The Imagineering Story

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises.)

The Walt Disney Company loves nothing more than to mythologize itself. Creating and maintaining its legacy is as valuable to the company as making new films, TV shows, theme-park attractions, toys, etc., that can help firm up its financial bottom line. So it’s not at all surprising that one of the brand-new series being unveiled on November 12 with the Disney+ streaming service is squarely focused on that legacy. The series in question is The Imagineering Story, a six-episode documentary that might wind up being more educational if you know less about Disney’s past.

When You Wish Upon a Star

The Imagineering Story is centered on the legacy of the Walt Disney Company before you even click play. The six-episode series (as of this writing, the first two episodes have been made available to critics, and I’ve seen both) is directed by Leslie Iwerks. That surname may be familiar to you for a few reasons. A decade ago, she directed The Pixar Story, a documentary about the Emeryville, California-based computer-animation studio. But more importantly, Iwerks is the granddaughter of the animation-technology pioneer Ub Iwerks, one of the most important figures of Disney animation. (Ub Iwerks, along with Walt Disney himself, is one of the creators of Mickey Mouse.) The rich history of Disney is thus being well defined at the outset.

The Imagineering Story, as the title would imply, is all about the men and women who have been designing the Disney theme parks around the world for over six decades. Perhaps the biggest problem that The Imagineering Story has in its first two episodes is, in and of itself, a compliment: it’s too short. (Better to have that problem than to be too long.) Granted, the next four episodes may reveal themselves to be more calmly paced, but here’s a brief rundown of the history covered in the first two hours.

The Imagineering group is first created in the early 1950s, before working round-the-clock to build the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim. We learn about the making and design of attractions such as It’s A Small World, The Jungle Cruise, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Haunted Mansion, and Space Mountain. Also, we see how Imagineers were utilized for filmic technology in titles like Mary Poppins. The death of Walt Disney is, of course, a major turning point in how it impacted Imagineers in 1966. Then, Walt’s brother Roy commits himself to creating a new, bigger themed resort with Walt Disney World in Orlando. Afterwards, we see how a new generation of Imagineers came together to work on the multi-year project dedicated to opening Epcot Center, the second theme park in Walt Disney World. Oh, and there’s also room for the inspiration, creation, and opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. 

What Would Walt Do?

Putting it lightly, that’s a lot of stuff to go through in just two hours’ time. Iwerks, unsurprisingly, is able to make The Imagineering Story’s first two episodes move swiftly, but that is arguably the issue. It moves very, very swiftly. Most Disney-parks aficionados could watch this and wonder why events like the creation of Disneyland don’t get single hourlong episodes all by themselves; the same goes for the opening of Walt Disney World, Epcot, and Tokyo Disneyland, let alone separate installments focused on Audio-Animatronic technology, as well as the marquee attractions employing technology. Whatever else is true, I wanted more of this show than even the likely final product is going to provide. 

That said, your enjoyment of this show is likely going to vary based on what you do or don’t already know about the Disney theme parks. Here’s one good example, from the second episode, “What Would Walt Do?” The episode focuses, understandably, on the massive ripple effect from the passing of Walt Disney, who suffered from lung cancer. One of the many attractions highlighted in the episode is The Haunted Mansion, a truly enduring, weird and beloved ride through a haunted house that’s not remotely as scary as something you’d find at Universal Studios. Describing one of the old-school effects with ghostly characters, Disney’s Kim Irvine, art director at Walt Disney Imagineering (and, coincidentally, the daughter of the Imagineer whose face is used to play Madame Leota), discusses the “Pepper’s Ghost” effect.

Now, I’m going to stop there. I’m specifically not going to describe in detail what “Pepper’s Ghost” is. If you’re reading this, and you have no idea what that could mean, you’re probably going to get a full-on kick out of The Imagineering Story. And that’s good! But if you’re a diehard parks fan, and you’re thinking, “Yes, I know Pepper’s Ghost, I get how it works, let’s move on”, this show (or, at least, its first two episodes) may not hold the exact same kind of appeal to you. It’s a challenging issue for any filmmaker, to be fair. How can the story of the Disney theme parks be told anew, in a way that would both appeal to the uninitiated and to the ultra-fan?

