Disney Plus launched a year ago in North America, on November 12, 2019 – which could mean you have subscriptions on the brink of renewal if you're reading this.
This week, I watched Tim Burton's Frankenweenie for the first time on Disney Plus. I'd not seen it before. I was surprised by how charming this stop-motion animated movie was, and would rate it at least as highly as a mid-level Pixar film – it was a nice, somewhat rare example of finding a hidden gem on Disney Plus.
How is Disney Plus doing?
The library of Disney's streaming service isn't that deep, even a year later. But I'm not entirely sure that's a weakness. Disney Plus still costs about the same as a video game to have for an entire year – $70 / £60 / AU$89.99. In terms of hours invested, I've probably watched less than one hundred hours of Disney Plus in the past 12 months, most of that encompassing episodes of The Simpsons and The Mandalorian.
If you live in a household with children, though, who like to watch the same two or three movies over and over again, it's likely getting far more usage. Disney Plus is still ultimately a family-focused service – and that market is served very well by the library of movies here. In the US, that selection has slowly grown over the year, as major films have exited Netflix US and made the leap over to the service, including Solo and The Incredibles 2. Lots of originals are aimed at kids, too, like game shows and Diary of a Future President.
For adults, Disney Plus's first year has been more about tentpole releases, like Hamilton, or The Mandalorian or the early release of Frozen 2 – there haven't been that many of them, really.
In fact, this first year has almost felt like an early access period for devotees – a chance to enjoy the library, while future years are likely when we'll see a solid rotation of originals begin to emerge.
The Simpsons, of course, remains one of the rare TV gems that adults can binge watch on the service – it's rare I find myself in the same mood to watch Duck Tales, nice as it is to have. Recent National Geographic series The Right Stuff also hints at the kind of shows Disney Plus might release for adults that aren't based on big media properties.
We've also seen a slow migration of Fox movies to the service in the US, like The Greatest Showman and several X-Men films, which have padded out some quieter months. For audiovisual enthusiasts, too, the abundance of 4K, HDR-ready content on Disney Plus for a single price remains a great incentive to sign up.
So, the foundation of the service remains solid – it's just not consistently a heavy hitter for originals just yet, which is pretty much where we were at launch.
Worth it for year two?
But will it be worth subscribing for another year? Honestly, it probably depends on how you already feel about your experience with the service.
$70 isn't that much by itself, but in conjunction with the many other services offered in the US like HBO Max, it starts to add up. If you don't think the cadence of original content on the service is fast enough, it might be worth subscribing on a monthly basis when you see something you like, rather than taking the yearly option.
The state of content
Disney has been hit hard by the pandemic. On the streaming side, this meant we missed out on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the first canonical MCU show, which was once planned for an August release date and is now coming in 2021.
But Covid-19 also resulted in the musical Hamilton skipping a theatrical release and landing straight on the service in time for July 4 – this was a big treat, and a real event. Pixar's new movie Soul is landing on December 25, too, which is likely by default its most expensive original content release to date.
Mulan, meanwhile, split the difference by releasing in theaters in some places, and as a premium purchase anywhere that had Disney Plus. It's unclear if Disney plans to repeat that model for any of its future movies.
It's hard to tell whether Disney Plus would've had a better or worse year in a pandemic-free world – it's probably balanced out, honestly. The delay of theatrical movies like Black Widow also means you'll be waiting longer to see those stream on the service, of course, but Hamilton and Soul have both skipped ahead. It seems like a fair trade, all things considered.
Marvel fans have probably lost out the most with Disney Plus during its first year – zero MCU originals released within the first 12 months, which again, wasn't the original plan. WandaVision, though, the first MCU TV series, is supposed to begin before the year ends.
Conversely, Star Wars fans have had a pretty good first year with Disney Plus, with two seasons of The Mandalorian, the final season of The Clone Wars and the early Disney Plus release of the dreadful The Rise of Skywalker.
The adult problem
Disney still hasn't solved the problem of how it makes its service more appealing to adults – and it's something of a tired point by now.
The name 'Disney Plus' is almost a crutch, in the sense that protecting the brand's family-friendly image is always likely to come before, say, releasing the Alien series on the streaming service. Disney's solution, announced in August, will be a new international streaming service based around the existing Star brand (opens in new tab). US customers already get the equivalent in Hulu, which Disney controls, and where shows from FX like American Horror Story are streaming.
It's likely Star will be positioned as part of a bundle with Disney Plus – which could be interesting, depending on the content. In the US, of course, you can already get the service in a package with Hulu and ESPN Plus.
The best may be yet to come
The lack of long-term visibility on release dates with Disney Plus makes it hard to tell how good year two of the service will be – and again, the pandemic is responsible for this to some degree. The Mandalorian season 2 will wrap up at the end of the year, and then Soul lands in December – after that, we know a bunch of Marvel shows are in production but none of them have release dates.
Let's say, conservatively, that we see three Marvel series land in year two of Disney Plus: WandaVision, Loki and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the most likely candidates. Even with another potentially muddled year of theatrical releases, that's actually a lot of good content for $70 – and it seems even more appealing when 2020 will pass without any new Marvel movies. On the Star Wars side, too, new animated show The Bad Batch and The Mandalorian season 3 are likely to hit in the next 12 months.
Disney Plus still lacks a bit of variety as it stands if you're over the age of 14, then, but if the next year goes well, the best days of the service are likely still to come.