Just Beyond is available exclusively on Disney+ on Oct. 13, 2021.
It’s a blessing that anthology storytelling on television is having a moment right now, but it also means all new entries into the genre need to bring their A-game. In the case of the Disney+ adaptation of R. L. Stine's graphic novel, Just Beyond, the series collects a talented group of young actors and support adults to bring a grab bag of slightly spooky tales to life with mixed results.
Created by Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), the series comprises eight standalone episodes that individually cover a gamut of youth-oriented topics including dealing with anxiety, processing grief, bullying, and the perils of social media. There’s no unifying through line for the stories or recurring characters, but much like The Twilight Zone, there’s often a supernatural or otherworldly thread. However, that classic series, which also appeals to families and still serves as a great entry point for scarier fare, is a lot more potent and clever with its storytelling.
The best of Just Beyond are the episodes that lean into the talents of its cast. "Leave Them Kids Alone" features the assured performances of Mckenna Grace as a freshman rebel who gets sent away to Miss Genevieve’s School for Difficult Girls, which is run by Nasim Pedrad’s Type-A headmistress. The two butt heads with gusto and create a fun clash of wills throughout.
Arguably the best entry is “Which Witch” featuring the exceptionally talented Rachel Marsh as a teen witch trying to just blend in with the normal humans at her school. Her comedic timing and line readings are delightful to watch, and she sells the concept of a “weird” teen coming to love all of her oddities.
David Katzenberg directs the other two standout episodes. “Standing Up for Yourself” works because of its folksy vibe that warmly frames how a small town is being terrorized by the oafish bully, Trevor Larkin (Cyrus Arnold). It’s witty and has some strange comedic beats that totally work in its favor. He then makes “My Monster” the only truly scary episode of the bunch, serving up some quality jump scares as it explores the creeping anxieties of a young girl adapting to moving to a new town amidst her parent’s divorce.
The rest of the stories fall into the “way too on the nose” category, with mostly cautionary tale scenarios playing out very broadly, like in "Parents Are from Mars, Kids Are from Venus" or "Unfiltered." Even with Disney’s conservative storytelling parameters regarding their family fare, that doesn’t mean stories have to be dumbed down to sell their lessons. Tweens and teens are smart enough to catch nuance, and these stories could have benefited from trusting their audience a lot more.