theme parks (both ventures currently shut down, with parks indefinitely closed and the film industry as a whole having been abruptly halted by COVID-19), the rollout of Disney + comes at an opportune time. Especially since they’ve had to shift their entire film release schedule: Mulan was supposed to hit cinemas last week and is now optimistically delayed to July; the entire MCU Phase 4 rollout has been rejigged (Black Widow will now come out on November 6 and Eternals has been pushed back to February 12, 2021); and the company’s adaptation of the popular YA book series Artemis Fowl (originally scheduled to open on May 29) is now bypassing a theatrical release altogether and instead heading “exclusively” to Disney+ in the coming months.

Not that it’s worth worrying too much about their calendar issues or their financial wellbeing, mind you. They’ll be just fine. It is, however, worth pondering whether you should subscribe to the Disney’s latest step towards complete global domination.

While the streaming marketplace is already overcrowded and no one really needs yet another subscription, the new kid on the streaming block has made its platform an alluring prospect, especially considering the current lockdown policies and their theatre-bypassing / straight-to-streaming tactic. The new streaming service pulls together all of the Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars and National Geographic content – thereby removing it from other streaming platforms, with a handful of exceptions. They’re also boasting all 30 seasons of The Simpsons (which Disney acquired as part of its merger with 20th Century Fox), those delightful Pixar shorts, and a rare collection of vintage Disney shorts released between the early 1930s and the mid-1950s, including Mickey’s colour debut The Brand Concert.

Whether or not you think that’s worth splashing out the monthly €6.99 (or yearly €69.99) is between you and current CEO Bob Chapek. However, it can’t be denied that Disney+’s online catalogue of newbies, revived classics and repidly expanding set of exclusives does feel like good value for money right now. Especially if you have littluns at home who are starting to bounce off the walls and who need to see Ratatouille right away because their tiny lives will never be the same again. Oh dear God, what kind of neglectful parent are you, why hasn’t your precious offspring seen Ratatouille yet, hmm hmm hmmmmm???

Without further ado, here are our recommendations for what to watch on Disney+.  

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Was there ever any doubt as to what our top pick was going to be?

Many will be rushing to watch the early online releases of titles like Frozen 2 and Onward. The latter – which is Pixar’s lowest-grossing movie, due in part to the closing of theatres and the fact it’s not all that great – opened in theatres less than a month ago and is already online, in a theatre-to-streaming record time. Our advice: don’t waste your time. Both Frozen 2 and Onward are fine but sadly emblematic of the studio kicking it back and switching on the autopilot, resulting in films that lack the emotional depth and thematic definition of other, far superior films. Speaking of which, there will be discerning cinephiles who eruditely argue that Wall-E and Inside Out are the high watermarks. Nice tries, but the crown – or chef’s hat – belongs to Little Chef.

You’ve got to hand it to Pixar on this one – the elevator pitch of a country rodent scurrying around a kitchen and restoring a Parisian restaurant to its former glory by helping a bumbling wannabe-chef to cook the ultimate French Provençal vegetable dish is… odd, to say the very least. But Brad Bird and his team transformed this whimsically nuts idea into a gorgeously animated celebration about following your passion, reminding you that creative excellence can come from anyone. More than that, he delivered a beautifully surreal thesis on the nature of criticism. Considering the original director Jan Pinkava was fired a year before the movie was scheduled to be released and they had to assemble the movie in a mere 18 months, expectations were more than surpassed.

Particularly impressive is the way the film makes culinary prowess joyfully cinematic, with slapstick goodness and visual representations of flavours and odours. These elements ensure that Ratatouille is a colourful ride for the kids, as well as Proustian meditation for the older viewers about how we lose sight of what moves us because of the pessimisms of adult life.

Whether you’re catching up on a bona fide masterpiece or revisiting it for the millionth time (and appreciating all those little details like Anton Ego’s skull-shaped typewriter, or how our young chef protagonist is wearing Incredibles underpants), Ratatouille is a sensory and emotional delight that’s downright delicious.

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Return to Oz

Once you’re done delighting the littluns with Ratatouille, how about mentally scarring them with wounds they’ll carry into adult life? Nightmare-fuel and reason why this film critic’s future psychologist is destined to have an almighty meltdown, this 1985 offering saw Disney exploring how far they could venture into more adult territory. Safe to say they ended up slamming on the accelerator a bit too hard.

Much darker than your average kids’ film, Return To Oz is the positively traumatizing sequel to The Wizard Of Oz. It sees Dorothy’s guardians convinced she’s mad and attempt to commit her to an asylum. Our heroine is subjected to sinister shock-treatment sessions but manages to escape and heads back to the magical world of Oz. However, when she finds her way back to the Yellow Brick Road, everything is in ruins; Lion and the Tin Man have been turned to stone and Scarecrow has been kidnapped. In order to save Oz from the Nome King and the witch Mombi, she’ll have to team up with a nightmarish roster consisting of wind-up man Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead and Belinna the talking chicken.

