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Disney+ will officially join the streaming wars in just over a week on November 12. With it comes hundreds of The Walt Disney Company’s movies and television shows from over the decades, but there’s also a wave of original programming along with it. The most anticipated show is undoubtedly the live-action Star Wars series The Mandalorian. Unfortunately, that series hasn’t been made available to critics for review, and it won’t be until it bows on the launch day for Disney+. However, the subscription service has plenty more Disney+ original shows to offer, and we’ve seen some of them.

We were given access to early screeners of the first wave of original programming on Disney+, which includes the Disney theme park documentary series The Imagineering Story, the National Geographic culture documentary series The World According to Jeff Goldblum, the high school drama reunion reality series Encore!, the inspirational kid-focused reality series The Marvel Hero Project, and the scripted mockumentary series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Are any of these shows worth watching with a Disney+ subscription? We sampled each of them.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

Let’s begin with the only non-Star Wars original scripted series on the docket for Disney+ on launch day. My familiarity with the High School Musical franchise is next to zero. Having only seen bits and pieces of young Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale and Corbin Bleu, I’m nowhere near what you would call a fan of the musical trilogy that originated on The Disney Channel before making the jump to the big screen for the third installment. But thankfully, you don’t really need to be a fan to jump on board this series.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (yes, unfortunately that’s the official title) is an entirely original story without any narrative connections to the original movie. The mockumentary style series follows a group of high school kids who go to East High School, the real high school in Salt Lake City, Utah where the original High School Musical was filmed. It follows the trials and tribulations of students and teachers as the school mounts their own production of High School Musical, resulting in plenty of drama, both on stage and off.

At the center of the show are Ricky (Joshua Bassett) and Nini (Olivia Rodrigo), who have just broken up officially after taking a break from their relationship over the summer. Unfortunately for Ricky, he scared off Nini when he didn’t respond favorably to her proclamation of love for him in an Instagram song video. Now she’s got a new boyfriend named E.J. (Matt Cornett), a dreamy jock type who also happens to have an unashamed passion for theater, leaving Ricky desperate to make sure Nini knows that he messed up and wants her back.

The first episode sets up this troubled romance and gives us the auditions for the East High School production of High School Musical. And that’s where Ricky and Nini’s romance comes into play. Ricky decides the best way to win back Nini is to audition for the role of Troy (Zac Efron’s role in the original movies), while Nini is vying for the part of his love interest Gabriella (Vanessa Hudghens’ role in the franchise), albeit with a little competition from a sophomore transfer student (Sofia Wylie).

Yes, this is typical teenage drama, but the series doesn’t have the same exaggerated acting style as the High School Musical movies always seemed to have. In fact, the cast of this series is generally outstanding, both in their approach to the dramatic side of their performance and especially in their singing abilities. Granted, not everyone is a knockout. Kate Reinders seems like she’s supposed to be in a more wacky series as Ms. Jenn, the high strung, clumsy drama teacher who was a background extra in one of the High School Musical movies. Reinders has the energy of a secondhand Kristin Chenoweth (funnily enough, Reinders played the role of Glinda in the 2005 Chicago production of Wicked, which was originated by Chenoweth on Broadway).

Perhaps the best comparison for this series is that it feels Glee, just without the edgy comedy bite and auto-tuned covers of famous songs. However, the mockumentary angle applied here is completely inorganic and unnecessary, used only for cutaways to talking heads with our characters that allow for lazy moments of character insight and mildly amusing reflections. Otherwise, the show never feels like a true mockumentary, especially with a flashback featured in the first episode. Why were the cameras rollingat the beginning of the summer, long before this production of High School Musical was ever even announced? It makes no sense, and no one seems to care.

Despite these shortcomings, I walked away from the first episode of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and didn’t dislike it. The series has the spirit of the kind of show I would have watched as art of ABC’s TGIF line-up back in the mid 1990s. I’m not sure if that’ll be enough for me to keep watching an entire season, but it’ll likely capture the attention of Disney’s intended younger audience and those nostalgic for High School Musical in general.

