Creators: Jason C. Henry & Dan Lanigan
Host: Dan Lanigan
The Disney Company have long been very protective and proud of its characters, productions and intellectual properties, to the point of them having their very own vast archive of artwork and relics from their 92 year history. The amount of stories surrounding these pieces are infinite, and with many of these items being locked away in a vault, it seemed inevitable that at some point Disney would dig into this treasure trove to give the fans a glimpse at the magic behind the magic: and their new streaming service Disney+ is the perfect home for such an insider look.
No doubt also inspired by the massive success of shows like Pawn Stars and Storage Wars, on the surface Disney Prop Culture looks like another excuse for people to rummage around warehouses and search for treasure among the trash. However this show has the patented Disney sheen, which means that for a start nobody here talks about anything as unseemly as the monetary value of things. Instead host Dan Lanigan, a movie prop collector himself, searches out key props, costumes, pieces of the sets and (in the case of the stop-motion animated The Nightmare Before Christmas) members of the cast themselves from a range of Disney movies.
The actual searching is a very small part of the show since Disney has a large portion of this stuff tucked away in its archives. Although some of these items are in the hands of collectors or the filmmakers themselves, it’s clear that Disney knows exactly where most of this stuff is. With this element of this docuseries reduced, Lanigan is instead free to discuss the items in more detail, often accompanied by cast and crew members of the actual films as well as the artists behind the creation of the relics.
The basic structure of each of the eight half hour shows is the same but with each episode focusing on a single movie, there is enough diversity to allow this series to be eminently bingeable. The viewer’s familiarity and opinion of the individual film covered in the episode may dictate the order in which they watch the episodes. However none should be skipped as each one contains fascinating insight into the chosen movie. Some of the more interesting and touching scenes come in unlikely episodes. As an example, reuniting the (now grown) children from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with their weapons and costumes is beautifully emotional: although even more so is when Karen Dotrice is shown the tiny jacket she wore as Jane Banks in Mary Poppins nearly six decades later.
Of course cynics may brand this as Disney shamelessly self-promoting, but there is an awful lot to take away from the show, from the amount of unseen detail that goes into these works of art, to the love and emotion that the people who worked on the movies have for them (particularly obvious with everyone who talks about Jim Henson in The Muppet Movie episode). That being said, the show also works a different kind of magic and may make the viewer immediately wish to revisit the movies themselves – yes, even Tron!
Lanigan’s enthusiasm, obvious knowledge and his easy charm means that he makes an excellent host. He is clearly a massive movie nerd and super-fan, and owns many pieces from these movies himself. So it is very nice to see him geek out as he reunites someone like Christopher Lloyd with his Judge Doom costume from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or meet star of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Rick Moranis, who rarely makes public appearance these days.
The direction of the show is well-judged, and supporting graphics for things like transitions between locations are kept simple and to a minimum. The camerawork allows viewers to see the detail of the pieces as well as the emotion in the people who are holding them and both clips and backstage footage of the films are neatly inserted for context. The entire production is slick and strikes the perfect balance of avoiding being either too niche and dry, or overly irreverent. Outside of Disney fans, anyone with a passing interest in the movie-making process, costume design, prop making, set building or just about any branch of the arts (Lanigan interviews the choreographer of Mary Poppins Dee Dee Wood, and Drew Struzan the poster artist for The Muppet Movie) should add this to their watchlist.
With the exception of the Star Wars show The Mandalorian, the original content being made available on Disney+ has not been received with particular enthusiasm by critics. However Prop Culture is a genuinely excellent piece of documentary television, and with films from Disney-owned properties like LucasFilm, Fox and Marvel still available to dig into, season two can’t come soon enough.
All episodes of Disney Prop Culture season one are now available to stream on Disney+