Return to Neverland: Disney+ and the Lockdown

“Go on! Go back and grow up! But I’m warning you, once you’re grown up you can never come back.”

In his warning to his friends of the dangers of leaving Neverland, Peter Pan clearly didn’t anticipate the role of Disney+ and its childish escapism in surviving lockdown Britain.

For parents, having near enough the entire Disney back catalogue to hand to entertain children in the absence of swimming pools, museums, even their dreaded school, must be an invaluable asset. Even if they will watch that one favourite over and over and over and over and over… But what surprises me more is childless folks in their twenties and thirties flocking to Disney’s streaming service to see themselves through the crisis.

Before the Covid outbreak and Western governments’ (over)reaction to it, Disney+ wasn’t exactly struggling, but it wasn’t about to dethrone market leaders Netflix, who boast 167 million global subscribers, either. When, in April (about a month into the European lockdown), the House of Mouse announced that it had surpassed fifty million subscribers around the world, business analysts weren’t convinced. J.P. Morgan’s Alexia Quadrani observed that these figures included people who were already signed up to Hotstar, an Indian streaming provider which granted access to Disney+ content for its eight million subscribers a week before Disney published their numbers. Further, long-serving CEO Bob Iger told the Hollywood Reporter last year that he had been shifting the Walt Disney Company’s focus to the streaming platform, by, among other measures, investing $2.6 billion in the required technology and ending the company’s relationship with Netflix, which was worth $150 million to Mickey Mouse every year. In that same interview, Iger acknowledged that the new direction was adventurous, but that “The risk would have been essentially maintaining a status quo approach to how we were managing our content.” Then, in February of this year, he stood down as CEO, citing a desire to “focus on the creative side”. This move came as a surprise: insiders didn’t expect him to retire until 2021. So, this tells me that certain individuals on Disney’s board, maybe even Iger himself, were underwhelmed by the initial reception of the streaming service which he had essentially bet the company, and therefore the twilight years of his career, upon. I think that the fact that they appointed Bob Chapek, head of Disney’s theme parks, rather than streaming boss Kevin Mayer as his successor is further evidence that, after considering the first few month’s numbers, not every suit shared Iger’s belief that the online platform was Disney’s future.

And yet, the lockdown and the resultant abundance of free time to watch films has undoubtedly catapulted Disney+ into the heart of the zeitgeist. I can’t move around the internet for targeted ads trying to sell me assorted junk to do with Baby Yoda, the star of the service’s flagship Original, The Mandalorian. Google’s articles thing keeps showing me blogs about obscure, forgotten oddities hidden in the Disney+ archive. Even this week, it felt like social media was in meltdown because the cast for a live action Hercules was announced (even if that announcement turned out to be a hoax). Why the sudden excitement? The reception of every live-action update of a Disney classic, except maybe Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, was lukewarm at best. It’s because Disney is on the mind, because it feels like everyone’s watching Disney+.

That latter example highlights one of the most significant factors in the service’s success over the last few months. The UK Government has relentlessly pursued a policy of ‘social distancing’ to combat the virus, telling individuals who may have been exposed to ‘self-isolate’ for a fortnight, keeping ‘vulnerable’ individuals indoors for the first twelve weeks of the crisis, and closing every conceivable community space (except, thank goodness, parks). This is asking us to behave in an entirely inhuman way. All primates are social creatures, we thrive on interaction with others of our species, and crave community. Disney+ offers us an opportunity to revisit and discuss films which were part of just about every Western millennial’s childhood (and their remakes), fuelling nostalgic conversations based on almost universal common ground, and therefore simulating this necessary feeling of community. I think this is even more true for us arty types. Our social spaces; theatres, gig venues, cinemas, and galleries; have been hit particularly hard by the Government restrictions, to the point where a significant percentage of them probably won’t open again. So, deep-dive discussions of films help to fill the void of our dilettante conversations which should exist in theatre foyers and at sticky venue bars.