For the most part, it looks like Iwerks and her team chose to lean on the former group. That, of course, makes a lot of sense. The big advantage to Disney+ as a whole is that it can appeal to anyone, not just diehard parks fans or diehard Star Wars fans or diehard animation fans, and so on. The big-tent approach is very present in The Imagineering Story; frankly, I would rather more people know about how Disney pulls off its magic in the parks, too. But The Imagineering Story is perhaps less educational for a diehard fan, as well-crafted and fast-paced as it is. 

A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

The good news is that Iwerks has a level of access into historical material as well as interview subjects that lends The Imagineering Story an air of authenticity that can’t always be found in more unauthorized attempts. Whereas recent documentaries on the studio or Walt Disney himself (such as a frustratingly weak PBS documentary from a few years ago) struggle to feel legitimate because of their lack of on-screen experts (or experts who don’t seem that expert-like), The Imagineering Story boasts a lot of in-person interviews that only lend the documentary more weight. Imagineering all-stars like the late Marty Sklar, Rolly Crump, and Bob Gurr show up here, sometimes walking through the backstage areas, providing a peek behind the curtain that’s genuinely thrilling. 

For Disney die-hards, though, the truest appeal of The Imagineering Story may be in something that’s as yet unavailable in full on Disney+. (Seeing as the service goes live in a few days, it’s entirely possible this will change, and God, I hope so.) That would be archival footage that goes behind and in front of the scenes at the Disney theme parks. Most of this footage is collected from old episodes of the Disneyland anthology TV series, which began airing in the fall of 1954 on ABC (a long time before Disney bought ABC). That show was first designed as a kind of pre-show marketing campaign for the park that would open in the summer of 1955. But eventually, Disneyland focused on telling stories both about the theme park and about the spirits of Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and more. 

For now, at least, the Disneyland TV series has yet to be confirmed as something you can watch on Disney+. But The Imagineering Story makes clear this much: a lot of the content from that old show has been remastered for HD. Iwerks makes liberal use of this archival footage, whether it’s from behind-the-scenes glances at the making of attractions like the Enchanted Tiki Room, or early designs of Epcot, or in-park scenes themselves. While some Disneyland episodes were once available in a limited-edition DVD series called the Walt Disney Treasures collection, they’ve never been shown in HD. Now, in short bursts, you can see the HD footage, and it looks incredible.

Some of the footage — whether it’s of glimpses of what the Imagineering facilities used to look like, or of people experiencing Disneyland for themselves — is often so seamlessly integrated and crisply remastered that it looks as polished as in-park footage from 2019. Legitimately, this is the most stunning aspect of The Imagineering Story, and one that even park neophytes might recognize, if only because it doesn’t look overly grainy or poorly rendered. Most people watching won’t care too much beyond thinking, “Well, that looks cool.” But for park fanatics, this is a treasure trove.

Some Imagination, Huh?

So too would be an expanded version of The Imagineering Story. Think of a more week-to-week show that dove deep into each of these topics, giving them an hour all by themselves. That would be the ideal version of what Leslie Iwerks has directed here; the show is compelling enough that I want to keep watching, but it’s just too interesting and full of complex details to limit to just six hours. (The remaining four hours will no doubt cover the opening and creation of the other theme parks in Walt Disney World and Disneyland, as well as other overseas parks and no doubt the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.) If this show ends up being a test run for something more detail-oriented, it’ll be a good thing.

As it stands, The Imagineering Story is well-made, paced solidly, and as slickly made as you might hope. If you’re not a Disney theme-park fanatic, this show may be the gateway drug to turn you into one. The only problem is that the legacy of the Walt Disney Company, as much as the current denizens of the company like to refresh and renew it, has existed in televisual form for a while. The Disneyland TV series is right there to be presented on Disney+, and it’s clearly ready for the streaming spotlight. The Imagineering Story is fine, but it teases something deeper and richer with knowledge.

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