Feasting on fantasy: my month of extreme immersion in Disney+

The long read: Disneys new streaming service arrived in the UK just as the coronavirus lockdown kicked in. With so many hours to fill, it seemed like a sensible investment. Pretty soon, it was infiltrating my every waking hour.

A few weeks ago, on a day that was probably like today now that the days are all frighteningly different and yet strangely the same, Disney launched Disney+, its new streaming service, in the UK. The precise date, for those that are still tracking such things, was 24 March, which was also, by coincidence, the date the British lockdown officially started. I had been waiting, impatiently, for both. One felt frivolous, the other historic a new thing to watch to add to the endless other things to watch versus the sudden transformation of an entire populations way of life and yet here they were entwined, perfectly compatible bedfellows.

Disney couldnt have known that the launch of Disney+ would fall upon the same day that 66 million people would be instructed to stay at home for 23 hours a day. They must have set their launch date months ago, long before the first coronavirus case hit Britain, or travellers returned from their fateful half-term Italian skiing holidays, or the prime minister glad-handed his way around a hospital. But to the cynical, it felt like the workings of a darkly prescient marketing strategy. I mean, the timing was ideal. Someone, somewhere in the Disney multiverse must have celebrated shyly, inappropriately, a quiet elbow bump in a meeting room, perhaps.

For anyone with a thing for family-friendly entertainment, the prospect of Disney+ was inviting. But for those of us coming to terms with home schooling and Easter holidays, followed by yet more home schooling, days upon weeks upon days of time and not the kind of time you can revel in, but time that would be filled with fear for the wellbeing of people you love, and panic at the conundrum of trying to earn a living and look after your kids well for us, the launch of Disney+ was a goddamn digital miracle.

Maybe it didnt feel like that for everyone. Maybe the parents who secretly love the home schooling vibe, the timetables and worksheets, the children sitting happily at kitchen tables, tongues sticking out of the side of their mouths as they complete little astronomy quizzes while the parent stirs a healthy stew, maybe they didnt sign up for Disney+ a full week before it launched. For the rest of us, hurling fish fingers into the oven with one hand while trying to tap out a piece of work with the other and break up a fight with a toe, the relatively low cost of a Disney+ subscription (5.99 a month) when contemplating the long, long, just so very long, period of time ahead of us, felt like a sensible investment.

Sure, theres other TV. Theres the BBC. Theres Netflix. I dabble in it all, unfussy when it comes to shiny, child-absorbing entertainment. But Disney+ is a luxury bath of content, of Disney old and new. When you log on to its sleek black home page, it shows off its wares so easily: thumbnails of Toy Story 4 and the new Star Wars spin-off series, The Mandalorian, casually sitting next to each other like reunited friends from different planets. The animated classics are all there Cinderella, The Lion King, Aladdin accompanied by their reimagined live-action versions, updated and often unambiguously ruined. But there are also hidden treats, movies youd forgotten exist but sentimentally love more than members of your family (Cool Runnings). Theres an entire section devoted to nostalgia. Three Men and A Little Lady? Yes, please. Nestling among it all is almost the entire back catalogue of The Simpsons, more than 600 episodes, patiently waiting to swallow the rest of your life.

Some early adopters have quibbled that once you get past The Mandalorian and a few other new offerings (Meghan Markle narrating the nausea-inducing nature documentary Elephant, anyone?), theres not much to go on, but perhaps they dont have kids happy to watch the same movie until they can recite it by heart. At some point, my husband put on the 2008 movie Bolt, about a run-of-the-mill little white dog, voiced by John Travolta, who is under the false impression that he is a superhero. A bulletproof concept, and sure enough, the movie went down so well that my kids, aged six and three, requested to rewatch it the moment the credits rolled. Forget awards, forget reviews: there is no better compliment a movie can receive than the immediate need a child can feel to watch it again. I remember that feeling. We wallpaper our souls with this stuff.