As well as sharing mutual excitement for cartoons which fostered a lifelong love of celluloid, Disney+ also features a glut of curious and downright weird films which make for great conversation pieces among like-minded film and art nerds. Last week, we stuck on The Three Caballeros, a wartime propaganda piece in which Donald Duck embarks on a psychedelic odyssey with animated and live action pals through Latin America. This picture left us with a lot to unpack. We considered the historical significance of Walt Disney’s participation in the Good Neighbor programme, conceived to improve relations between the US and Central and South America in the context of WWII, which informed the film. We talked about the importance of the film being the first Disney feature to combine live action and animated elements. And we questioned the intended audience of the picture, which begins innocently enough with a nice little sketch about a penguin who travels from Antarctica to the Galapagos for some sunshine, but reaches its climax with an incredibly dated, disturbing segment in which Donald Duck, consumed by ravenous lust, chases after live action women.

Such conversations definitely scratch a creative itch, but, more importantly, it gives us something to talk about other than the lockdown. The UK Government’s response to the virus has been utterly destructive. Never before in British history have we seen our freedom of movement, freedom to worship, freedom to work, right to an education, freedom to meet with our own families, and, in light of new rules regarding face masks, even our freedom to dress as we please so eroded. And the Government’s actions have dire and far-reaching economic consequences. The Bank of England has warned of ‘the sharpest recession on record’. Support for businesses and self-employed people was not forthcoming. And now, as the Chancellor recognises that the furlough scheme, which saw many through the first few months of the crisis, is not a sustainable long-term solution, mass redundancies loom. Despite this, polling by the likes of Ipsos MORI would suggest almost universal support for lockdown measures. But people’s behaviours suggest otherwise. I have yet to see a bus driver wear a face mask or a shop actually enforce a ‘one way system’, as per Government guidelines, here in Camden. Early in the lockdown, Greater Manchester Police reportedly shut down 660 parties in a two-week period after such gatherings had been banned. And not a single Bank Holiday has passed without local papers venting their disgust at ‘crowds’ ignoring ‘warnings to stay away’ from sunny Brighton beaches. All that being said, whether it’s the British reluctance to discuss an uncomfortable topic, or a fear that criticising the Government’s response may be read as criticism of NHS frontline staff, people are unwilling to talk about, never mind challenge, the lockdown. Far better to stick to safe, comfortable topics, like Disney films.

‘Safety’ and ‘comfort’ are things we all seem to be craving in these bleak and uncertain times, and are definitely feelings which cherished films from childhood can offer a sense of. But I’m intrigued as to why we’ve felt the need to go back as far as our earliest years, rather than to recent blockbusters or studenty cult comedies. This behaviour strikes me as remarkably similar to regression in children: when they return to behaviours of an earlier developmental stage. Child psychologist Dr Tovah Klein of the Barnard College Center for Child Development reports that regression is often triggered by a disruption to routine, or a stressful situation. Lockdown Britain has all but destroyed most of our daily routines, and, with all its uncertainties, it’s definitely stressful. Klein says that parents can help their child out of regression with extra support and lots of TLC. We’re grown ups, we can’t lean on our parents in the same way as children do: not least because they’re undoubtedly suffering at the moment too. But if we stick a Disney film on like Mum did to cheer us up when we were wee, is this a way of simulating that sense of being nurtured and cared for, bringing us back to a time where we felt totally loved and supported?

I think there’s another advantage to looking right back at our formative years through the lens of these films. Many of my more philosophical friends are choosing to treat lockdown as an opportunity to reflect, to decide which behaviours and values we should bring into the brave new post-Covid world, and which we should leave behind. The best Disney pictures teach us important lessons, which undoubtedly had some influence on our values. I can’t keep my eyes dry when watching the ‘Feed the Birds’ bit in Mary Poppins because as a child I believed that I would always be kind and generous and help those in need. It’s hard to do that as an adult on a low income living in a horrendously expensive city, but revisiting that film makes me want to try harder. Maybe it’s fanciful thinking, but I’d really like to see a world after all this where we have a bit more of Buzz and Woody’s camaraderie, Ariel’s sense of adventure, Mowgli’s bravery, and, yes, Peter Pan’s childish joie de vivre.

Ryan Callander



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