Disney’s ‘Prop Culture’ Unearths Endearing History Behind Timeless Hit Films

Disney’s ‘Prop Culture’ Unearths Endearing History Behind Timeless Hit Films

Docuseries host and prop collector Dan Lanigan embarks on a road trip through cinema history, meeting stars and creators of such classics as 'Mary Poppins' and 'The Muppet Movie.'
Josh Shepherd
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Movie blockbusters aren’t what they used to be, and that doesn’t just apply to recent months with theaters closed. (Streaming anything good lately?)

A few decades ago, when studios poured $50 to $100 million into films such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Tron,” or “Mary Poppins,” the silver screen lit up with story ideas and visuals never before seen. Today, such budgets are most often reserved for paint-by-number remakes and tiring sequels; most sell enough tickets for audiences to get more next year.

A new release from Walt Disney Studios — today, hardly a bastion of risk-taking film production — hearkens back to the glory days of the Magic Factory when newly conceived practical effects were employed to tell wildly original stories. Exploring eight landmark films in half-hour episodes, binge-worthy docuseries “Prop Culture” lands today on Disney Plus in its entirety.

“The beauty of it is the Disney Plus team completely understood what we were trying to do from the get-go,” said series host Dan Lanigan, who spoke to reporters on a conference call from his California home. “I have an obsession for movie-used art: props, costumes, wardrobes, set pieces, and all that. ‘Prop Culture’ is [about] celebrating not just props, but these true artisans.”

Coming across as the sort of nerd who has several Comic-Con cosplay options at the ready in his basement (and it’s true), Lanigan may seem an unlikely host to guide a multigenerational audience into an appreciation of yesteryear’s popcorn cinema. But his enthusiasm for every one of these eight films, and dozens more he references, is infectious.

“I started collecting action figures as a kid,” he said. “Now, as an adult, collecting props is sort of my version of toys. So I come to this show from a fan’s perspective, not as an insider. I am geeking out as much as anyone!”

Memories and Moviemaking

A fast-paced celebration of cinema legacy, the series winds back time to when artists physically created elaborate sets, action scenes, and on-screen creatures, as opposed to today, when most elements are designed in computers and achieved through green screen. Narrative approaches in each “Prop Culture” episode are as varied as the films featured.

Revisiting forgotten ’80s comedy “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” actor Rick Moranis emerges from retirement to reminisce about his on-screen role juggling fatherhood and far-out inventions. (In real life, he left Hollywood to care for his kids after his wife died of cancer.) Donning his iconic villain’s fedora from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” star Christopher Lloyd recalls his part in the innovative live action-animation hybrid flick.

Lanigan travels to the island of St. Vincent to scope out where Disney’s first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film came to life, aided by award-winning costume designer Penny Rose, who shares the elaborate work her team accomplished. The same episode walks through a blacksmith’s centuries-old process for shaping steel; he shows off a black-ebony blade forged in 1740 that served as a model for several on-screen swords.

The episode on Walt Disney’s quintessential film “Mary Poppins” avoids retelling the same familiar behind-the-scenes anecdotes from past documentaries. Early reviews have noted a particular sequence featuring actress Karen Dotrice, today age 64, as emotionally moving.

More than 55 years prior, Dotrice had portrayed Jane Banks, one of two children the flying nanny watched over. Now Dotrice meets up with Lanigan at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and the two ride a carousel that had inspired Walt to ultimately dream up Disneyland. Then Lanigan pulls out the actual costume Dotrice wore in “Poppins” and captures her reaction.

“When she saw that jacket, it was an amazing moment — it meant a lot to her,” said Lanigan. “I collect these artifacts because they’re important remembrances that these movies were actually filmed by people and by artists.”

Celebrating the Details — and Artists Behind Them

“Prop Culture” has more than mere nostalgia going for it. A closing scene in one episode has Lanigan sitting down with his daughter to share the experience of watching a classic together.

“Family is very important to me,” he said. “I watched ‘Mary Poppins’ with my father. There’s something about quality time you spend with your family that strengthens those bonds. Where I get my love for film is my mother and father’s encouragement of me, with all the crazy stuff I did.”

As much as the movie experience is personal, so too is the craft behind it. “Whether it’s costuming, automotive engineering, sculpting, painting, design, directing, or camera work, so many trades come together to produce a film,” said Lanigan. “By looking at these objects that are created for film, you see all the different skills that are applied to make it happen.”

Lanigan’s personal treasure trove, with thousands of movie items, rivals many museums. Yet it’s only the series’ starting point. He has a working relationship with the Walt Disney Archives, having acquired artifacts for their collection. Now he invites viewers into his world: Hollywood-area warehouses of Disney props not open to the public, movie auction markets housing rarely seen items, and boutique shops such as the Jim Henson Studios.

He revels in the details, without losing sight of the larger purpose of storytelling. “These artifacts are artworks in their own right, masterpieces in a lot of cases — of all different types of trades — to accomplish this fleeting moment on film,” said Lanigan. “[Props] allow the actors to live the characters, and thereby allow the audience to believe what’s going on.”

While laughs and discovery drive episodes, “Prop Culture” has an educational intent too. “I hope families can learn interesting things about the movies they love, and maybe kids will be inspired to get into the movie industry,” he said. “Even if they don’t, there is [much] you can learn from studying film because it requires so many different skill sets.”

Stories to Share Across Generations

This series marks a welcome departure from what has become the norm on Disney Plus. Of their couple dozen original titles, longtime fans have raved over the “Star Wars” series, found some Disneyfied reality TV worthwhile, praised “The Imagineering Story” for its world-class storytelling — and dismissed most other entries as low-quality Disney Channel fare.

Over its eight episodes, “Prop Culture” recalls a time when all-ages PG films were not just entries in never-ending franchises. Lanigan has ambitions to spotlight many more recent classics. When asked about potential titles for a second season, he ticked off several on Disney Plus: “The Rocketeer,” “Willow,” “The Princess Bride,” “Flight of the Navigator,” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

But he offers a caveat before anyone gets too excited. “You’ve got to like the first season to get a second season!” said Lanigan. “So hopefully people watch, and [executives] in the Disney kingdom like what we’ve done with these episodes.”

If this series sparks binge-watching of classic films on the family-friendly streaming service, perhaps Disney will crack its vault open wider and add more overlooked legacy titles. For Lanigan, who exudes the joy of a kid in a candy store as he handles decades-old artifacts and meets filmmakers, the real thrill is sharing with the world his love of great cinema.

“These props mean a lot to people because these movies mean a lot,” he said. “We look back on these films as important to us, and important to the world.”

Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy for several media outlets including The Stream. His articles have appeared in The Daily Signal, The Christian Post, Boundless, Providence Magazine, and Christian Headlines. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area.

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