Not everyone can be an early adopter, especially when it comes to streaming platforms. Maybe you were waiting for a particular movie or show to premiere. Maybe you just got a subscription for Christmas. If you don’t know where to start, The Watercooler is here to help. We’re running down our must-watch shows and films for some of the major services so you can dive into the world of streaming and head straight for the good stuff.
Disney may have been late to the streaming party, but when it launched its own service in 2019 it was already loaded with content thanks to the studio’s extensive library of titles going back decades and blockbuster brands like Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar. Its merger with Fox also allowed the platform to offer acquisitions like The Simpsons, the X-Men films, and more. For nature fans, there’s an extensive National Geographic section with fascinating documentaries and specials, both original and inherited from the National Geographic cable channel.
With so many titles, organic discovery can be tricky unless you know what you’re looking for (and the horizontal text search doesn’t make it any easier). Disney makes up for that with “collections,” or groups of films and series unified by a common brand or theme, like “Princesses,” “Black Stories,” “Disney Channel” or “Toy Story.” It also gives viewers options for the order in which the films are organized. For instance, you can watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in order of release beginning with 2008’s Iron Man or in timeline order beginning with Captain America: The First Avenger. Wherever you decide to start, consider including these originals in your Disney+ binge.
For Star Wars fans old and new: The Mandalorian
The first must-watch show on Disney+ premiered at launch, bringing Baby Yoda into our lives and all the memes that went with him. You don’t have to be a hardcore Star Wars fan to enjoy it, but it certainly helps. With super-fans like Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni working behind the scenes to ensure the first live-action Star Wars show lives up to the name, the future of the franchise is in good hands. There are currently two seasons available, with a third in pre-production. For more, read The Watercooler’s rec here.
For aspiring filmmakers: Disney Gallery / Star Wars: The Mandalorian
Once you’ve finished both seasons of The Mandalorian, go behind the scenes and see how the magic is made in this documentary series. Through interviews with the cast and creators, as well as directors, writers, and craftsman, it’s clear how much love and dedication went into the project. What other show would give you footage of director Robert Rodriguez playing guitar on the set with Baby Yoda bopping along? The first season includes eight episodes covering Season 1 of The Mandalorian, with an additional special covering Season 2.
For Broadway fans: Hamilton
You don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars to see the award-winning Broadway sensation on stage, you can watch it from the comfort of your own home. Featuring the original cast in their prime on the stage of the Richard Rodgers theater in New York, this filmed production is the closest most of us will ever get to that premium experience. And with Broadway remaining closed until the spring of 2021, it may be the closest thing to any kind of stage performance we’re likely to get for a while. Plus, it’s Hamilton [insert your favorite quote from the show here].
For school break lessons: School House Rock!
If your kids are spending their holidays (and weekends) addicted to games, or they keep insisting on another round of Frozen 2, cue up some nostalgic educational programming wrapped in clever musical cartoons. Disney+ has 51 of the call-and-response shorts that wedged themselves in the brains of generations from 1973 to 2009 during Saturday morning interstitials, from “Conjunction Junction” to “I’m Just a Bill” to “Figure Eight.” They’ll double as mnemonic devices that will come in handy for the many years ahead.
For cross-generational bonding: Princess Bride, Big & Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Buried in the Disney+ vault are some of the best 80s classics that parents will remember fondly from their own younger years, now ready to be watched with their kids. Three highlights: Rob Reiner’s cult classic Princess Bride, the cheeky, live action answer to Disney’s animated princess canon. Tom Hanks iconic performance as a 13-year-old stuck in a toy executive’s body in 1988’s summer blockbuster Big. And the highly imaginative half-animated, half-live action hit comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit, these PG treasures are the perfect winter family watch.
Silly humor for kids of all ages: Forky Asks a Question
Another launch title for Disney+, this series of shorts features the character of Forky from Toy Story 4 (once again hilariously voiced by Tony Hale). Each episode, running three to four minutes long, begins with Forky introducing a topic and then exploring it with his fellow toys, though not always in ways you’d expect. Sometimes profound, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, it’s all in the name of fun and silliness. It’s not easy to pull off a show that’s truly universally enjoyable, from preschoolers to grandparents and everyone in between, but Pixar always manages it. There are 10 episodes in all, amounting to less than 45 minutes of content, but the good news is that once you’re done you can always go back and watch the Toy Story films, or continue on with even more shorts (Small Fry is especially witty but they’re all good).
