In the old days of Hollywood, movie props weren’t cherished or saved. Once a production was finished shooting, a lot of props were either thrown out, repurposed, or lost somewhere along the way. As time went on, people began to hold items from their favorite movies in high regard, and movie props became treasured artifacts. Today, movie props are some of the most expensive collector’s items out there, often selling for hundreds to thousands of dollars at auction.
That brings us to a new Disney+ documentary series called Prop Culture, which follows film historian and prop collector Dan Lanigan as he tracks down movie props from some of Disney’s most iconic films over the years. Like a kid in a candy store, Lanigan travels around the United States, meeting filmmakers, actors, production crew members, and fellow collectors so he can either see a rare item from Disney’s film history, or show one off for a sentimental reunion and fascinating conversation about movies ranging from Mary Poppins to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Prop Culture takes cues from documentary shows like Toy Hunter and Comic Book Men, but the production quality is much more sleek and it packs much more of an emotional punch with a swell of respect for the items from Disney’s history that are in the spotlight. Each episode focuses on a different movie with eight episodes comprising the first season: Mary Poppins, TRON, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Muppet Movie.
For each film, several different props and costumes are highlighted, and host Dan Lanigan takes the time to talk to the people who either came up with the idea, created the prop themselves, or played the character to whom the items belonged. This result is a fascinating trip through movie history with plenty of memories attached to them. It’s surprising just how many people embrace a particular item or wardrobe piece by calling it an “old friend” and giving it a hug or a loving touch.
This series is for true movie nerds who like to know anything and everything behind the scenes of their favorite Disney movies. Every episode has surprising and compelling bits of trivia, from directors, costume designers, special effects artists, visual effects artists, puppeteers, animators, archivists, composers, and more. While getting their first-hand account of the making of these movies never gets old, you get to spend so much time looking at these props and costumes. As the camera lingers on every nook and cranny of these objects, you get a new appreciation for the detail that went into them, especially when filmmakers and crew members reveal details you don’t get to see on-screen. These items are treated like real treasures.
The episode about Mary Poppins highlights how difficult it is to find any items from the movie because of how props were treated back in the 1960s. That’s why people like actress Karen Dotrice (who played Jane Banks) and choreographer Dee Dee Wood (who worked on the chimney sweep song-and-dance sequence) get emotional when they encounter things like one of Jane’s costumes and a chimney sweep brush.
Not everyone looks back on movies with reverence in these episodes though. The TRON episode in particular makes it seem as if director Steven Lisberger is rather jaded after the movie bombed at the box office, feeling rather disconnected from the film’s legacy. But as Lisberger digs through boxes that he haphazardly keeps in a yurt on his property, he starts to light up and remember the passion and innovation that came from working on the movie.
The best episodes are the ones that assemble key cast members to interact with the props they used during the making of these movies. Bruce Boxleitner is humbled to see TRON‘s suit from the early 1980s, the kids from Chronicles of Narnia are overjoyed to see their weapons and costumes, each still having specific memories from making that movie nearly 20 years ago, as well as details that only they would know about them. For example, the liquid in Lucy Pevensie’s potion bottle in Chronicles of Narnia was strawberry flavored.
Maybe the best example of how great Prop Culture can be comes from the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids episode when the kids themselves are reunited with what’s left of the helpful ant, Antie. That episode also features a delightfully surprising and rare on-camera appearance by Rick Moranis, which is extremely satisfying. Plus, it also ventures outside of the typical Prop Culture formula by having a restoration done on the shrinking machine.
Outside of the sentimentality of these moments, the fascinating trivia from this series is also a big part of what makes it so enjoyable. You’ll marvel at stop motion puppet creators Phil Tippett and David Sosalla showing off their puppets from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. You’ll be mesmerized by the creation of characters and sets from The Nightmare Before Christmas created by armature builder Tom St. Amand and miniatures builder Fon Davis, not to mention the items that have been kept by director Henry Selick and composer Danny Elfman, who also provided Jack Skellington’s singing voice.
As much as Prop Culture is about movie props, it’s also about the history of cinema, and our love for the movies. You can see how much care went into making these imaginary stories feel real, whether it’s Christopher Lloyd and Kathleen Turner‘s memories working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and crafting their characters down to the most intricate details or legendary Muppet designer/performer Dave Goelz‘s beloved work on The Muppet Movie. Even the locations where props are displayed and interviews take place bring energy to the series, such as a road trip to my neck of the woods in South Bend, Indiana to see the Studebaker from The Muppet Movie.
Every episode of Prop Culture brings a cavalcade of insight, archive footage, concept art, and stories from the history of Disney. It’s also full of genuine love and joy thanks to host Daniel Lanigan being genuinely wowed and interested in learning anything he can about these movies. You’ll wish you could be in his shoes, if only to hold these props in your own hands. But for now, we’ll have to live vicariously through him with Prop Culture, and I hope there are many more episodes to come.
Every episode of the first season of Prop Culture will be available on Disney+ on May 1, 2020.
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