Disney has been colonising the minds and hearts of children for decades. Wade through Disney+ as an adult and you find that, inevitably, some of the movies arent as flawless as you recall, but you also find yourself blinking rapidly, at the mercy of a cinematic formula that knows the synaptic shortcut to both your childhood memories and your tear ducts. The nostalgia section delivered at a time when reality can be hard to stomach and worries rise at unexpected times of the night has the calming effect of one of those weighted anxiety blankets. When the outside world has shut down, you can burrow inwards and time travel through whatever anachronistic creation Hannah Montana, Boy Meets World, DuckTales transports you to your younger self, when you watched TV on a sofa you didnt have to buy with your own money, and someone else was doing most of the worrying so you could eat toast and think only about what you might eat after the toast.

So yes, I admit it. I subscribed to Disney+ on the pretext of occupying my kids, but of course of course I actually bought it for myself.


We began our Disney+ immersion, out of respect, with the canon. It happened to be the week my husband had the virus mildly, days he spent mostly unconscious except when he rose from his sweat pool to recount the plotlines of his hallucinatory nightmares. With a cursory nod to the abandoned ideals of home schooling, I decided to embrace Disney+ with a certain academic rigour. We started at the beginning, and worked our way through Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940), before making a leap forward to Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Not all on the same day, I should add, but Im not going to lie: the viewing schedule was intense.

In many ways, this part felt like duty: ticking off the fundamentals before we could get on to the good stuff. In the early movies, the animators are so deferential to their source material that the action starts with an ancient book of the tale being opened, its pages of gothic script and hand-drawn pictures very slowly turned, as a sonorous male voice earnestly narrates the story. Come ON, my six-year-old yelled at the television, used to a more intense fix of cortisol to propel her through her entertainment.

Snow
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, from 1937. Photograph: Cinetext/Disney/Sportsphoto/Allstar

The animation itself is disconcertingly 2D, but from the off, you cant help credit Disney with its sheer devotion to its own shtick. Snow White might be almost featureless in her aesthetic simplicity, like a particularly extreme Botox victim, but that winning alchemy of cute animal friends and tuneful songs, adorable eyes and tightly waisted dresses, is all there in 1937 just as its there, still, in Frozen 2, 82 years later. There are some formulas so reliable that nothing needs to change, except the sheer variety of associated merchandise.

Inevitably, there are some jarringly anachronistic moments. Many of the early films have a warning at the start that they contain images of smoking. (In one comic set piece in Pinocchio, a cute fish blows thick grey smoke rings out of its bowl, an image that really wouldnt fly nowadays.) The age of Disneys heroines being symbols of womens empowerment is still some way off many of the early female leads share a kind of saccharine fragility that would make Moana scoff from her one-woman sailing mission. And there are episodes of flat-out racism, too. Peter Pan, for example, has a physically-painful-to-watch number about Native Americans, called What Made The Red Man Red. Disney has added a euphemistic disclaimer to Peter Pan and other movies containing similar disasters: This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions. The most egregious example of all Song of the South, from 1946, set on an uncritically idealised plantation and ridden with stereotypes has been kept off the service altogether.

Aside from their missteps, the early movies contain moments that ring oddly true in a pandemic. While my kids protested at the lethargic pace of Alice in Wonderland, I found myself absurdly over-identifying with her Wonderland experience, a place where things seem superficially familiar but are fundamentally altered. Near the end, Alice reaches a door through which she can see herself sleeping: But thats me! Im asleep! Alice, wake up! Please wake up, Alice! Who hasnt felt like that, these past weeks? Not just the whole living-nightmare scenario, but that particular dissociation of constantly seeing yourself in the corner of a laptop screen while you try and listen to someone else talk. Wake up, I want to say to myself. Stop looking at yourself! Wake up!