Yes, really.

Directed by Walter Murch (best known as the editor of The Godfather), Return To Oz came out 45 years after the beloved original, and it’s…different. Most likely the result of a collective 1970s drug comedown, the best way to appreciate the movie’s dread-soaked atmosphere and get the full experience is ideally under the influence of the devil’s cabbage.

That said, Return To Oz deserves much credit for its sheer boldness, and remains fascinatingly weird. Taking a page from The Dark Crystal’s playbook, the emphasis on the darker sides of L. Frank Baum’s Oz mythology is mesmerizing. The true nightmares come from the rather excellent use of puppetry, claymation and animatronics; the worst of the bunch are the inhabitants of this darker Oz, The Wheelers, which made a whole generation of kids fast-forward the VHS just so they could stand a chance of getting some shuteye. The Wheelers are the unholy marriage of contorted men and malevolent wheelchairs; they cackle and use their distended limbs to chase Dorothy through the ruins of Oz, and it’s… not right. Just not right.

Definitely one to keep as an in-case-of-emergency back-up option if your wee bairns are misbehaving.

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The Mandalorian

We couldn’t really do a piece about Disney+ without mentioning their flagship launch show. That said, it’s bloody good fun, and no Star Wars fan should be without it.

Taking place after the dissolution of the Empire, between The Return Of The Jedi and The Force Awakens, our titular hero is a bounty-hunting gunslinger (wearing a similar armour to fan-favourite Boba Fett) who ends up as the guardian of a valuable cargo. You’ve probably guessed what (or who) that is, but no further spoilers shall be revealed here.

Essentially a Star Wars Western (so, Firefly), John Favreau’s labour of love is free of all the Skywalker force hereditary, jedi destinies and all the other mythology burdens the Saga has slogged around all these lightyears. Like Rogue One, The Mandalorian mercifully focuses on what’s happening on the ground as opposed to space-based laser scuffles, and it breathes a gritty puff of life into a franchise that desperately needed some TLC after The Rise Of Skywalker’s shenanigans.

It’s a strong calling card for Disney+’s original programming. The eight episodes are great fun and the production values are excellent; the darker aesthetics recall the aforementioned Rogue One, and series writer Favreau channels the spirit of Sergio Leone and Kurosawa to great effect. The world-building is also extremely well handled, without any contrived exposition dumps.

There is without a doubt a mid-season dip, which is a shame considering the reduced number of episodes: episodes four and five are pace-deprived bum notes. Thankfully, the back-end of the series delivers the goods, with the lion’s share of praise going to the Taika Waititi-directed series finale, which combines enough thrills and perfectly-executed gags to make you hope the rumours are true (despite what he says) about being approached to direct a Star Wars film of his own.  

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10 Things I Hate About You

When you’re done fawning over Baby Yoda (and, let’s face facts, no one would blame you), treat yourself to a pitch-perfect 90s coming-of-age rom-com, and one of the best Shakespeare adaptations out there.

Loosely based on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, 10 Things I Hate About You stars a fresh-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as new kid in school, Cameron. He quickly falls for Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) but can’t date her unless her sister Kat (Julia Stiles) has a squeeze of her own, as per their father’s strict dating rules. Enter brooding high school bad boy Patrick (Heath Ledger, in his first American movie), who accepts to be bribed by Cameron to take out Kat…

Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (a title inspired by one of the film’s screenwriters finding her old high-school diary, which included a list she’d made of the things she hated about her then-boyfriend) stands alongside Clueless as two of the best modernised retellings of literary classics. Both are the ones to beat when it comes to 90s teen comedies and, like The Breakfast Club before it, this crowd-pleasing triumph of a film has genuine affection for its protagonists and their tricky age. It’s an appropriately angsty but also empathetic portrait of adolescence. Moreover, screenwriting duo Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith make it a slyly subversive comedy that has more feminist credentials than many of its genre neighbours. (Quite the feat, considering how brutally misogynistic the source material is.)

Having just turned 21 a few days ago (and therefore legally allowed to drink in the US, if bars were still open), 10 Things I Hate About You holds up to this day. It’s much more than a nostalgic trip to a simpler time: it’s a teen-movie-done-perfect, one that taught us to blaze our own paths and that while you can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, the only place where you can be ‘whelmed’ is Europe. If you add Daryl Mitchell’s unpredictable English teacher, Alison Janney’s memorable one-liners as the erotica-penning guidance counsellor, as well as the film’s kick-arse and quintessentially 90s soundtrack (featuring Letters To Cleo, Sister Hazel and Semisonic), and you’ve got yourself a classic.

And of course, there’s Ledger serenading Stiles with some Frankie Valli on the bleachers, in arguably the best musical sequence in a teen movie since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. All together now: “You’re just too good to be true…”

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X-Men: The Animated Series

While there’s a case to be made for sitting down to a marathon of Marvel’s Infinity Saga (as you wait for Disney+’s first wave of exclusive Marvel series to come out later this year, like The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and WandaVision), consider binging the 90s animated series of the X-Men instead.

