Disney six-part docuseries The Imagineering Story lifts the curtain on the creative minds behind the theme parks.
The first two episodes available ahead of Disney+’s launch in the UK look at how Walt Disney’s dream became a reality; from his financial gamble on Disneyland, California, to his visionary idea to transform swampland in Florida into another wonderland for children and adults alike.
It’s probably not too surprising that this isn’t a no-holds-barred exposé on the House of Mouse, after all, director Leslie Iwerks is the daughter of Disney exec Don Iwerks and granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, co-creator of Mickey Mouse.
Iwerks’ main focus is Disney’s legacy as she brings together interviews with former and current imagineers, footage of Walt himself and footage from the Disney archive.
That isn’t to say the Oscar nominated documentary maker shies away from some of the more touchy subjects. There’s a brief comment on the famous labour dispute, and a quick reference to extensive lay-offs when Disney’s son-in-law took over and attempted to take Disney in a new direction. But they’re just that: brief.
The title refers to the imagineers, described in the voiceover by Angela Bassett as a “merry band of misfits”. Walt Disney labelled them ‘imagineers’, a name he felt captured their imagination and engineering. He dared them to push boundaries of creativity. They took that abstract notion and made it a reality.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that the documentary series focuses on the legacy of Walt Disney, enforcing his philosophy while swiftly glossing over the union dispute and labour issues.
Everything the imagineers have to say still sheds light on what kind of man Disney was – even if it is through rose-tinted glasses – as well sharing fascinating insights into the rides we’ve probably never spent too much time thinking about beyond the thrills they provide.
Rather than lean on the talking head format, Iwerks interviews the imagineers in the park, the hustle and bustle behind them bringing their stories to life. She follows others inside the rides or under the park, giving us a glimpse behind the illusion.
Some diehard Disney fans may feel The Imagineering Story has nothing new to offer in terms of Disney history, but it’s access to archival footage, sincere approach to storytelling and depth when revealing the secrets behind the rides – like a magician revealing the truth behind the trick – gives it a more rounded feel than other Walt Disney documentaries.
Watching the first two episodes, I found myself devouring every factoid about the parks – there is no denying the episodes leave you wanting more.
If anything, the main gripe with The Imagineering Story is that it’s often too short, speeding through chunks of park history in a mere hour long episode.
The first episode, The Happiest Place on Earth, looks at the creation of Disneyland, the financial struggles, the impact of WW2 and the disastrous opening day in 1955, through to Disney’s death from cancer. By the second episode, we’re already dealing with the fall out after his death as brother Roy steps in to finish Project X, Walt Disney World.
What Would Walt Do? covers the creation of The Haunted Mansion in Walt’s memory and Roy’s death, whilst speeding through the construction of Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland.
We spend time learning about the most famous rides; Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mattador and The Haunted Mansion.
The people behind them prove to be fascinating. Harriet Burns talks about It’s A Small World, Bob Gurr, the Autopia cars, and self-professed ‘Disney brat’ and current art director Kim Irvine provides a surprisingly emotional moment when she talks us through The Haunted Mansion.
Irvine, the daughter of imagineer Leota Toombs, explains how her mother modelled for the floating head, immortalising her for her grandchildren to see after her death.
There’s a few myth-busting facts too. Bob Gurr, creator of the Mattador Bobsled, takes us behind-the-scenes to reveal the truth about that mythical basketball court visitors have speculated is hidden in the bowels of the ride.
While the remainder of the six-part series may opt for a calmer pace once it has dispensed of Walt’s looming presence in the first two episodes, it still swiftly moves through the Disney Cruise line, failed projects, and continued innovation.
Yes, The Imagineering Story is a little obviously sanitised, but you can’t help but feel inspired by these creative and innovative people. Not only that, but you come away with a huge amount of respect for the work they did – often in areas they had no expertise. Gurr taught himself trigonometry in order to design a rollercoaster, Mary Blair who had very poor eyesight designed the colourful It’s A Small World, and Xavier “X” Atencio went from artist to lyricist, writing classic quotable lines for rides….and that’s just three of the many examples that The Imagineering Story lovingly shares with us.
One thing is for sure: after watching it, you’ll never look at the parks in the same way again.