Enough cartoons: we were ready for real people. One eternal Saturday, though it could have been a Sunday or a Tuesday, or any of the other days, I decided it was time. The kids had ravaged their way semi-dismissively through the old animations and plenty of the new ones were already as familiar to them as their own beating hearts: no one in this flat needs to watch Frozen again. At this point, Bolt was already on its fourth viewing, and had infiltrated many aspects of our lives. Our football had been renamed after the deluded dog and, like Wilson in Cast Away, become our beloved inanimate pet. In a distinct bid for freedom from each other and their parents, the kids had built their own cushion-walled enclaves at opposite ends of our flat, both of which were guarded by soft-toy dogs, also called Bolt. Before Bolt became the only name my son would answer to, I decided it was time to move my offspring forward in their cultural education, to expose them to one of the great artefacts of the late 80s, to a piece of cinema that will stand the test not just of its time, but all time. It was time to watch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Jesus, the opening shot. A mailman delivers letters down an anytown residential street, and it is the fantasy version of American suburbia in its absolute blue-skied, big-shirted, ice-cream-sundae heyday. I cant tell you how much, aged 12, I wanted to live in one of these clapboard houses, with a white picket fence and grass on either side of the sidewalk, with kids on bikes in the middle of the street and mailboxes at the end of the front path. I think I still do. In Honey, there are so many period-specific elements that seem designed to spark joy: a woozy saxophone soundtrack, those round foamy headphones, one of those long spiral cords from a phone attached to the kitchen wall in which characters get tangled, baseball caps and lumberjack shirts, collared sweaters with the collars up. For the kids, it was like watching a movie about the Victorians: the funny costumes! The funny cars! But for me, it was like falling back in love with someone Id forgotten existed. I went deep, losing myself not just in reminiscence or a fresh appreciation of superlative film-making, but in the movies surprising thematic relevance to our current state. (Apologies in advance.)

Honey
Honey I Shrunk The Kids, from 1989. Photograph: Disney/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

For the unfortunate minority unfamiliar with the plot of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids well, its all in the title, my friends. The cast includes a wacky scientist dad (an irrepressible Rick Moranis as Wayne Szalinski), a long-suffering mum, two kids, the neighbours and their two kids, and a crucial dog called Quark. When Szalinski is out one day, all four kids are accidentally shrunk by his shrinking machine in the attic. When I say shrunk, I mean shrunk. Theyre tiny. Significantly smaller than Lego men. Smaller than ants. At some point they actually encounter an ant and it appears elephantine. Later, they ride it. Crucially, no one can hear them their parents think their kids have gone missing and call the police. Theres a tragic moment when Szalinski comes home from the shops, cant hear them screaming at him in the attic, and then smashes up the shrinking machine on which he believes hes wasted years of his life. As the screws start to fall, not only is he destroying a miracle machine that we now know works the dramatic irony! but hes endangering four childrens lives as debris rains down on their heads. He then unknowingly sweeps them up and dumps them in a rubbish bag at the end of the garden.

So begins this particular Odyssey. Honey is a classic journey movie: but instead of Revenant-ing across wilderness, or 1917-ing through the trenches, the kids have to traverse a back garden to get home. Dont, for a second, doubt the scale of this challenge. When they rip open the rubbish bag and look at the jungle of grass they have to cross, it is a shattering sight. Much of the threat relies on the excellent effects. A butterfly flies overhead, and its wings beat and throb like a military helicopter. A monstrous dead beetle floats down a trickle of dirty water that resembles the Amazon. Theres a swarm of bees: pure horror.

To cut a predictable story short, they make it, only for one of them to end up on Szalinskis spoon and almost get eaten with a mouthful of Cheerios. But eventually they are restored to normal size and all ends well. As with any good Disney film, all sorts of lessons have been learned along the way, such as teamwork, taking care of siblings, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and not having to be manly in the traditional sense. Disney dishes up its little morals so expertly, with a wink and joke, that we just drink them down like milkshake.

As with everything, I struggled to rewatch Honey without making questionable comparisons to our current situation. Not to get excessively earnest about a movie charting the unique risks involved in constructing a machine that can without your knowledge reduce your children to the size of breadcrumbs, but it was striking how ultra-vulnerable these kids suddenly were, cowed by forces in nature far greater than them. Being human wasnt a power any more, it was a weakness. On this scale, an ant can have dominion. Of course, the kids befriend the ant, grow to love and respect it, and when the ant has a fight with a giant beetle and dies defending the kids from its attack, the bully kid breaks down in tears. Lessons learned: the bully was dependent on a fellow creature hed barely noticed before, and might even have stamped on. The very creature who protected him was the one to lose its life in the process. We have to look after each other to survive. We all lose creatures we love.

