Why is Disney+ the place where AAA documentary subjects go to die?

With the release of The Beach Boys and Jim Henson Idea Man, Disney continues its baffling trend of taking prime documentary subjects and wasting their potential

Why is Disney+ the place where AAA documentary subjects go to die?
Jim Henson Idea Man Image: Disney

Over the past few weeks, Disney has released two new documentaries, both on high-profile, crowd-pleasing subjects. For The Beach Boys, directors Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny interviewed and reunited all the remaining members of the groundbreaking ‘60s surf band, which is no easy feat considering the past few decades for the band have been marked by infighting and lawsuits. Jim Henson Idea Man, directed by Ron Howard of all people, scored a similar level of access to the Muppets creator’s family and creative partners. On paper, these films should be a big deal. And yet, they were both released straight to Disney+ with little fanfare or promotion. So what’s going on with these documentaries—and Disney’s streaming strategy as a whole?

Especially now that Disney owns Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars, the company occupies a strange space: It is a place for big-name projects with a certain polish, quality, and respect, projects that push the envelope in a very specific, risk-averse way. There is a sheen to new Disney films and TV shows, a production value that rarely extends to daring writing or messaging. Sure, the queer subtext in Luca stops just short of being text, or even being acknowledged by the company as existing at all. Look at all this beautiful, groundbreaking animation! Come on, don’t you just want to get lost in that dreamy Italian seaside? Let’s talk about that instead. And don’t worry about the “first queer character in the MCU” in Avengers: Endgame: the reference is so subtle that you won’t remember it by the time all the superheroes team up to finish off Thanos.

No other company excels at creating an experience out of brand identity quite like Disney, but Disney+ has taken it to a new level. With such a large audience (reportedly over 111 million worldwide), it only makes sense that the company would use the service to promote its projects and itself in equal measure. Of course they’re going to do a behind-the-scenes look at every Marvel movie and TV show they produce; that keeps the fandom machine running, even as Marvel becomes less and less popular. Ditto with doc-commercial looks at Star Wars, and theme park attractions, and even Disney as a whole. They rarely promote these projects, because they simply don’t need to: The target audiences will find out about them through fan blogs or word of mouth, and that’s enough. The average user doesn’t need to know about the glut of self-mythologizing documentaries and docuseries hidden in the bowels of Disney+. It’s not for them. It’s for a specific subset of fans who will find it regardless of how much or how little Disney promotes it.

That approach works for projects that aren’t intended as anything more than bonus content for a fan base. No one is expecting a 60-minute Ms. Marvel making-of to win awards or make a large cultural impact. It doesn’t need massive promotion or a theatrical release. It just needs to exist for those who want to seek it out. But Disney now seems to apply this approach to all its nonfiction films and series—even the ones that, in any other studio’s hands, would be getting much more attention.

There’s no question about why Disney made Jim Henson Idea Man: Henson’s estate sold the Muppets to Disney in 2004. Given Disney’s penchant for behind-the-scenes content and the timeless appeal of the Muppets, they were obviously going to make a documentary about Henson and his characters. And it even makes a certain kind of sense that they’d send it straight to Disney+, as that’s what they do with all their self-reflective nonfiction. But then, why hire Ron Howard to direct it? Why premiere it at Cannes? Why get Henson’s whole family on board? Why take an Oscar-worthy subject, get an unprecedented level of access, and pump out a perfectly fine but not particularly revelatory nostalgia piece?

Similarly, it’s not hard to imagine an incisive documentary about the Beach Boys in the style of Amy or Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck. That is to say, it’s not hard to imagine a documentary about the Beach Boys with a point of view, a purpose beyond gentle, rose-tinted nostalgia. There’s certainly enough (famous) strife underneath the band’s happy-go-lucky surfer-boy exterior to create a basic tonal and visual contrast, to craft a narrative that interrogates the band’s mythos and the machinations that kept them pigeonholed, to ask questions about complicity and what it means, or meant, to be one of the biggest bands in the world while your dad tells you that you’re still not good enough. That’s not what The Beach Boys is, but it’s an easy thing to picture. Love And Mercy, while not a documentary, managed to say something about Brian Wilson and his unique burden throughout the Beach Boys’ fame. It is possible to approach the band and its members in a more thoughtful way.

The Beach Boys | Official Trailer

Instead, what we’ve got is much like Jim Henson Idea Man. The Beach Boys is an unchallenging, crowd-pleasing narrative that never asks the tough questions or dwells too long on the uncomfortable parts of the story. The deaths of original Beach Boys members Dennis and Carl Wilson are never even mentioned; their fates are relegated to one sentence of text at the end of the movie. And, unlike with Jim Henson, Disney had no stake in the Beach Boys, their music, or their story before they purchased the doc: The initial offer came from Epix, Paramount’s premium cable channel that eventually turned into the minor streaming platform MGM+. As producer Irving Azoff told The Los Angeles Times, he thought the Beach Boys deserved a home with a little more prestige. So he went straight to the top of the Hollywood food chain: Disney CEO Bob Iger. Iger jumped on it, snatching up the doc for the streaming service Disney+.

From a certain perspective, Azoff’s decision makes sense. Disney+, despite being only four years old, is the number-three streaming service in the world, and that carries a certain degree of prestige. The Beach Boys certainly wouldn’t be in bad hands with Disney, and it would have the company’s particular stamp of family-friendly approval. A nice, safe choice, strongly indicative of the direction in which Azoff wanted to take the documentary. This was never going to be a hard-hitting exposé. And that’s exactly what Azoff wanted: The Beach Boys hired his company, Iconic Artists Group, to “preserve and grow their legacy in a digital era.” Like any good PR rep, it was his job to tell the Beach Boys’ story the way they wanted it to be told. His motivation for the distinctly uncurious narrative makes sense, but Disney’s part in it, especially with its marketing and release strategy, is baffling. If you’re not interested in making art, and you’re not interested in making a shitload of money at the box office off an artless puff piece, then why make this thing at all?

Jim Henson Idea Man and The Beach Boys suffer from their unwillingness to present their subjects as complex, and perhaps even flawed, individuals. Pointing to something and saying, “Hey, remember how great this thing was?” is not the same as saying something insightful about it. Watching both films, it’s pretty clear why neither got a theatrical release: Neither feels consequential enough to see in a theater. They’re just bonus material, like the rest of Disney’s quasi-documentary promo specials for Marvel and Star Wars. They’re just more content for the Disney+ algorithm, more on-screen icons to be suggested when you’ve finished a different movie or TV show, more distractions to keep you from closing the platform and switching to another.

Join the discussion...