For anyone of a certain age—that is, anyone born before the launch of the Disney Renaissance, ushered into being with the 1989 feature The Little Mermaid—the opening of the Disney vault may seem like a cause for celebration. It’s probably insane by today’s standards, with the legendary studio releasing brand-new big-budget blockbuster features every year and all of them being available digitally a few months later, but there was a time when kids went to see films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty in the movie theater. My first was Bambi—originally released in 1942 and, like most of the Disney catalog, re-released in theaters once a decade for the delight of children across the country. Yes, in the olden days a person might have to wait years to see classic animated films. Now, they can fire them up on their smart TV at any time.
It makes sense that the lore of the Disney vault reached its most mythic proportions in a time before big-screen movies could appear, in slightly altered forms, on people’s personal devices. Even more sense when you consider that there was a time, believe it or not, when you couldn’t simply own a physical copy of a movie you wanted to watch, and when home video became something most families could enjoy, it made equal sense that the Disney catalog would slowly roll out on VHS, kept safe and clean inside giant white clamshell packaging. But there was always a threat that the movies could be pulled from shelves at any time, slipped back into the vault for decades. It was important, then, to purchase the movies you wanted to be able to see over and over again. The Disney vault was possibly a treasure trove of animated cinema, but it was also responsible for a child’s first understanding of economics. Pay up for that Aladdin VHS, kid. You ain’t never had a friend like Robin Williams’ genie and if you (or your parents) don’t get it now, there’s no telling when you might get another chance to hang with him.
That all ended last month with the launch of Disney+, a move that opened the doors of the vault for anyone willing to shell out seven bucks a month. Star Wars fans got The Mandalorian; kids who came of age in the aughts got a trove of Disney Channel original shows. But beyond the streaming service’s TV programming, both original and nostalgic, one of the most exciting parts of Disney+ is the access to all of those movies that were delivered and then strategically taken away. The Disney vault is open and, as it turns out, there’s a whole lot of mediocrity in there, too.
With the dawn of the Streaming Wars, consumers now face a glut of online services with robust slates of movies and shows—content that runs the gamut from prestige to content-for-content’s-sake. There’s something for everyone, allegedly, from Netflix’s Oscar hopefuls to, well, streaming-exclusive films that, were they really any good, might have been given a proper theatrical release. In the time before an internet connection was fast enough to watch a movie on a laptop—or before you could watch a feature on your iPhone (don’t tell Marty!)—these not-quite-good-enough-for-theaters movies were still produced, but they were released directly on video. Disney took advantage of this market, too, and now any Disney+ user can finally watch all of the straight-to-video sequels to its most popular animated films. Whether or not that’s a good thing, though, is up for debate.
For every Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, there’s a Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas or The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. Want to watch two sequels to Aladdin, one without the participation of Robin Williams? You’re in luck: Disney+ has them. There’s also a ton of Tinkerbell spin-offs, if you’re into that sort of thing. Do you love the current crop of Disney remakes, often mistakenly billed as live-action despite being largely computer animated? Disney+ has those, too (including a Disney+-exclusive remake of Lady and the Tramp, which has big straight-to-video vibes). There’s been much to-do about the service’s content warnings, offering explanations for outdated cultural depictions in older films like Dumbo and Peter Pan, but alerts for cheap and mediocre offerings are nowhere to be found.
Beyond the worst of the vault’s offerings, Disney+ offers the opportunity for any starry-eyed nostalgic to be extremely disappointed in the films of their youth. There was, one might expect, a reason for movies to return to near-obscurity—not just to create a false sense of demand, but because some movies just don’t age well. This is to be expected when you’re dealing with a cinematic catalog full of children’s movies. I can imagine two kinds of Disney+ users who signed up for the nostalgia factor: Those who have kids of their own and want to share the films of their youth, and those who want to revisit those movies for their own entertainment. Either way, disappointment is inevitable—but it’s unreasonable to expect any studio, Disney or otherwise, to have a back catalog that doesn’t have a few clunkers.
Is this unfiltered access all it’s cracked up to be? Of course not! The concept of unattainable films was what made the Disney vault was such an effective marketing tool. It didn’t just create a cultural supply and demand; it also made everyone’s appreciation of Disney extremely personal. Before all of the classics were available to us, all at once, we built our own personalized Disney collections. The kind of kid who grew up obsessed with Pete’s Dragon might have been too old and jaded for cheery animation by the time Hercules came around. Those who loved Lindsay Lohan’s breakthrough double-role in The Parent Trap may turn up their noses at Hayley Mills. Disney+ has brought all of these movies back to us in democratic fashion, but its expansive slate—which also features Star Wars and Marvel films and every episode of The Simpsons—proves that the company’s grand offerings are great in theory as long as you’re willing to wade through the muck of its more mediocre productions.