The House of Mouse entered the streaming space in 2019 and since then it hasn’t messed about. Disney+ is a major platform with over 100 million users and plenty for those subscribers to get their teeth into.
Despite being a TV-on-demand newbie compared to Netflix and Prime Video, Disney+ is stuffed with entertainment, from animated classics to Pixar, Star Wars and the MCU. And with new adult-focused (no, not THAT kind of adult, you filthy-minded dogs) hub Star having recently arrived, bringing with it a truckload of additional movies and series, there’s enough to keep you going for months. Here are some handpicked choices to start you off.
Additional words by Matt Tate
Under the Banner of Heaven (S1)
There’s more than a hint of True Detective about this dark drama miniseries, with Andrew Garfield’s devout Mormon detective investigating the brutal murders of a young woman and her infant child amidst a backdrop of LDS church intrigue and intra-family tension. The difference here? This is all based on actual events. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sam Worthington co-star in a compelling mystery series based on the book of the same name.
The latest film in the somewhat patchy Predator series takes things back to basics, and it’s all the better for it. Skipping cinemas and landing straight on Disney+, Prey is set in 18th Century America and its lead is a young Comanche woman determined to prove her worth as a hunter. She’s about to come up against one of the best in the galaxy though: a two-metre tall alien with an array of lethal gadgets, the ability to all but disappear and a hankering for trophies.
What follows is arguably the best Predator film since the Arnie-starring 1987 original, as our heroine must use all her wiles and cunning to avoid becoming the next prize skull in the monster’s cabinet.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
People often argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films feel made by committee: generic and characterless, with little sign of the director’s influence. That’s not always the case, and Sam Raimi’s fingerprints are all over this Doctor Strange sequel. True, it’s not Raimi’s schlockiest or most freewheeling film, but there are little moments of horror and humour that work nicely as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange travels through various parallel universes to save the world (many worlds, in fact) from a terrible existential threat.
Robert Altman’s final film is a cracking ensemble drama set over a shooting weekend at the titular house, the grand country pile of wealthy industrialist Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon). There’s a murder mystery in the offing, naturally, but most of the fun here comes from the upstairs-downstairs tensions between the staff and those they’re serving.
Expectations may have been set low for this series centring on the continuing adventures of The Most Boring Avenger, but thanks to its Christmas cheer, a bright and breezy tone (that some of the more po-faced Marvel series would do well to emulate) and the comic chemistry between Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop, it may actually be the best MCU TV series around. And that’s without even mentioning the superb cameo that will delight those familiar with small-screen Marvel shows of old.
The best horror sci-fi movie ever made (not to mention one of the best horror movies full stop) and one that spawned a sprawling franchise based around its iconic titular “xenomorph”, Alien is a masterpiece of tension and visuals.
When the crew of commercial deep space vessel the Nostromo (a fantastic cast of “normal”, highly relatable working joe characters rather than exaggerated, OTT personalities) detect a transmission from an unexplored moon, they land to investigate and discover a strange derelict craft full of large eggs. When one of these hatches, it sparks off a deadly sequence of events. It’s fantastic cat-and-mouse stuff, and – courtesy of director Ridley Scott’s mastery of lighting and the stellar production design, looks so, so good for a 40 year-old movie.
Moon Knight (S1)
One of Marvel’s more complex and dare-we-say-it “grown-up” superheroes gets his TV debut, with Oscar Isaac playing each of the various personalities that inhabit the body of Moon Knight – including one that has him demonstrating a pretty competent “Lundun” accent. Ethan Hawke also stars in a series that seems to be giving the play-it-safe Marvel Cinematic Universe the boot up the creative backside it sorely needs.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
There’s no room for Bond-style heroics, romance or outlandish gadgets in Tomas Alfredson’s understated spy drama. Based on the novel by John Le Carré, it populates the world of espionage with sad, shabby men who play Risk with other people’s lives. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is one such figure, brought out of enforced retirement to root out a Soviet mole in the Circus, Le Carré’s fictionalised British intelligence service. Smiley’s an unobtrusive, unassuming building society manager type, but every so often he shows the merest glimpse of something – steel, intelligence, ruthlessness – that suggests that, yes, still waters really do run deep.
The 1970s setting exudes a melancholy air as characters trudge through nicotine-stained offices and rain-sodden London streets; there’s no shortage of beige in the film’s palette. Oldman gives a stellar performance opposite a Who’s Who of British thespians, including John Hurt, Colin Firth, Kathy Burke, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Based on three novels from Patrick O’Brian’s beloved Aubrey-Maturin series, this rollicking Napoleonic Wars epic is probably one of the most historically accurate depictions of early 19th century naval life (and death) ever put on screen. You can practically smell the sea salt, boiled cabbage, unwashed bodies and gunpowder as the HMS Surprise’s crew, led by Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his faithful physician friend Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), pursue a French privateer across the South Atlantic and Pacific.