Encore!

Encore!

Speaking of high school musicals, while one of Disney+’s original program gives us a scripted glimpse into the world of teenage drama, an unscripted series takes us behind the scenes of a high school drama reunion.

Encore! is a reality series “hosted” by Kristen Bell where the casts of high school musicals reunite to recreate the production as adults. I put “hosted” in quotes because Bell only appears at the very beginning of the series and pops in at the end for some moral support (that could change after the first episode). Beyond that, her involvement only seems to provide a famous face to bring an audience in to give the show a chance. But no matter, because the appeal of the show is watching adults flashback to their glory days in high school and try to bring the same kind of energy and passion to the stage as they did all those years ago.

The first episode finds an assembly of students from Santee High School’s class of 1996 putting on a production of Annie. Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director of the 2009 Broadway production of Ragtime has rounded up some of the principal cast members from the high school production to do it all over again. But these students haven’t performed since that show, each of them with their own adult lives that have taken them away from the stage.

This show has the uplifting spirit of something like Queer Eye or Extreme Makeover as these people flashback to their high school years, even learning more about each other than they knew while they were in school together. There’s not much in the vein of drama or confrontation, at least not stemming from the past. But with just five days to re-learn lines, songs, blocking and more, there’s certainly some tension and drama from simply getting the show together, especially when working with people who haven’t performed in decades.

The result is a series that allows people to reflect on their own days in high school. Of course, depending on how fondly you look back on your time there, your mileage may vary. But former (and current) theater kids especially will find themselves longing for a return to the stage and getting caught up on the pageantry of it all. It may not result in the best of musical performances, but there’s something special about seeing these people feeling young and pouring themselves into this kind of creative outlet.

marvel's hero project trailer

Marvel Hero Project

Inspiration is one of the main ingredients in Disney’s recipe for pop culture appeal, and there’s plenty of it in this non-scripted reality series from Marvel Entertainment. The series shines a light on the lives of amazing, talented and ambitious kids from across the country, each with something special to inspire adults and kids alike, becoming real life superheroes in the process.

The first episode of Marvel Hero Project focuses on Jordan, a limb different 13-year old girl who has been fascinated with 3D printing arm extensions that allow her to be artistic with custom-made prosthetic pieces. The device that garnered her attention was a device called The Unicorn Project that allows her to blast glitter from her arm. It might not sound like much on the surface, but it’s these kind of achievements and advancements that inspire other kids with limb differences to do more than the world tells them they’re capable of.

The series feels like it maybe lends itself better to a shorter form web series kind of presentation rather than being a 20-some minute reality show. As inspirational and heartwarming as these kids’ stories are, it’s a little hard to sustain for an entire episode. That’s not to say that these stories don’t deserve to be seen by the widest audience possible, but simply on a storytelling level, the concept feels stretched fairly thin. Plus, the Marvel Comics spin on this kind of show feels a little forced, and the reward of becoming a comic book character in what is dubbed the Marvel Hero Project doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding as what a kid like Jordan has already accomplished (like giving a TED Talk and being featured in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry). Maybe it’ll be more appealing to kids who need a more accessible gateway to consume stories like this, but otherwise, it just comes off feeling contrived, even if the show overall still feels good for the soul.

the world according to jeff goldblum trailer

The World According to Jeff Goldblum

In what is undoubtedly one of the shows that will make the Disney+ subscription worth the price, The World According to Jeff Goldblum takes us around the world and into different facets of culture as only the star of Jurassic Park and Independence Day can. There are plenty of shows featuring celebrities diving into a variety of cultural experiences, but none of them have the unbridled joy, curiosity, wonder and magic of Jeff Goldblum.

In the first episode, Jeff Goldblum explores the world of sneakers, ranging from the big cash exchanges that go down at SneakerCon in Anaheim, California to the custom sneaker creations of Dominic Ciambrone, better known as the Shoe Surgeon. He marvels at the negotiating that takes place for valuable sneaker collections, asks about the performance of shoes on the basketball court, visits Adidas headquarters to learn about the science behind the making of shoes. Goldblum is always inquisitive and mesmerized in the exact way that fans have come to live the actor for.

