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‘Behind the Attraction’ Review: A Fun, Occasionally Frustrating Look At Your Disney Parks Favorites

One of the marquee titles when Disney+ launched was The Imagineering Story, Leslie
Iwerks’ thoughtful, expertly crafted look at Walt Disney Imagineering, the secretive
operation started by Walt Disney in the lead-up to Disneyland that is still responsible for
all your favorite Disney theme parks, shows, attractions, cruise ships, and tiki bars.
Now, almost two years later, Behind the Attraction is debuting on the same direct-to-
consumer streaming service. And this one takes a much different approach. Instead of
the stately elegance of a prestige documentary series, Behind the Attraction is more
raucous and smart ass-y, each episode focusing on a single Disney attraction (or series
of attractions) that occasionally gets mired in the sticky demands of corporate synergy
and its own occasionally grating stylistic tics. Also, most damnably, the entire series will
be available from day one. Instead of the slow, steady drip of The Imagineering Story,
this is an antic sugar rush, all at once. Make sure you have your insulin shot ready.
Behind the Attraction was put together by director Brian Volk-Weiss, who started as a
manager for comedians like Dane Cook and who slowly amassed a startling media
empire. If you’re unfamiliar with his work in the comedy sphere, which is admittedly
vast and impressive (connection to Dane Cook aside), you’ll probably know him from his
more recent directing work for Netflix, on the series The Toys That Made Us and, later,
The Movies That Made Us. (There are more installments of The Movies That Made Us
set to debut later in July, making this a flagship month for Brian Volk-Weiss heads
everywhere.) And if you’ve seen any of these earlier series, you know exactly what you’ll
be getting in Behind the Attraction: quick cuts, snippets of vintage footage or archival
press materials, a generally jokey tone, and lots and lots of awkward footage of interview
subjects before they know they’re being filmed or while pausing between answers. Volk-
Weiss might have matured as an artist beyond when he was encouraging Dane Cook to
tell the joke about the Burger King drive-thru, but he still thinks someone making a
mildly funny face is pure comedy gold. (It should also be noted that Dwayne Johnson,
who stars in Disney’s upcoming Jungle Cruise movie, produced the series and appears
in the Jungle Cruise episode.)

The initial batch of subjects isn’t a huge surprise – the first ten episodes cover stalwarts
like Star Tours, Tower of Terror, Space Mountain and The Castles. Hot-button,
potentially problematic subjects like Space Mountain are steered clear of entirely, while
the Hall of Presidents is presented more patriotically, instead of the lighting rod of
controversy it’s become in recent years. (And, mercifully, we don’t get any footage of
Donald Trump recording his lines for the attraction, partially because that entire
process was a prolonged battle that Disney probably isn’t ready to talk about yet.) And
while it occasionally has the rough-around-the-edges feeling of an unsanctioned
YouTube video, Behind the Attraction is very much an approved Disney product –
current Imagineers sit in front of a stage-dressed “lab” littered with Disney Parks
miscellanea; ex-Imagineers that aren’t particularly well regarded by the current
leadership aren’t heard from at all (which makes the exclusion of amiable figures like
Mark Eades, so important to the development of Star Tours, all the more jarring); and
more off-color aspects of the attractions they are detailing are deleted altogether (there

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is no mention, for instance, of guests’ proclivity to dump the ashes of loved ones along
the track of the Haunted Mansion, for instance).
While it gives off the impression of being a hairier, more frantic alternative to The
Imagineering Story, it is just as corporately controlled and monitored, occasionally to
the detriment of the storytelling, like when the finale for the Star Tours episode devolves
into a hyper-detailed commercial for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Or when a mention of
the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy attraction is shoehorned into the Tower of
Terror episode, or the Star Wars hotel is giving an explicit shoutout towards the end of
the Disneyland Hotel installment. (There’s also weird mention of Trader Sam, a
character that has been all but completely removed from the Jungle Cruise.) Yes, the
idea is obviously to encourage attendance to the theme parks and to add a level of
appreciation to the attractions we already hold so dear. But the episodes themselves
accomplish that without the forced tie-ins. Let the wonder live.

But this isn’t to say that Behind the Attraction is all bad. Far from it. The snappy pace is
definitely fun to watch and Paget Brewster’s almost nonstop narration is committed and
energetic. (Disney fans will most recently remember Brewster as the voice of Della Duck
on the brilliant 2017 DuckTales reboot.) And there’s a sneakiness to the episodes too.
Rarely is the entire episode about the thing it’s reporting to be. The it’s a small world
episode, for instance, goes into a wonderful examination of Walt Disney’s involvement
in the 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Disneyland Hotel story is an oddly touching tribute
to the contributions of Jack Wrather and his friendship with Walt, and the Haunted
Mansion explores the creative push-and-pull within Walt Disney Imagineering between
those that wanted the tone of the mansion to be lighter and those that were pushing for
a spookier feel (ultimately both won out and that’s what makes the attraction so special).
There is a real depth of knowledge, if you can get past the goofiness, and while the
complete history of each attraction isn’t totally explored (there was no reference to the
plan to move the Hall of Presidents to the Disney’s America park in Virginia), it is a
wonderful overview, with tons of charming interviews and old footage that will make
you go “aww.”

It’ll be interesting to see if there is any pushback from the fan community. I’ve already
spoken to a fellow Disney nut who felt that the sarcastic tone bordered on being
disrespectful. And it’s true – there is certainly a lot more emotional investment in an
attraction that you visited with your family as a kid (or still do today) than, say, a
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure. But I would argue that the tone isn’t
“wrong,” per say, but it is “a lot.” Watching the first season’s episodes back-to-back can
be overwhelming, especially when some of the stories are repeated in later episodes
(some of the World’s Fair material is recycled for the Hall of Presidents episode). A
more prudent move would have been to have these episodes released weekly, so that you
can take your swig of Mountain Dew and have a few days to recover. This format is
incredibly malleable – not only could there be future episodes about other favorite
attractions (Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tiki Room, etc.) but there could be
episodes about extinct attractions, never built attractions, etc. – and the hope would be
that if there are more installments, Disney+ pace them accordingly. Behind the
Attraction is much better enjoyed as a single-day ticket and not a park hopper.

Grade: B+

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