From tense evasive manoeuvres to ship’s dinners to battles filled with smoke, flame and splintered wood, this movie’s authenticity and attention to detail shines through – and almost all of it achieved without CGI chicanery, too. It’s a real pity no more Aubrey-Maturin movies followed – with 21 books in O’Brian’s series, there’d have been no shortage of source material.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Writer and director Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to In Bruges offers a similar mix of pathos, violence and pitch-black comedy, as Frances McDormand’s grieving mother challenges the cops of her small southern US town to step up and catch her daughter’s murderer.
Such direct action – she purchases space on the three advertising billboards to publicly shame the police – brings her into conflict with Woody Harrelson’s respected chief and his bigoted, immature and angry deputy Sam Rockwell, sparking off an unpredictable sequence of events and an unforgettable conclusion. We won’t spoil any of that, but suffice to say the Oscars won by McDormand and Rockwell for their roles were well-earned, and this movie will likely stay in your head for a long time after the credits roll.
The Beatles: Get Back (S1)
Originally conceived as a feature-length movie, this intimate look at the recording sessions that resulted in Let It Be eventually spiralled into a three-part docu-series. Director Peter Jackson has been handed the keys to a vault of almost 60 hours of unseen footage (recorded over 21 days in 1969 for an abortive documentary) and over 150 hours of unheard audio that tracks the creative process that led to some of The Beatles’ most beloved songs – and reveals the bust-ups and banter of a band both under strain and in its prime.
Only Murders in the Building (S1-2)
Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez play neighbours brought together by a mutual obsession with true crime tales – only to find themselves in the middle of one when a shocking murder occurs in the exclusive New York apartment block they share. Even if this weren’t a well-written whodunnit series with plenty of laughs along the way, it’d be worth the price of admission simply to see those beloved old comedy warhorses Short and Martin sharing screen time again.
The Americans (S1-6)
1980s nostalgia-fests in film and TV often neglect to mention one thing: the Cold War was still well underway and hundreds of millions all over the world felt like they were just minutes away from potential nuclear obliteration. It’s this climate of fear, mutual distrust and competing ideologies that The Americans recreates so well.
It follows the trials and tribulations of two Soviet sleeper agents, posing as a married couple, embedded deep in US suburbia. Their friends, their neighbours and even their own kids think they’re regular apple pie-chomping Yanks, but when duty calls they’re planting bugs, photographing secret documents and assassinating double agents for the Russkies.
Oh, and the marriage we mentioned? Just a professional union of convenience to aid their cover… or is it? The complex, strained and evolving relationship between the leads is one of the series’ most powerful aspects, making The Americans more than just a standard espionage drama.
It’s shocking that you have to go back all the way to 1986 to find a genuinely great Alien movie, but despite its advancing years James Cameron’s action-thriller take on the slimy, murderous xenomorphs still feels fresh, frightening and frenetic.
When Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is picked up following the events of Alien, she finds out that she’s been in hypersleep for decades – during which time humans have begun colonising the planet where she discovered the creature that killed her crew. When contact with the colony is lost, she is sent in with a gung-ho military team to investigate, and discovers… well, that’d be spoiling things.
Netting 2021’s Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress Oscars, Nomadland is a quietly powerful drama about Frances McDormand’s Fern, a van-dwelling widow who roams the American West in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book about her own life as a “houseless” wanderer, Chloe Zhao’s movie is far from the sort of hand-wringing poverty porn it could have become in less empathetic hands. Fern’s rootless lifestyle is never romanticised, but it’s clear she feels most at home on the road, warmed by the kindness of her fellow nomads and the simplicity of living off the grid. McDormand’s much-lauded performance (she says more with just her facial expressions here than most actors could in ten movies’ worth of dialogue) is worth the price of admission alone, but Nomadland will leave any viewer with much to think about.
If a comedy drama about the struggles of an aspiring rap star and his manager sounds too similar to something awful like Entourage, don’t worry: Atlanta is a decidedly different and far more interesting kettle of fish.
Produced by and starring Donald Glover, it’s a disarming, slick, offbeat, observant and endlessly charming comedy series about, to paraphrase Glover, “what it’s like to be black in America”. Funny as Atlanta is, it shies away from very little in this quest for veracity. But it would be a crime if we revealed too much about this weird and wonderful show – better just to watch it and find out for yourself.
The X-Files (S1-9)
Yes, every episode of this iconic series about FBI agents investigating paranormal goings-on has been available on Amazon Prime Video for some time, but for those who don’t subscribe to the Jeff Bezos Space Rocket Fund, its arrival on Disney+’s Star channel is likely to be a source of great joy.