Proudest parenting moment of lockdown so far? When the six-year-old requested to watch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for a second time. If that is the peak of my home schooling efforts, which it undoubtedly is, Ill take it. As for this great parable for our age, well, a reboot is in the works according to the film site IMDb, Shrunk is a thing. Who knows if it will happen, given that Disney has had to halt production on possibly higher-priority projects such as a live-action Little Mermaid and four Avatar sequels. But I have faith. By the time Shrunk gets made, well probably have rushed back to our old habits and humanity will be cruising to oblivion again. Or maybe Shrunk will appear just in time to remind us of our essential vulnerability and human co-dependency. Its possible, I realise, that Im overstating the future power of Shrunk, but you never know.


Deep in the bowels of Disney+, a clutch of self-serving documentaries reveal how drunk the company has become on its own myth over the years. The Imagineering Story (first episode: The Happiest Place on Earth) tells us the story of Walt Disney, a father of two daughters who first drew Mickey Mouse on a train journey and based his first design for Disneyland on his hometown of Marceline, Missouri. We meet, too, the Imagineers: people tasked with making new attractions at Disneys theme parks. Creating happiness is hard work, croons Angela Bassett in the voiceover. Only a unique army of people is equipped to undertake such an enterprise. Since its inception, this merry band of misfits has defied the odds. Did she really just say this merry band of misfits? Yes, she did.

Another Disney-on-Disney documentary, called One Day at Disney, zooms in on a selection of employees, including Mark, who is almost moved to tears by his own life story from being a train obsessive as a kid to running the steam train service at Disneyland, California. Thats the way all the character arcs go in One Day at Disney, sculpted into the kind of perfect Disney shape that strongly resembles the now almost blackly comic notion of the American dream: I had a passion, I worked hard, my dream became a reality, and now the physical and emotional health of myself and my family, my entire life, really, is owned by a thumpingly profitable corporation.

Disney
Disney CEO Bob Iger at Mickey Mouses 90th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles in 2018. Photograph: Alberto E Rodrguez/Getty Images

All the Disney documentaries feature Bob Iger, Disneys outgoing CEO, who likes to tell his own neatly crafted story, from how he started out 45 years ago earning $150 a week at ABC before rising to the top through sheer hard work and optimism. Iger always appears grandfatherly, in cable-knit sweaters and cosy cardigans, with deep grooves that fan out round his eyes gained by years of smiling in the service of corporate warmth. He often says things like: Were all trying to do the same thing, in very compelling ways: were trying to touch peoples hearts.

During Igers reign, Disney has become the entertainment behemoth of our age, acquiring Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm (and thus Star Wars) and 21st Century Fox among others. The company now owns so much of the entertainment landscape that it can function like surround sound. There have been strings of mega-hits: last year alone included Toy Story 4, Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Frozen 2 contributing to a total box office haul of $11bn. Iger has been vastly rewarded for his efforts: in 2019, he earned $48m. The year before, he earned $65.7m, more than 1,000 times the median salary about $46,000 of all Disney employees. Many of Disneys workers, like those who filed a class action lawsuit in Californias superior court last December, earn less than $15 an hour.

The triumphant launch of Disney+ was supposed to be Igers closing flourish, a final high-five as he left the building. The early signs were good. Pre-launch, Disney had established a target of 60 to 90 million subscribers by 2024. On 9 April 2020, the company announced it had already hit 50 million. (It took Netflix seven years to reach that point.) As Igers retirement approached, there was persistent chatter in the media about him running for president, rumours he eventually had to deny publicly. But just as his character journey was coming to its satisfying close, the story changed. By late March, most of Disneys operations were suspended due to coronavirus. Disney had lost a third of its market value, $78.5bn, in the space of a month. Iger wasnt going anywhere, but staying on to help his successor, Bob Chapek.

Disney
Disney World in Florida closed and empty due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photograph: Alex Menendez/Getty Images

In the long run, unlike many of its employees, thousands of whom have been furloughed, Disney itself will be just fine. Rightly, the company isnt high on anyones worry list. But its striking how far the current reality of Disney is from its well tended corporate image. In late March, various news outlets published pictures of Disneys closed theme parks empty car parks, rollercoasters, cafes, golf courses and a lonely-looking Millennium Falcon at Star Wars: Galaxys Edge. The photographs are somehow more sinister than those of empty cities that have been doing the rounds. Cities, at the best of times, are conflicted and messy, beautiful and cruel. They rarely pretend to be anything theyre not, unless theres an Olympics going on.

