Who better to make a documentary about Disney Imagineers than Disney? The new Disney+ series, “The Imagineering Story,” spotlights the pioneering work of Imagineers throughout the construction of the Disney theme parks. Over six hour-long episodes, the documentary series delves into different periods of innovation at Disney. It’s easy to read these episodes as propaganda, existing solely to get another Disneyland visit or two from its viewers. In many respects, the documentary drinks too much of the Disney Kool-Aid, self-mythologizing whenever it gets the chance. Yet, beneath the bias remains an interesting look at the detailed work that goes into the Disney Park. Fans should be most excited for archival footage that transports viewers back to the Disney parks throughout the decades.
On any trip to Disneyland, one can find a myriad of books detailing the construction of the park’s historic rides. What makes “The Imagineering Story” interesting is the archival footage. The documentary literally peels back the curtains on the inter-workings of each ride and the park as a whole. Yes, this includes the underground city beneath Disney, which feels even more surreal after “Us” depicted an underground world of tunnels. Other urban legends, like the basketball court within Matterhorn Bobsleds, get answered. The interviews with the original Imagineers behind these attractions provides interesting context and color to the detailed look of the park.
The first episode plays out exactly as one expects. The origin story of the Disneyland Park exalts Walt Disney’s vision and ingenuity at every turn. It sticks to this narrative that Disney’s idea for a theme park bucked every other business person’s idea of success. Even the park’s opening gets mired in bad headlines. On the opening day (“Black Sunday” as employees called it), the blacktop had not yet dried, power outages stopped the rides frequently, Disneyland ran out of water and almost didn’t have working plumbing. Still, this terrible opening has already become an integral part of the Disney brand. Disneyland was something that no one had ever done. Walt Disney took a risk thanks to his visionary imagination and gave birth to a cultural landmark. For the rest of the 50s and 60s, Disneyland’s reputation grows. Then, in 1966, Walt Disney dies of lung cancer.
So what’s next? The documentary works best after Walt’s death. Losing one’s boss to cancer is tragic enough. But Disney as a whole lost its direction. Without its galvanizing figurehead, the company struggles to keep up all facets of its business – the studio, TV and the theme parks. To make matters more complicated, Walt had been buying up vast amounts of property in Florida, the future site of Disney World. Watching Walt’s brother Roy and the rest of the company rally behind the construction of Disney World expertly combines human drama with typical Disney magic.
By the end of the second episode, “The Imagineering Story” finally starts to address some of the darker moments of Disney’s history. After the launch of Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland within a six month span of each other, Imagineers became deprioritized under new management. Layoffs follow, with many getting fired year after year, even right before Christmas. Even though Disney represents a wholesome home of imagination and dreams, it is still a corporation. It’s rare for corporations to be critical of their own internal processes or history. Disney, especially, can be cagey about its past. The end of this episode gives one hope “The Imagineering Story” can take a sometimes critical look at the Mouse House. Yet, it seems unlikely it will take an actual hard-hitting look at the Disney Parks venture.
At the end of the day, what is there to learn from “The Imagineering Story” on Disney+? For Disney aficionados, maybe not a whole lot, though there is a lot of cool footage. This documentary probably works best for casual Disney fans or kids with a burgeoning love for Disneyland. Disney agnostics will likely view this as a pure vanity piece. While there are plenty of self-serving moments throughout, the second episode suggests the series may take a more critical and less rose-colored view of the Disney parks. Director Leslie Iwerks (“Recycled Life,” “The Pixar Story”) keeps things moving briskly, even if it can sometimes feel like a compilation of fun facts.