TV has come a long way since the 1990s, and the way Mulder and Scully’s supernatural cases and conspiracy tales are presented does feel quite antiquated when compared to more sophisticated modern drama series – but if you’re watching, you’re probably driven by nostalgia, and there’s some really good stuff in here once you give yourself over to its internal logic.
Note that while the 10th and 11th series are not available on Disney+ (you’ll still find them on Amazon Prime Video), the two feature-length spin-off movies are.
This sci-fi action romp pits young, photogenic human space soldiers against a swarming, insectoid alien menace, complete with gallons of CGI gore, huge explosions and valiant heroism.
Barely concealed underneath the blockbuster bombast, however, there’s a satire on militarism, nationalism and endless war, with director Paul Verhoeven effectively turning the violence-obsessed Hollywood machine against itself. The fact that you can now watch this on a streaming service owned by the most gargantuan monolith in all of Tinseltown is an irony we’re sure Verhoeven would appreciate – but perhaps best part about Starship Troopers is that it’s as entertaining as it is clever.
The first Pixar feature film to debut on Disney+, Soul is a charming story about finding your place in the world. Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a New York band teacher who dreams of performing on stage as a jazz pianist. But instead he finds himself abruptly sucked into The Great Before – a place where new souls are given their personalities and passions before being sent to Earth. Sensing an opportunity for a second chance, Joe is tasked with convincing a wilful, wayward soul called 22 (Tiny Fey) that life is worth living – but little does he realise that he has plenty to learn about the subject, too. It’s beautifully animated, of course, but Soul is also funny and moving, and far more philosophical than your average animated movie.
Star Wars: A New Hope
The original (and probably second-best) Star Wars movie, A New Hope is now well over 40 years old. There are few signs of a mid-life crisis here: it still looks and sounds fantastic (partly due to director George Lucas’s inability to stop tinkering with it years after its release), but this trailblazing space opera adventure is beloved for more than just the spectacle of zero-g dog fights and light saber duels. Star Wars’ enduring characters and mythology are introduced and established in this movie, but it also serves as a fantastic self-contained adventure story about a simple farm boy who becomes the heroic figurehead of a revolution. It’s simple stuff at its core, but done so brilliantly that you can’t help but be sold.
At the time of writing, the Marvel Cinematic Universe contains no fewer than 23 movies. If you’re wondering where to start, why not watch from the beginning? Iron Man is the film that kicked off the MCU era, and it’s also one of the best films in the entire run. Yes, it has fantastic effects and action sequences, but its success is mostly due to star Robert Downey Jr, an actor whose on-screen personality seems to be tailor-made for playing billionaire inventor Tony Stark. Stark’s wayward playboy lifestyle finally finds direction when he creates an armoured combat suit, transforming himself into a superhero – and a future founding member of the Avengers.
The Mandalorian (S1-2)
The obvious one. The Mandalorian was Disney+’s flagship launch show, and if you’ve somehow managed to stay away from spoilers since our friends across the pond got hold of it, you’re in for a treat. Pitched as a space Western, the first live action series in the Star Wars franchise is set five years after Return of the Jedi and 25 years before the first film in the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens.
It follows the adventures of a bounty hunter known as Mando (Pedro Pascal), who suddenly finds himself the guardian of a very important youngling. Two full seasons are currently available to stream, with a third on its way.
If you like the MCU, it’s a case of take your pick with Disney+. Save the Spider-Man films, 2008’s very forgettable Hulk movie and a few others, you can watch the whole lot from day one. We keep going back to Thor: Ragnarok because not only is it a great superhero film, breathing some much-needed new life into the otherwise pretty missable Thor franchise, but it’s genuinely one of the best comedies of the last five years. Pairing a world-dominating media universe with the strange mind of Taika Waititi was a masterstroke from Marvel Studios, and with the follow-up due to land next year, now is the perfect time to remember why.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (S1-7)
The best thing about the Star Wars prequels? The cartoon series that they spawned. The first five seasons of The Clone Wars ran on Cartoon Network, becoming one of the channel’s highest rated series ever. A sixth was aired on Netflix, and now Disney+ has them all, plus a brand new seventh and final season. Up until now, The Clone Wars has taken place between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, but the latter part of the seventh season runs concurrently with the final prequel, leading us to the infamous Siege of Mandalore. If you’ve already binged your way through The Mandalorian, get stuck into this lot next.
Captivating and terrifying in equal measure, this remarkable film documents the ever-so-slightly bonkers free solo climber Alex Honnold, whose lifelong dream is to scale the 3,200-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any ropes or equipment. Those who aren’t keen on heights are advised to watch from behind the sofa, but for everyone else, the Oscar-winning Free Solo is a thrill ride that not even Star Wars and the MCU can compete with. But thanks to Disney’s ownership of National Geographic, Disney+ subscribers can have all three.