Disney, on the other hand, is always pretending to be something its not: it is a highly efficient profit machine that presents itself as a place where a merry band of misfits conjure happiness. Its theme parks are places constructed for children and commerce, and the optimised interplay of those two things, but in these images they look ghostly, frozen in time like the cursed inhabitants of the castle in Sleeping Beauty, still technically in existence but, in the absence of anything animate, turned into the lifeless sets of a horror movie. I doubt, somehow, that this is what Disneys Imagineers had in mind.


On some days, when weve been outside in the weird quiet and heard only birds and sirens, the line between fantasy and reality feels pretty blurred. The world doesnt look real; something to do with the clean sunlight, the blossom, the way everyone walks around under a glaze of heightened self-awareness. There is deceptive peace, when we know, just around the corner, there is the opposite. We lurch between learning of the cruellest of realities, and feasting on fantasy to distract ourselves. Sometimes, emerging from a Disney haze, I wish Id stayed in the hard reality, because then at least you dont have to wake up from it.

Kids are instructive, somehow able to navigate this time with a bracing honesty that adults nervously evade. There are ups and downs, sure: there are escape fantasies and berserk, semi-violent frustrations born of unchanging close-quarters proximity, but then they seem able to reset. Snacks help. So do lavatorial jokes. Or some sort of half-arsed slide made out of sofa cushions. A mood can descend and then pass like a rain shower, rather than descend and fester, which seems to be their parents preference.

The kids seem to have an appropriate amount of curiosity about bad news a curiosity that knows when to move on to fresh ground instead of feeding itself with extraneous and panic-inducing information. When a situation is explained, they ask questions, listen to maybe 10% of the answers before becoming deeply bored by the sanctimonious tone of my voice, and then wander off, rather than spending the next eight hours scrolling through Twitter looking for fresh and conflicting perspectives about PPE provision and the precise timing of different nations lockdown strategies until they cant sleep and want to go out on the empty streets and rage at the perfect moon. They are very, very frank about death. Before the schools closed, my daughter came home one day and told me it was unlikely shed die from coronavirus as she was a child, but old people might. Yes, I said, grateful for her direct approach to the subject, they might.

Also, distraction isnt distraction for them: its occupation, its life. When I interrupt the three-year-old in one of his deep-play sessions, something to do with small figures either warring or performing intricate stunts on Lego motorbikes, he looks at me sternly and says: Im busy. Meanwhile, the disapproving label of screen time does a gross injustice to the six-year-olds capacity to immerse herself in a film. Watching her watching Bolt for the seventh time is like watching an athlete, a formidable effort of concentration that blocks out all external noise, attempts at conversation, offers of food.

Disney+, inevitably, stole her heart. I could tell it from the moment I saw her face during that opening ident the shooting star over the Disney castle, the background sky sunset-pink. They know what theyre doing, these people: even the branding gives you an endorphin hit. During that seventh Bolt viewing, I realised why the kids wanted to keep watching the same movie over and over again. Theres the expert appreciation for a fine piece of computer animation, no doubt, but theres also the deep comfort to be found in repeat viewing. Even multiple screenings in, they both covered their eyes in terror during a chase scene. The fear was real, but it was that pleasurable kind of fear you know will pass. Theres no uncertainty, no risk. You know, for a fact, that everything will be OK. Its fear with a happy ending.

Some sad, jaded part of me wanted to point out to my kids the degree to which life, especially right now, is not at all like a Disney movie. But what would be the purpose when we were here surrendering to a Disney movie precisely for its moral consolations, for its rewarding of the good and punishment of the bad, for the right things happening to the right people in the end. We could watch, godlike, in the safety of foreknowledge. At the movies dramatic climax spoiler alert when Bolt rescues his beloved owner from a raging fire and they both fall unconscious, my daughter turned to me and said reassuringly, with the wisdom of hard-won experience and the beautiful relief of knowing the future: Its OK. Theyre not really dead.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/apr/21/disney-plus-streaming-coronavirus-lockdown-feasting-on-fantasy

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