What’s New on Disney+: ‘The Straight Story’ Is David Lynch’s Healing of America’s Divides


Staff Member
Disney+ is an oddity in the streaming landscape. While it took over pop culture last fall with Baby Yoda and “The Mandalorian,” that blockbuster series was very much the exception for its content model thus far: this is a platform that relies almost entirely on its studio’s back catalogue of classic films. There won’t be another original live-action series of the stature of “The Mandalorian” until, well, “The Mandalorian” Season 2 later this year (assuming its post-production still continues as planned).

As for its classic film titles, Disney+ maintains a family-friendly focus, so many of the company’s more mature titles produced under its Touchstone banner, let alone its 20th Century Fox archive, don’t appear on the service. Even still, Disney+ touted the depth of its content offerings in the leadup to its November 12 launch with an epic Twitter thread of hundreds of beloved (or at least on-brand) titles spanning decades: from the 1940 version of “Swiss Family Robinson” starring Thomas Mitchell, which Walt Disney bought and suppressed so as to make his own 1960 version, all the way through “Coco” and “The Last Jedi.”

If the service is an oddity unto itself, it’s the oddities on the platform that have been among its most interesting offerings — including a “Disney Parks at the Holidays” special from the 1960s “Wonderful World of Color” TV series in 1966 that was the last TV broadcast Walt Disney himself appeared in before his death.

Because there isn’t that much new on offer through the service, this recurring feature singles out one recently added title to highlight as “The Best Bet” on the service each month, along with a couple other newly available picks and a selection or two from the back catalogue. Sometimes, “The Best Bet” will be a film, sometimes a series or TV special. It can be a new offering or a vintage favorite. This time, it’s a singular title: when Disney got Lynchian.

The Best Bet

“The Straight Story” is like the transcendental meditation famously practiced by its director, David Lynch. Watching it feels like an act of emotional healing. Its languid rhythm contradicts one of the key ingredients of drama: namely, conflict. There’s no real conflict in “The Straight Story” at all. Its story is gentle, a simple tale of perseverance and the kind people along the way who help ensure it has a happy ending.

It’s also a true one: in 1994, 73-year-old Alvin Straight, stripped of his driver’s license due to poor eyesight, embarked on a six-week, 240-mile journey via lawnmower to visit his ailing brother. Five years later it became a film as quintessentially Lynchian as anything the “Blue Velvet” auteur has ever made — and all the more remarkable in that it received a G rating and was picked up by Disney for distribution (after a successful debut in competition at Cannes and possibly as a consolation prize by the Mouse House, since the director already had wrapped shooting the ABC pilot for “Mulholland Drive,” on which the network’s executives ultimately passed.)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (1654857a) The Straight Story, Richard Farnsworth Film and Television

The real Alvin Straight sold the movie rights to his story for $10,000 and 10% of the profits in 1995. He died in 1996.


In “The Straight Story,” what Lynch did for the picket-fenced, Main Street Americana of “Blue Velvet” and the wind-whipped forests of “Twin Peaks,” he does for the golden wheat fields of Laurens, Iowa: he creates a vision of small town America that’s respectful, even reverential, while not ignoring the darkness that can seep in. Of course, there’s no nitrous oxide-huffing madman here or supernatural “Man from Another Place,” so you might be convinced that Lynch has sanded down his edges. Instead, his characterization of Straight (played magnificently by Richard Farnsworth), unfolds delicately over the film’s 112-minute running time: as he meets different people on his journey, he shares more about his life and what motivates him — a sweet story about how he’d have his kids break a twig in two, then point to a bundle of sticks he’d tied together that they couldn’t break and say “That’s family,” is heartbreakingly tender, but makes you think you’re in for a film full of fridge-magnet lessons.

Very quickly you realize that’s not the case: he hasn’t lived up to his own parable about family himself. His struggle with alcoholism created strain in his marriage, only one (Sissy Spacek) of his seven surviving children is present in his life — or even mentioned — and he’s compelled to make this journey to visit his brother because they haven’t spoken to each other in 10 years following an argument in which “unforgivable things” were said.

This isn’t a film about a life in which everything is pristine and perfect, but, despite their reputation, most other Disney films aren’t either. They’re about finding happiness and purpose despite the challenges we face, the tragedies we’ve endured (think of all those absent Disney animated film parents), and the baggage we carry around with us. “The Straight Story” is unique in that most of these heartaches are related by Farnsworth in conversation with the people he meets on his journey, almost all of whom are kind listeners. The closest anyone comes to being a jerk are twin brothers who overcharge him to repair his lawnmower. For its emphasis on conversation, “The Straight Story” practically becomes Lynch’s detour into Richard Linklater territory. But the staging of each talk is pure Lynch. One of the most moving moments comes at a small-town bar where Farnsworth’s Straight talks to a fellow septuagenarian about their respective traumas during World War II. “I can still see the swastika,” his drinking companion says of a German fighter that crashed into his camp. Lynch only employs a sonic flashback: the soft percussion of bombs falling in the distance accompanies the man’s story, though the camera itself never leaves the bar and remains trained on his face.

