One of Disney+’s launch shows was a six-part documentary about the history of Disney theme parks and the people who built them. The Imagineering Story was a fun and informative look at the multidisciplinary artists who have given us such classic works as Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World, The Haunted Mansion, and so much more over the last 66 years. Despite its almost six-hour length, there was still much that went uncovered, though; with such a long history of theme park design, a dozen different parks around the world, and untold projects that never made it out of the development phase, Imagineering’s history deserved further exploration.
It’s not a surprise, then, that the announcement of Behind the Attraction was met with great excitement by theme park fans. The new Disney+ series offers a behind-the-scenes look at the creation and history of some of the parks’ most beloved attractions, from Jungle Cruise, to Space Mountain, to the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Its 10 episodes are all devoted to either a specific ride or a general type of attraction, like the different forms of transportation found in the parks, or the castles that are the dominant landmarks at the various Disneyland-style parks. With copious amounts of backstage and contemporary footage, interviews with several prominent Imagineers from the past and present, and the full backing of Disney, Behind the Attraction promises to be the definitive history of these timeless, beloved attractions and the artists who made them.
So what went wrong, then?
If you’re familiar with some of the other TV shows made by its production company, you know what to expect, and why that’s worrisome. Behind the Attraction is co-produced by The Nacelle Company and directed by its founder, Brain Volk-Weiss. They’re the same people behind The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us, two popular Netflix shows that trade on a superficial, often ironic nostalgia for popular ‘70s and ‘80s toys and movies. That tone sometimes works with toys or Hollywood blockbusters, but before ever even watching Behind the Attraction it was clear that it wouldn’t be all that appropriate for the amount of work and artistry that goes into Disney’s theme parks.
Unfortunately that’s what you’ll find with Behind the Attraction. It tries to be cutesy and conversational but comes off as glib and smarmy. It doesn’t respect its audience’s intelligence enough, and doesn’t even always respect the Imagineers who built these attractions and took the time to be interviewed for this show. Occasionally the show will immediately mock something an Imagineer has just said, with narration that tries to be fun and light-hearted but is too often flippant and disrespectful. The narrator is the game and always charming Paget Brewster, and even she can’t make this script work. It’s full of repetitive rhetorical devices and a grating artificial naivety that makes the show far more aggravating than it should be. Volk-Weiss, who has a substantial comedy background, is obviously trying to jazz things up with a humorous spirit, but it has the off-putting silliness and insincerity of TV ads or morning drive DJs. The Imagineering Story had a more serious and respectful tone, without ever becoming too dry or worshipful of its subject; Behind the Attraction would be greatly improved if it was closer in spirit to that earlier series.
It’s especially disappointing because there’s a lot of great info here. The Imagineer interviews are wonderful repositories of Disney history, at least when they aren’t edited too thoroughly to be of any use. They talk not just about projects they worked on, but the challenges of trying to maintain and update classic attractions over the decades, and only occasionally does it start to feel like a transparent commercial for the theme parks. When the show gets out of its own way, and trusts its guests and experts to explain how these attractions were built and why they’ve been so valuable to so many for such a long time, Behind the Attraction lives up to its promise. If Disney released the full interviews with these Imagineers on Disney+ with no or minimal editing, they’d be a treasure trove of info for fans and historians.
Despite its hit or miss humor and frequently annoying tone, Behind the Attraction still has a lot of great information and archival footage on Disney’s history. And even when it’s not especially funny it’s still easy to watch most of the time. But the kind of viewer who would be most interested in this—somebody who loves not just the theme parks but their history and the stories of their creators—would also probably be the most put off by its condescending tone. If you’re looking for a cursory overview of the rides and attractions you love, and don’t mind the kind of lazy, glib humor that proliferated on VH1-style basic cable nostalgia-fests in the ‘00s, you’ll probably enjoy Behind the Attraction. Even if you have issues with its voice, though, you’ll still learn a good bit about the history of these attractions, and that somewhat makes up for the show’s faults.
Behind the Attraction is streaming now on Disney+
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.
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