Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (from team What Hi-Fi? based in the UK), a man called Walt Disney founded Walt Disney Studios with his brother and became one of the most renowned motion-picture animators in the world. Fast forward nearly 100 years, over 400 movies and more than 60 Academy Award wins and, thanks to the Disney Plus video streaming service, nearly every Disney title ever committed to celluloid is now available to stream in one place.
Disney Plus (Disney+) is a natural rival to the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, available in loads of countries and offering a rich catalogue of films and TV shows from Disney and its subsidiaries – Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar and National Geographic, as well as a slate of new Disney+ Originals. Now, Disney Plus subscribers in Europe, Canada, New Zealand and the UK (and even more recently, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea) also have access to Star, a channel that offers "grown-up" content from ABC and 20th Century Fox back-catalogues, plus originals already live on US streaming service Hulu (which Disney has a majority stake in).
Many titles are presented in the best video and audio technologies available today – 4K, HDR10, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos – and Disney has really gone the distance where device support is concerned. Is it any wonder it's our favourite video streaming service right now?
Now two years old, Disney Plus has attracted more than 116 million subscribers – not far off half of Netflix's headcount, and a figure three million higher than Wall Street analyst predictions. So should Disney Plus be part of your world or should you let it go? Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off into Disney's service we go...
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When Disney Plus launched, the monthly fee was £5.99 ($6.99, AU$8.99, €6.99), making it a very tempting proposition – and arguably a viable 'second' service for existing subscribers of Netflix or Amazon.
But, partly in light of the arrival of the Star catalogue in several markets, that price has now gone northwards. Since 23rd February 2021, the monthly cost of Disney Plus is £7.99 ($7.99, AU$11.99, €8.99). In the US, the Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus bundle has also got a $1 increase to $13.99 per month.
Note that an annual subscription works out cheaper – £79.90 ($70, AU$120, €89.90) – if you're willing to pay that upfront sum.
Disney Plus 12 months for £79.99 / $79.99 / AU$119.99
Want access to Disney's Marvel, National Geographic, Pixar, and Star Wars content, with classic Disney shows, at a discount? New subscribers can save over £15 / $15 / AU$24 when they sign up to Disney Plus for 12 months.
Disney Plus's catalogue comprises over 700 films and more than 400 TV series, from all-time classics to family favourites, including three of the four most profitable films ever made: Avatar, Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
One of the service's biggest selling points is its slate of original shows, such as The Mandalorian, The Only Murders in the Building, Clone Wars, Hawkeye and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (yes, that is its real title). Disney seems willing to splash the cash, announcing it plans to spend $8bn to $9bn on Disney Plus content alone in fiscal 2024, by which it hopes to have attracted over 230 million subscribers.
That title-dropping expands to more than 30 films and 50 series from the Marvel universe, including Black Panther, Avengers: Endgame, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, Loki, WandaVision.
Disney Plus is the only place to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Captain Marvel and all future releases from both Lucasfilm and Marvel, and is the exclusive streaming hub for every Disney theatrical release from 2019 and beyond. And yes, the service is also home to The Simpsons, too. Considering Disney is increasingly casting its net further afield (Oscar-winning Nomadland is one such example) and is still making animated gems (Soul, we're looking at you), the future of the service's quality of content is hardly in doubt. What's more, the minimum theatrical run before Disney blockbusters are available to stream is now only 45 days, shortening the traditional gap between theatrical and streaming releases of 70 to 90 days.
The catalogue features plenty of 4K HDR content (some originally mastered, some remastered), which isn't surprising considering Disney has been in the Ultra HD Blu-ray game for years. When we first reviewed the service upon launch, we counted just over 100 titles in 4K HDR – including Frozen, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Lion King (2019), Aladdin (2019), Toy Story 4, Moana and all five of Disney’s new Original movies. But thanks in part to the Star expansion, that figure has grown considerably.
The arrival of Star has indeed matured the service offering, appealing more to adults and sensibly introducing parent controls (which means parents can set limits on access for specific profiles based on content age ratings and introduce PIN locks on profiles with access to mature content). Star arrived in February 2021 as a 270-film, 75-show proposition, including four originals and plans for future premieres. Highlights include – deep breath – Modern Family, The X-Files, Deadpool 2, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Favourite, 24, Lost, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Prison Break, Scrubs, The Killing, How I Met Your Mother and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
4K support isn’t limited to just new titles, though. Toy Story is in 4K HDR, as are the original Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King. Classics such as Alice In Wonderland, Pinocchio, Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Sleeping Beauty are presented in Full HD with 5.1 audio, too.
The fact you can download these titles in their full resolution onto a compatible tablet or smartphone is arguably one of the best-value features of Disney+, considering the cost of individual 4K movies to rent or buy.
Downloads are unlimited, don't expire, and can be downloaded on up to 10 devices. The same treatment isn't so abundant with TV shows, with 4K HDR material limited to some new Disney Original series.
