The stories Disney tells about itself have created an epic mythos that rivals the classic fairy tales Walt Disney mined for his greatest animated features. In the company’s own hagiographical universe, he was a singularly American innovator, paradoxically grandfatherly and childlike, who only wanted to bring magic to the rest of humanity. And like the hub-and-spokes design of his theme parks, he was the deific epicenter of a vast entertainment empire out of which tendrilled endless varieties of anodyne amusement that continues to captivate the world. There’s no doubt Walt Disney was one of history’s greatest salesmen.
If you’re looking for a muckraking, warts-and-all exposé on the horrors of so-called “Mauschwitz,” I wouldn’t start with The Imagineering Story.
The sentimental six-part Disney+ docuseries from Oscar-nominated documentarian — and third-generation “Disney brat” — Leslie Iwerks is, by far, the most appealing and intellectually engaging offering from Disney’s new nostalgia-driven SVOD streaming service. (Especially if your brand of Disney fandom centers on Disney history, as opposed to newly acquired properties.) It’s an elegantly crafted, if unavoidably rhapsodic, history of Disney’s theme parks that made me utter “Wow!” multiple times while watching the first two episodes available to critics. It is, so far, the only series in this first wave of Disney+ programming that has enticed me to want to gobble up the rest of the season.
The Imagineering Story derives its title from the collective of engineers, designers, architects, art directors, fabricators, machinists, puppeteers, technologists, choreographers, programmers, inventors, illusionists, modelers, colorists and storytellers who turned Walt Disney’s dream of a world-class theme park into a reality. As Angela Bassett soothingly narrates, these artists, canonized by the company as “Imagineers,” fostered a startup-like operation that was simultaneously, “an artist studio, design center, think tank and innovation laboratory.” Iwerks’ series is the inverse of the Fyre Festival documentaries, which rejoiced in calamity.
Writer Mark Catalena’s graceful prose chronicles the 70-year history of this research and development arm of the Disney corporation, starting with Walt Disney’s nearly bankrupting gamble to level a bunch of citrus groves in suburban California and transform the terrain into an escapist wonderland. Disney hoped to cultivate a uniquely cinematic immersive experience through spacial manipulation and hired many of his filmmaking colleagues to devise protean smoke-and-mirror aesthetics that went beyond verisimilitude into realized fantasy.
Iwerks cobbles together remarkable archival footage and fascinating interviews with current and former Imagineers, including her own father, legendary camera technician Don Iwerks. (One genius decision: staging the interviews at the parks themselves, such as on a balcony overlooking Main Street, U.S.A., so you can delight in the candy-colored splendor while listening to the talking heads share anecdotes.)
The first hourlong episode, “The Happiest Place on Earth,” focuses on the birth of Disneyland, which opened in 1955, while the second episode, “What Would Walt Do?,” recounts the shaky rise of Walt Disney World, Epcot and the Tokyo Disney Resort following Walt’s death in 1966. Iwerks takes her time to delve into the captivating histories of attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain and The Haunted Mansion. Much of the Imagineering technology of the era looks more sophisticated than what NASA was developing in the same time period.
You learn about the eclectic — and eccentric — personalities who all had a hand in producing aspects of the parks, and Iwerks pays special attention to many of the forgotten women whose designs and innovations still fascinate patrons. In a particularly moving interlude, second-generation Imagineer Kim Irvine describes how her mother, Leota Toombs, modeled for a character in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and now Irvine gets to see and hear her mother’s projected doppelganger whenever she visits the attraction.
Beware, of course, that this docuseries is the work of a company woman — Disney by Disney. But while there’s candor here about the disasters that befell the launches of the parks, Iwerks so far avoids acknowledging any of the real critiques of the parks or the Disney brand overall (racism, colonialist worship, labor disputes, price gauging, etc.). As one of those evil, childless adults who still loves to patronize theme parks, I still believe, based on comparative experiences, that Disney is unmatched in its superlative attention to detail and nuance. Ultimately, The Imagineering Story is enjoyably educational, especially for people who love to take toys apart to see how they work.
If you’re looking for satirical takedowns of manufactured Disney-like happiness, try the 1992 animated comedy Bébé’s Kids or any Itchy & Scratchy Land episode of The Simpsons. If you want to revel in the iterative processes involved in conjuring sensorial feasts, this docuseries will hypnotize you.
Narrator: Angela Bassett
Director: Leslie Iwerks
Executive producer: Leslie Iwerks
Premieres: Tuesday (Disney+)