For fans of Pixar and teachable stories: Soul
Released on Christmas day, after a year of loss, Pixar’s new instant classic asks big, existential questions through small, adorable creatures, pre-life souls. It’s the story of Joe, a middle-school jazz teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who’s on the brink of finally realizing his dream to play with the legends.
With his head in the clouds, he stumbles into a manhole, and soon finds himself in the Great Before — a possible way station to the Great Beyond — and the place where souls are prepped and mentored by people like Joe. Will he get back to his body in time to get that shot at his lifelong ambition? That’s the quest, but the journey — and the story — are far more complex and abstract than its closest Pixar cousin, Inside Out, right down to the Picasso-esque “guides.” My seven-year-old godkid found it “too scary” at first, with the fall down the manhole into what seemed like “death,” but quickly came around to the playful blobs, a cat-human body switch, the jokes and the music — and asked if she could see it again. And again. Soul is crazy clever, funny, profound, and ultimately hopeful…while asking some of the big questions that the grown-ups, and some of their kids, have been pondering in the past year.
For fans of space and history: The Right Stuff
You may remember the 1983 film about the origins of NASA and America’s space program. Like that film, this series is also based on the Tom Wolfe novel, but its extended length allows it to go places the big-screen version never could. The single season of eight episodes covers the history of the Mercury Seven astronauts and the country’s early efforts to send humans into space. Produced by sister network National Geographic, it’s grittier than you might expect from a Disney series. There’s a lot more focus on the rivalries and personal lives of the astronauts here. They’re not depicted as perfect specimens or role models, but individuals with very human flaws and failings. The women in their lives are also more fleshed out, with struggles and dreams all their own. A second season has been announced, but has no release date at present.
For true Disney fans: The Imagineering Story
In case it’s not already obvious, one thing Disney has always done well is mine its own properties for bonus entertainment value. Take this series, for example. Leslie Iwerks (granddaughter of legendary Disney animator Ub Iwerks) takes fans on a fascinating journey through the history of Walt Disney Imagineering, where the ideas and projects that eventually became Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and the subsequent Disney parks were born. From Walt’s initial concept for a well-maintained, family-friendly amusement park to the opening of the latest, cutting-edge Disney resort in Shanghai, to the construction of a brand new Star Wars-themed land, each episode goes in depth with key creatives behind the scenes and doesn’t shy away from the struggles they faced bringing attractions to life and keeping the parks running smoothly. If you missed going to theme parks in 2020, well, this is no substitute, but it’s almost as good.
Looking ahead to 2021
Here are some of the original series and specials we’re excited to see join the Disney+ lineup in the coming year. As of now this list does not include the upcoming Black Widow film, which is still slated for release in theaters, but a change to a streaming premiere isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
The first of a new batch of live-action Marvel TV shows brings Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision to the small screen with trippy homages to television classics such as I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, and Bewitched. Other returning MCU veterans include Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis and Randall Park as Agent Jimmy Woo. The cast also includes Kathryn Hahn in an undisclosed role and Teyonah Parris as a grown-up Monica Rambeau (last seen as a kid in Captain Marvel).
Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Next from Marvel is the highly anticipated team-up of two of Captain America’s trusted allies. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan return in the title roles, alongside Daniel Brühl as Baron Zemo, and Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter. These two are never better than when they’re bickering like an old married couple, but let’s hope they can put that aside when it comes time to save the world.
Not to be overlooked, Loki, arguably the best villain in the MCU, also gets his own series this year. Star Tom Hiddleston will be joined by Owen Wilson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as agents of the Time Variance Authority (or TVA), in pursuit of the God of Mischief as he makes his way through the new timeline he created in Avengers: Endgame. Expect lots of messing with history and time-travel shenanigans to ensue.
The Book of Boba Fett
Although there are several more live-action Star Wars shows at various stages of development (including an Obi-Wan Kenobi series starring Ewan McGregor) the only one to have an official release date in 2021 so far is this Mandalorian spinoff first announced in a post-credits scene at the end of the Season 2 finale. Temuera Morrison will return as the iconic bounty hunter, with Ming-Na Wen reprising her role as his ally, deadly assassin Fennec Shand.