For years, we have anxiously awaited Leslie Iwerks’ documentary about Walt Disney Imagineering. Well, it’s finally here as part of the launch of Disney+. We reviewed the first two episodes here and here, but you can also watch video reviews of episodes 2 and 3 here.
The Imagineering Story Part 4 is titled “Hit or Miss”. The official synopsis reads as follows:
After a tragic downturn, Michael Eisner steps back from creative stress and hires business minded managers to fill the void. The pendulum swings from art to commerce. The Imagineers enter an era of austerity. While some projects enjoy enormous success, others are cancelled, and still others, disappoint. The pattern seems irreversible.
We’ve entered the late 1990’s, a time where some great projects lingered from earlier approval, while the worst was yet to come. The episode starts with some positivity, stopping for short tales of the Disney Cruise Line and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Later uplifting moments come from a way-too-short jaunt through the development of Tokyo DisneySea. That being said, the show is at least always honest (so far), informing viewers that DisneySea was a masterpiece uninhibited by budget, mostly because the bill was not footed by the Walt Disney Company. Behind the scenes footage on the development of that park is rare, so while short, the clips and art shown are a nice treat.
The episode covers the pitfalls of cheap parks, documenting the large-scale follies of Disney’s California Adventure, Walt Disney Studios Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Interviews recall uncomfortable lunches where the teams working on DCA and DisneySea had to sit with each other, one team allowed to let their imaginations run free in most cases, while the other was trapped in a financial and creative box working on a park with an amusement pier and a “mall fountain” at the entrance.
If you like the obscure, or love the tales of attractions so bad that they didn’t last for long, the episode actually spends a few moments talking about Superstar Limo and contains some test footage of the ill-fated Rocket Rods at Disneyland. If you love tales of the projects that never made it, the series even spends a few minutes on Disney’s America and WESTCOT, providing some concept art for these parks that I had never seen. Disney and/or Iwerks: PLEASE PRODUCE FULL LENGTH DOCUMENTARIES ON THESE UNBUILT PARKS.
I was shocked that Iwerks sat down to interview Paul Pressler, perhaps the most controversial executive in the history of the theme park division. In late 1994, Pressler was tapped to become Disneyland’s head executive. At Disneyland, Pressler was known for cost-cutting measures such as reducing customer service training, having workers wash their own uniforms, shortening maintenance staffing and preventative measures, and closing rides and shows early. Pressler was promoted to president of Walt Disney Attractions in December 1998. In 2000, he was promoted to be chairman Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, before, thankfully in my opinion, leaving the company. Pressler was responsible for Disney’s California Adventure, the horrendous 1998 New Tomorrowland, and the tremendous disrepair that the Disneyland Resort fallen into by the early 2000’s. While I don’t care for the current leadership of the division, it is still a far cry from this man. That being said, Kim Irvine discusses the problems of bringing an executive from consumer products into the theme park realm during this episode, a surprising thought to be aired on a Disney-owned streaming service given that Bob Chapek is cut from the same cloth.
It is safe to say at this point that no episode of The Imagineering Story will disappoint, but this is certainly not the best. That being said, it is really hard to make people happy with such a depressing episode, but the drama could have been turned up a bit to do so. There is A TON of great, real drama in the company at this time, why not use it? Instead, the documentary has moments of brutal honesty followed by quotes from some Imagineers and executives that any fan would find infuriating. You can’t spend 15 minutes telling your viewers that quality parks weren’t being produced and that the consumer realized it, only to follow with Pressler and some Imagineers defending their choices on California Adventure. Luckily, that segment does end with Kim Irvine reminding us that Walt said, “If you do a good job, they’ll pay for it,” going on to state, “they started seeing that we weren’t doing that good a job anymore.”
The Imagineering Story has been a wonder so far, but I fear for the final two chapters. Certainly, the arrival of Bob Iger does usher in a few years of prosperity and some really wonderful additions (Cars Land, Mystic Manor, Pandora: The World of AVATAR), but I worry that rose-colored glasses may be applied as we roll on to Shanghai Disney Resort, Toy Story Land, and some of the disappointments of more recent history. We will have to wait another week to see…