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Disney Plus Ensures Disney is Still Disney
November 12, 2019  | By David Hinckley
 


Disney's new streaming service, Disney Plus, rolls out today, and as usual, Disney does nothing small.

Subscribing to Disney Plus gives viewers access to content from Disney, Pixar, and Marvel, for starters, and did we mention Star Wars?

The centerpiece of the fresh content on Disney Plus is The Mandalorian, a prequel that no Star Wars completist can in good conscience miss.

Disney sent out no advance screeners of The Mandalorian – probably a wise move, given the leakiness of the Internet boat – but the company circulated enough other shows, so it's safe to say that the whole batch gleams with Disney polish.

And much as grownups may roll their eyes or lament the Disneyfication of American culture, the dirty little secret is that Disney has become Disney because it does this stuff well.

Disney Plus shows, like almost all regular Disney shows, know their audience and – critical point here – never lose their sense of humor.

The new offerings, which range from a weird and fascinating Jeff Goldblum show about stuff to a live reimagining of the classic Disney film Lady and the Tramp, generally target the young and are deceptively palatable, even interesting, to the old.

Landing squarely in that category, for instance, are two shows that dust off Disney's 2006 franchise-spawning TV flick High School Musical.

Every kid who was a tween or young teen 13 or 14 years ago watched High School Musical, even the ones who mocked the Disney teens as way more shiny and wholesome than any actual living teenager.

Glee, it was often said, took the High School Musical teenagers and fixed them, making them more neurotic, edgier, and more into, uh, physical relationships.

For the record, Disney's new High School Musical doesn't bend a millimeter toward the Glee model. All the kids here have been run through a car wash and emerged totally clean.

That established, Disney has such faith in the revival of High School Musical it has created two separate shows.

Encore, executive-produced by Kristen Bell, gives us a gang of 30-somethings who put on a production of High School Musical back in the day. Encore assembles them for a reunion, in which everyone tries to play his or her original role.

That presents a physical challenge right up front since it's been a decade since some of these folks did the kicks and spins. Juicier still for dramatic purposes, it reunites people who have been apart for a reason.

The nice way to put it is that many of the players have moved on from high school and developed new, different lives of their own. At the same time, moving forward doesn't mean tucking the past into a box and dropping it into a big blue barrel to be shredded and recycled. There's a lot of unfinished business here, and Encore milks all of it for the laughs and the cringes.

Encore brilliantly entices audiences that would ordinarily not be the target demo for Disney shows. And meanwhile, down the hall, we have a second show that does target the traditional Disney demo. It's called High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (top).

The Musical: The Series returns to Utah's fictional East High School, where the current student body is barely old enough to remember their older siblings watching the original High School Musical.

But Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) remembers. She's the new East High drama teacher, and she was a background dancer in the original HSM production. She's burning to bring it back, and it turns out the drama students are, too, because they've watched the original dozens of times. Who says kids today don't care about history?

Miss Jenn, who has more than a slight resemblance to Kristin Chenoweth, is a little ditzy, as grownups in all Disney productions tend to be. That's consistent, of course, with the view almost all real-life teenagers have of adults.

The teenage students, conversely, are earnest and serious, especially when it comes to dealing with the multiple problems, dramas, and issues that are part of the teen-years package.

Specifically for purposes of this new production, Nini Salazar-Roberts (Olivia Rodrigo) is a junior who had her heart broken over the summer by Ricky Bowen (Joshua Bassett). On the night she finally said she loved him, he told her he thought they should take a "pause" in their relationship.

Ricky, being as lunkheaded as every other teenage boy, apparently didn't realize Nini would not automatically be available when he decided the "pause" should be over.

In fact, Nini went to summer drama camp and met a dreamy new guy, E.J. Caswell (Matt Cornett), who's a catch in every sense of the word. He's captain of the water polo team and also a talented singer and performer.

Nini and E.J. leap at the chance to try out for the new HSM production, with E.J. confident they will get the lead roles of Gabriella and Troy.

No prizes for guessing that things may not go exactly as E.J. planned. Or that Nini will meet someone else who wants to be Gabriella. That would be Gina Porter (Sofia Wylie), a transfer student no one at East High previously knew existed.

Quickly and efficiently, new HSM:TM:TS creator Tim Federle puts all the pieces in place for a classic high school story, full of snappy repartee, pop culture references, and all the familiar emotional discoveries of the high school years.

We won't spoil it any further, but two scenes tell you everything you need to know about why High School Musical: The Musical: The Series does exactly what it was designed to do.

Scene one: Carlos (Frankie Rodriguez), the student choreographer for the production, is spending a moment looking around the rehearsal space, savoring the possibilities, when Mr. Mazzara (Mark St. Cyr), a cartoonish teacher who scorns the arts as frivolous, comes in and curtly asks where Carlos belongs.

Carlos looks at Mr. Mazzara for just a second, as if wondering why anyone would ask that question, and replies, "Broadway."

Second scene: a flashback to the night Nini told Ricky she loved him. When she said that, they were sitting in her bedroom, on her bed, with the door closed and no indication of any parent anywhere.

They were sitting next to each other. They were not touching. They were both looking at his iPad. There was no sign they were going to do anything except look at his iPad.

Disney Plus might be the TV platform of the future. However, Disney Plus characters remain, unapologetically, the idealization of the past.

 
 
 
 
 
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