Disney Plus Originals, Imperfectly Wholesome

I grew up on the Disney channel, at a time just before High School Musical took over the network. Twas a time of all-timer cartoons (Gargoyles), after-school sitcoms (Boy Meets World), and corny yet endearing original movies made for television. With Disney Plus programming in full swing now, they’re beginning to churn out original movies in the vein of those glory days of the 90’s and early aughts. How do they stack up with them?

NOELLE

It’s too bad Disney didn’t have enough faith in this story. With one more rewrite and some extra cash to finish the visual effects, Noelle could have been a new Christmas classic for the streaming age. I mean, that’s not to say it’s not perfectly fine, charming, funny, even heartwarming. It’s all of those things, but it seems nobody noticed. Noelle is destined to be forgotten like so many good movies vanquished to the back catalog of streaming apps. Anna Kendrick is a little ball of charisma as Santa’s daughter Noelle Cringle and Bill Hader, Shirley MacClaine, and Billy Eichner provide their imitable screen personalities in amusing supporting roles. With a feminist bent for young girls and plenty of cheeky humor for their parents, Noelle is a good way to spend ninety minutes in the dead of summer. If not now, then pencil it in for the holiday season.

Grade: B-

MAGIC CAMP

Given its tween cast and relatively small budget, Magic Camp is a callback to that more innocent era of Disney Channel programming. It’s entirely conventional, predictable, and even sometimes cringe-inducing in its attempts at melting the heart, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a lot of fun regardless. There’s a joy to be had in simple, high-concept premises such as a comedy about young kids going to magic camp over the summer and getting into hi jinks with their zany counselor (Adam Devine), an old friend and rival of his (Gillian Jacobs) and the kooky camp founder (Jeffrey Tambor). There are dumb bullies and bad actors and Disney schmaltz, and somehow it only matters half the time. Magic Camp is a constant reminder of the calming TV days of yore. Such calm can be a useful asset in these trying times.

Grade: C+

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN

As far as talking-animal toons go, The One and Only Ivan is aiming for more than delighting the kiddos for yet another weekend in quarantine. Unexpectedly, this is an anti-circus animal rights message movie and true story stuffed inside a Disney formula, and with pretty seamless VFX to boot. This is nothing like the big ape movies of a bygone 90’s era, like Mighty Joe Young or Dunston Checks In, where man befriends ape and both live happily ever after. The animals live happily ever after, of course, but the film’s eye towards human beings is critical if not overly cynical. As Ivan’s owner and ringleader of a failing circus (sitting inside a waning shopping mall of all places), Bryan Cranston is neither hero nor villain, but a good man incapable of giving these creatures a proper home. Sam Rockwell, Danny DeVito, Brooklynn Prince, and Angelina Jolie, among others, provide excellent voice work. With its heart in the right place, Ivan is just moving and funny enough to recommend for the whole family. Given the initial plan for a theatrical release, it’s difficult to gauge whether that has any bearing on the future of Disney Plus originals.

Grade: B

P.S. the answer is Disney Plus original movies provide all of the calm and schmaltz of former Disney Channel offerings, only with better acting, slightly better writing, and much higher production value.

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