The service not only has plenty of content in 5.1 audio; it also supports Dolby Atmos, which was probably to be expected, given Disney's commitment to the format – the first-ever theatrical Dolby Atmos release was Disney's Brave, after all.
Atmos content on Disney Plus is prolific – all movies, shorts and the odd Disney Original – including The Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, The Mandalorian, WALL-E, Thor: Ragnarok, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, Big Hero 6 and the Captain Americas. Those same titles are also available in Dolby Vision HDR for subscribers who own a Dolby Vision TV.
A new partnership with IMAX and DTS announced in November 2021 has brought IMAX Enhanced to the platform, too, with the first slate of supported content viewable in IMAX’s expanded aspect ratio of 1:90:1 consisting of 13 Marvel films.
Ease of use
Disney Plus's interface is similar to Netflix's – and just as easy to use. It hasn't tried to reinvent the wheel with its layout, and the result is a service most people will feel comfortable navigating.
A banner of featured content heads up the home page, with titles grouped into categories such as 'Recommended for You', 'Originals', ‘Musicals’ and ‘Mickey Mouse Through The Years’. There is also a 'Nostalgic Movies' tab for those who wish to revisit Bedknobs And Broomsticks, Pete’s Dragon and Herbie Goes Bananas.
Above these categories – sandwiched between the featured content banner and title categories – are six blocks for Disney, National Geographic, Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and Star. These allow subscribers to dive right into the offerings of each of those specific Disney-owned brands.
Disney Plus's 'Collections' group similar content together – for example, films within the Spiderman universe or films featuring princesses. In the ‘Winnie the Pooh Collection’ you'll find everything from The New Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh TV series (1988-1991) to 2001’s The Tigger Movie and the recent Christopher Robin feature.
A pull-out sidebar lets you view only movies, only TV series or Disney Originals, search for specific content using the search bar, and access your watchlist (titles you've pinned for easy access at a later date). Up to seven profiles for each family member can be made on one account too.
A nice touch is that each user can pick a character for their profile, which can be made child-friendly with bolder icons, and a more colourful, less dense interface populated with more kids' content.
The Ultra HD and HDR category on the home page (which was missing from the app at launch in the UK) is a great way to quickly find content in the highest possible quality, and logos for 4K, HDR (HDR10 or Dolby Vision) and Dolby Atmos are neatly flagged within the synopsis, alongside those for age appropriateness, year of release, genre, season count and audio format (note that you will only see these badges if your device supports the technology). Ultra HD and HDR titles, as well as IMAX Enhanced content, can also be accessed through a drop-down menu within the 'Movies' tab.
Unsurprisingly, Disney Plus launched with exhaustive hardware support.
The service works across web browsers; iOS (iOS 11.0 and later) and Android (OS 5.0 Lollipop and later) phones and tablets; Google Chromecast, including devices with Chromecast built-in, such as select Sony and Philips Smart TVs; Apple TV (4th gen or later) and Apple TV 4K (running tvOS 11.0 and later) streamers; Xbox One, Series S and Series X consoles; PS4 and PS5; Samsung (2016 and later), LG (2016 and later) and Android-based Sony, Sharp and Philips TVs; a wide range of Roku streaming players; Android TV set-top boxes such as Nvidia Shield TV and Mi Box; all of Amazon's Fire TV streamers, Fire TV Edition smart TVs, and Fire Tablets (Fire OS 5.0 and later); and Sky Q.
Disney Plus’s catalogue can be streamed from an iOS device over AirPlay to Apple TV (including the 3rd- and 4th-generation boxes) as well as any TV compatible with AirPlay 2. So, yes, it's just about accessible everywhere.
Up to four screens can stream simultaneously on one account, too, which is on a par with Netflix’s Premium tier and better than Apple TV+’s and Amazon Prime Video’s three-screen limit.
We find ourselves drawn to the technically wonderful The Lion King live-action remake (a 4K Dolby Vision title) and are met with appropriately lush landscapes, tangible textures of lion fur, baboon skin and bird feathers, and a clean, crisp picture.
In the much darker opening scene of The Mandalorian (also in 4K and Dolby Vision) that crispness reveals itself again, complete with punch to lights and shine off helmets. There is enough gleam and sharpness to do justice to the series' high production values.
Even older titles that have been remastered in Full HD, such as Pete's Dragon (1977) and The Aristocats (1970) display a surprising amount of clarity, coherence and richness on our LG OLED.
We are very impressed with the Disney Plus streaming service. This is a polished and personal streaming service that fans of Disney's output, both children and adults, are bound to enjoy.
With its rich and increasingly appealing catalogue, vast support for premium video and audio formats, not to mention wide device support and intuitive usability, Disney Plus has quickly established itself as a serious rival to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. It doesn't have the gargantuan catalogues of those rivals, so is perhaps still best viewed as a 'second' service in a household (for those who can afford multiple subscriptions), but we wouldn't want to be without it.
Thanks to quality Disney Originals and plenty of exclusive theatrical releases, Disney Plus seems to have found its own particular niche and looks very much set to stay living happily ever after in the competitive video streaming world.
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