To say that Disney is not just a movie studio or a streaming platform or a vacation destination would be a understatement, and not just because they're all three. Disney is arguably the strongest entertainment brand in the history of both entertainment and branding, connoting not only corporate ownership but an emotional attachment that is embedded deep in the American cultural fabric. That this happened isn't by accident, nor is it merely because Bambi, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins were such great movies. Since its inception, the Walt Disney Company has made itself its most valuable product. From its theme parks, to The Wonderful World of Disney, to its unparalleled marketing and product efforts, Disney not only celebrated itself but taught us to celebrate it too.
Now, nearly a full century into Disney's existence — and let's all just pause, take a breath, and imagine how massive its centennial is going to be in 2023 — Disney+ exists as a streaming platform to house all the entertainment properties in its parent company's ever-expanding empire. As such, a major part of Disney+'s programming strategy has been built around documentary films and series which celebrate Disney itself. That includes this week's premiere of Marvel's 616, an eight-episode docuseries about the vast reach of Marvel's properties, its creators, and its fandom. And while the Marvel arm of the Disney brand is relatively new, this kind of celebration of self is rooted in the most longstanding of Disney traditions.
With Marvel's 616, eight filmmakers — including Paul Scheer (Black Monday) and Gillian Jacobs (Community) — are taking on different topics spanning the Marvel universe, from cosplay, to women in Marvel, to under-sung Marvel characters, to cosplay culture and more. It's a deep dive into one of Disney's most lucrative properties, but it's hardly the first of its kind..
After its earliest decades spent making films, winning Oscars, and defining animated entertainment for decades to come, the 1950s is where Disney's self-mythologizing really began to take shape. This coincides with the opening of Disneyland in 1955, a theme park that brought everything Disney to life and really began the work of etching Disney's brand into stone, a brand that would include fairy tales (think the Magic Kingdom) and a forward-looking dedication to innovation (think Tomorrowland). The Pre-Opening Report from Disneyland was an episode of The Magical World of Disney in 1955 and features Walt Disney himself in what is essentially a giant infomercial for the soon-to-open theme park. A little over a decade later, The Magical World of Disney aired Disneyland: Around the Seasons, another feature-length Disneyland advertisement that touted improvements and additions to the park. You'd think that this kind of prpgramming would be as much a relic of the 1950s as the cigarette ads that aired with it, but on Disney+ you can watch both specials back-to-back with Star Wars Galaxy's End: Adventure Awaits, a 2019 documentary touting the newly opened Stars Wars attraction at Disneyland.
Of course, not all the old documentary specials were about the theme park. In 1955, The Magical World of Disney aired an episode called The Story of Animated Drawing, and in 1956, The Plausible Impossible. Both of these were behind-the-scenes docs — again hosted by Walt Disney — that took viewers behind the scenes into the process of how animated films were made. Disney continued to celebrate the art of animation for decades. In 1995, the feature film Frank and Ollie told the story of legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, written and directed by Frank's son, Theodore Thomas. In 2008, Theodore Thomas directed Walt & El Grupo, which told the story of Walt Disney's 1941 U.S. government-sponsored trip to South America, which resulted in the animated features Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
These kinds of mythmaking stories about Disney's all-star roster of creators haven't been limited to animators, either. In 2009, there was The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, executive produced by Ben Stiller, which explored the lives and careers of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, who wrote the songs for Disney classics like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. This past summer, Disney+ premiered the documentary Howard, about the late Howard Ashman, who wrote the songs that helped launch the Disney animation renaissance in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, before his untimely death from AIDS in 1991.
Disney's acquisitions of Marvel in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012 gave the studio even more rich history to celebrate, although for the most part the Marvel docuseries content on Disney+ is of the kind you'd find as featured extras on DVD sets, things like Marvel 75 Years: From Pulp to Pop and Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe.
But with the launch of Disney+ in 2019, a entire subset of the platform's original series content has been about celebrating the various arms of the great Disney entertainment behemoth. And rather than just make documentary films, they're stretching out into the space allotted and making multi-episode series. A quick look at the shows that are currently available to stream:
Inside Pixar: Five short-film-length docs on the writers, editors, and animators who create Pixar's beloved animated films.
The Imagineering Story: Yes, more theme-park content, but this six-part series of hour-plus episodes goes deep inside the conception and building of Disney theme parks while simultaneously telling the history of Disney itself.
Marvel's Hero Project: These twenty half-hour length episodes each spotlight a real-life young person who is making a difference in their community, and then shows how Marvel has immortalized them in comic-book form.
Into the Unknown: Making Disney's Frozen II: You could write this off as more Blu-ray bonus content, except that it's a six-part series that walks through every step of the film's production and release.
Prop Culture: In each of the eight episodes, a movie prop collector seeks out memorabilia from eight legendary films — Mary Poppins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Muppet Movie — and reunites it with the people who created or worked with it. It's one part nostalgia and one part investigative quest.
Disney Insider: This plays as a kind of short-form newsmagazine, telling quick stories from all across the Disney universe.
One Day at Disney: Harkening back to the days of Walt Disney's Magical World of Disney appearances, Disney CEO Bob Iger is our guide through the daily grind of various Disney employees, from animators, to Imagineers, to Good Morning America hosts Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan. It's as good a reminder as any that over the course of a century, the Disney brand has been selling itself in this way. From the man at the top on down, the Disney brand is what it is today because it's been telling us so the whole time.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.