With Jeff Goldbum as the star of the show, the world is made even more fascinating through his eyes. Even the voiceover from Goldblum presents his eccentric conversational style, almost as if Goldblum is rewatching the footage edited together and providing retrospective, spontaneous narration while watching himself. We even get nuggets of Goldblum’s oddball turns of phrases like being “Ellen Burstyn” with excitement for another adventure. It is peak Goldblum, and I am absolutely here for it.

Whereas the Marvel Hero Project felt like it couldn’t adequately fill an entire episode of television, The World According to Jeff Goldblum could easily span another half hour without losing any steam. I could spend infinitely more time with Goldlbum as he explores a new topic in every episode and never get tired of his endless enthusiasm.

The Imagineering Story

The Imagineering Story

Finally, we come to what is the crown jewel of the first wave of original programming coming to Disney+ on launch day. The Imagineering Story is a new six episode docuseries that focuses on the geniuses behind Disney theme parks. Starting all the way back with the start of the original Disneyland, viewers will have an in-depth look at the creation of Walt Disney’s theme park magic through archival interviews and footage, new interviews with surviving Imagineers and Disney executives, and other insight from some of Disney’s most influential minds.

The first episode lays the groundwork for the original Disneyland, focusing in on specific details like how The World’s Fair had a hand in getting four of Disney’s most iconic attractions of the ground, the creation of the costumes for mechanical characters inside the “It’s a Small World” ride, and the construction of the Matterhorn (including a tour inside the mountain rollercoaster itself, a place that only Disney Imagineers and cast members have been, led by the man who designed it). If you’ve ever wanted to know whether or not there’s really a basketball court inside there, this series gives you the answer to that and so much more.

It’s fascinating to see just how much of Disneyland was a happy accident, with many of those working on various projects figuring things out for themselves without ever having tackled a project of this kind before. Sure, there were carnivals and fairs, but Walt Disney wanted something different, and it pushed people out of their comfort zones and forced them to reach for something greater. The sheer genius at work behind something like the Hall of Presidents is mind-blowing, especially for the time in which it was created.

What’s most impressive about this series is the high quality archival footage of Disneyland being constructed. Some of it looks so crisp and clear that it looks like a dramatized recreation of the past. But it’s the impressive remastering of footage that is 65 years old. Director Leslie Iwerks, who gave us the definitive story of Pixar Animation in the documentary feature The Pixar Story, digs deep into the history of Disneyland for this premiere episode, and it’s only going to get better as the series moves through Disney’s theme park past up through their present and upcoming attractions.

For Disney fans, this will be a fascinating glimpse into how magic is made by artists, engineers, and anyone who ever had a dream. Sure, it’s essentially a documentary that also acts as a six-hour commercial for Disney theme parks, but that commercial is also captivating as hell, and it really illustrates just how much aforethough and work goes into these attractions.

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Are These Shows Worth the Cost of Disney+?

At $6.99 per month, Disney+ is already significantly cheaper than most streaming services out there. That’s mostly because a huge chunk of their content at first will be older movie titles and TV shows with only a smattering of the originals above in between. Are these shows worth a Disney+ subscription?

In general, my answer is yes. The Imagineering Story and The World According to Jeff Goldblum alone are worth the monthly subscription. And if you’re a High School Musical fan, it’ll be easy to fall in love with the new series inspired by the Disney Channel franchise. That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that The Mandalorian is going to be a big deal for the streaming service. Marvel Hero Project and Encore! left me a little more underwhelmed, but reality shows like that have never been my go-to entertainment anyway.

Combine that will all the access you get to Disney’s library of content, which will soon feature 20th Century Fox’s family friendly film library, and you’ve got a mean competitor in the streaming wars, and one that will only get better as time goes on.

The first episodes of all these shows will be available when Disney+ launches next week on November 12.

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