Lynch’s longtime editor Mary Sweeney contributed to the script of “The Straight Story” and its conversational cadences are much like that of Lynch’s own speaking style: direct, unfussy, relying on one-word answers where possible. When Straight buys a grabber, a tool for the elderly to pick things up without bending over, he’s asked, “What do you need that grabber for, Alvin?” His answer: “Grabbin’!” This is the Lynch who — when asked to describe himself — has often simply said, “Eagle scout. Missoula, Montana.” It’s the Lynch who understands the power of saying nothing at all, when Farnsworth and Spacek pause several times to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings: gazing at the stars in the sky and the lightning-flashes in a thunderstorm.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (1650508a) The Straight Story, Richard Farnsworth, Wiley Harker Film and Television

David Lynch’s sound design is never better than in this extended conversation between two World War II vets.


The country boy from Montana that Lynch remains shines through so clearly in this film, and in perfect harmony with his more surreal touches. The only moment of real suspense in the movie occurs when Straight finds himself hurtling down a hill with the lawnmower’s breaks busted. When he finally comes to a stop, breathless from panic, behind him, and unrelated to his fright incident, is a burning house that firefighters have set ablaze “for practice.”

This is a film that arthouse devotees of “slow cinema” and heartland churchgoers looking for a clean movie would enjoy together. How do you describe the mastery of a filmmaker who can make a movie that could bridge America’s political and cultural divides? That’s a level of skill matched only by someone capable of selling his movie to Disney without compromising his vision at all.

Also coming to Disney+ this month:

— Four new episodes of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” Dave Filoni’s often dazzling Lucasfilm animated series that has given fans some of the best “Star Wars” storytelling ever. These episodes focus on former Padawan Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein) as she navigates life after having chosen to leave the Jedi Order. In the original run of the series that concluded in 2013, Ahsoka decided to make her way throughout the galaxy on her own after the Jedi Order refused to defend her against a spurious murder charge trumped up by Admiral (later “Grand Moff”) Tarkin. But of course her desire to do good and help the innocent as war rages across the galaxy endures.

Disney gets churchy in “The Small One.”

— “The Small One” (1978): If you want to get a sense of how aimless Disney animation was in the late ‘70s under company CEO Card Walker (who cut his teeth as a camera operator and short-film unit production manager with the studio in the 1930s and never left) take a look at this 26-minute short. It’s directed by Don Bluth, who’d leave the studio not long after to form his own independent studio (he’d later direct “The Secret of NIMH,” “An American Tail,” “The Land Before Time,” and “Anastasia”), and it feels of a piece with his later work. But it’s also oddly touching? It tells the story of the aging donkey who carries Mary to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus. Or rather the story of how he comes to be her mode of transport in the first place — he’s the beloved pet of a young boy whose father forces him to sell him. And the purchaser, Mary’s husband Joseph, could not be more divinely inspired.

Yes, “The Small One” is from a time when Disney was open to adapting Bible stories. This writer once expounded in the late academic journal Jump Cut about how the caricatures of Jewish merchants in “The Small One” anticipates the Arab stereotypes of “Aladdin,” right down to a song called “Klink-klink, Klank-klank (Take the Money to the Bank),” which had some altered lyrics for its 2005 DVD release, likely reflecting concerns about the portrayal. In case you think Disney+ is devoted to avoiding “problematic” content in its back catalogue, here’s one that suggests they are not.

Poor Pluto in “On Ice.”

— “On Ice” (1935): This is a delightful short about Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald going for a skating party — even if why these holiday or winter themed shorts are dropping on Disney+ now is a bit of a mystery. Brilliant images abound – Donald attaching ice skates to a sleeping Pluto’s paws so he’s tormented on the frozen surface when he wakes up, Goofy going ice-fishing by using chewing tobacco as bait. Rather than hook them with a line, Goofy plans to beat them with a club when they surface to expectorate their chaw in a spittoon.

A Gem Already on Disney+:

In the “Short Circuit” collection of experimental animated films produced in the past few years, be sure to check out “Cycles.” It’s less than five minutes, but it covers a lifetime: it’s about two parents moving into a new home, raising their daughter there, and finally as they move out decades later. It packs a wallop, as if it were the opening sequence of “Up” as a standalone short film. The talented director, Jeff Gipson, who also debuted “Myth: A ‘Frozen’ Tale” at Sundance earlier this year, created this as a 360-degree VR experience — meaning that the house itself becomes that much more of a character. But no emotion is diluted by converting it to a 2-D version on Disney+.