Originally airing from October 1992 to September 1997, this brightly coloured show stands as many people’s favourite cartoon of the 90s, alongside Batman: The Animated Series and Animaniacs. It captures the decade well, and consequently has aged quite terribly. Still, no matter how epically silly or heroically stupid the 76 episodes often are, this series still tops the movies we got. Some came close (X2 and Days Of Future Past), but you just can’t beat that fluorescent yellow spandex and Storm stretching her lexical field of nature as she constantly belts out weather-based words while levitating to the heavens.

The show adapted the most famous X-Men storylines, including the aforementioned Days Of Future Past, and the infamous Dark Phoenix Saga. Spanning 9 episodes, the animated series managed what no feature length film has thus far accomplished: deliver a satisfying adaptation of the Dark Phoenix, their most popular narrative arc.

Much like the allegorical content of the comic books, the animated series also doesn’t fail to do justice to the core themes of tackling prejudice and racism, even if it gets sledgehammer-subtle at times. Best of all though, the five seasons function as a whole, demonstrating a canny understanding on the creators’ behalves of the mythology and the ongoing narrative arcs. (Even though you’d do well not to bother with season 5, which is a hot mess.)

A warning not worth ignoring: that infuriatingly catchy theme song will latch onto your auditory cortex and stay burrowed there for the foreseeable future. It’s a powerful earworm, only equalled by the MacGyver and Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds theme songs. You’ve been warned.

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Free Solo

As proof that Disney+ isn’t just the MCU and Jedis, Free Solo comes to the streaming service thanks to the joint venture the House of Mouse has with National Geographic. And despite its name, it has nothing to do with Han.

Free Solo is the story of Alex Honnold, a 33-year-old who got it into his stubborn skull to do something no one else has done: ascend the “3000 feet of sheer granite” that is Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, all without the pesky business of a safety harness.

It’s a riveting Oscar-winning documentary that will give you more heart palpitations and sweaty palms than some of the most accomplished horror films out there. It has its fair share of vertigo-inducing shots, which are simultaneously stunning and terrifying. The camerawork is as vertiginously breathtaking as you’d expect from the filmmakers behind the 2015 documentary Meru, with the climbing filmed by Jimmy Chin and his team of accomplished climbers.

Chin co-directs with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhely. Together, they craft, on a primary level, an immersive and dizzying documentary about an all-engulfing passion. On a deeper level, they focus on the psychology behind Honnold’s actions, and the film becomes a thought-provoking portrait of an inherently unbalanced relationship. Indeed, we initially follow Alex’s story from his perspective and, in the second half, increasingly see his actions through the POV of his new and already long-suffering girlfriend (and audience proxy) Sanni. She tries to get through to her emotionally stunted partner, attempting to come to terms with what many would dismiss as thrill-seeking behaviour bordering on a cavalier death-wish. He clearly states that his lifestyle is antithetical to forming long-lasting romantic relationships and as a character study, Free Solo is noteworthy in the way it addresses the ‘why’ behind Honnold’s obsession. He has the attitude of an overgrown man-child who may be on the spectrum, and who represents a form of masculine self-absorption that shields itself behind sporting ambition. Crucially, the film digs into this and is never over-reverent to its central protagonist or blind to the way his drive negatively affects those around him, whether it be Sanni or the filmmakers themselves, who are aware they could be prepping to film someone’s final climb.

Try to project this one on the biggest blank wall you have.

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The World According to Jeff Goldblum

Sticking with National Geographic, The World According to Jeff Goldblum is Disney+’s first original production with their partner channel. It’s a 12-episode TV series that follows actor and inquisitive soul Jeff Goldblum who… uh… finds a way to travel the US, finding out facts about things.

Yep, it’s that simple. Facts. About things.

Each episode centres around one thing (ice cream, video games, coffee and tattoos are amongst this season’s topics), and Goldblum delves into the history and science behind the everyday elements we often overlook or take for granted. Cheekily self-aware and wisely unscripted, this series allows Goldblum to unleash his bottomless zeal for EVERYTHING. He can be as eccentric as he damn well pleases, and this bears its fruits in the guest segments in particular, when the actor turns into an expectedly affable but very shrewd interviewer.

The episodes clock in at 30-minutes each, so don’t expect a deep dive or any facts a Google-search couldn’t unearth. That said, the show doesn’t just coast on the host’s quirkiness or boundless enthusiasm – several episodes have something to say about our consumer-driven culture, especially the pilot episode, which zones in on the sneaker business.

It may not be a travel show per se, nor quite as charming as Stephen Fry going around the US in a black cab in 2008’s Stephen Fry in America, but The World According To Jeff Goldblum is still pretty damn delightful. Disney are clearly happy with it, since Season 2 has already been commissioned. Uh…dig in.

That’s it from us this week. Happy subscribing, be kind to each other and stay tuned to exberliner.com during the coming weeks for exclusive content and more home-viewing tips.