ABC went Disney crazy this past weekend. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday all saw major primetime slots filled with new programming centered around classic Disney films: Toy Story, Mary Poppins, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
What’s curious is that all three evenings were marketed independently from one another. This wasn’t advertised as a “Disney Weekend” or anything like that. Each night stood as its own event. Even more curious is that each night had a distinctly different presentation style: one a casual special, another a screening, and another a cinema-quality documentary. So… what’s up? What’s the special occasion? Does ABC have its sights set on more Disney programming in the future? Let’s take a look at each to find out.
Toy Story at 20: To Infinity and Beyond
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the very first Pixar film, this special gave viewers a 360-degree look at the creation of Toy Story, which in a way is the story of Pixar itself. While most of the information is familiar to those who have kept up with the many Pixar backstage books and DVD bonus features over the years, it is nice to hear the complete story of the making of the film told all at once from the perspective of looking back two decades later. Additionally, it is easy to forget that most of this stuff isn’t common knowledge, and for a wide public audience to hear these stories for the first time is truly something special. Among the Pixar staples we hear from are John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and others, as well as much of the main voice cast. (Tom Hanks’s remarks are especially rewarding.) In a bit of a surprise, we also hear from Pixar President Jim Morris and Disney CEO Bob Iger, both of whom bring their perspectives on how Toy Story has left a company-wide legacy.
Interestingly, Toy Story at 20 strictly speaks of the original Toy Story, and nothing more. If one didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t even know the film spawned any sequels, much less had a Toy Story 4 in the production pipeline for 2018. This was a classy, unexpected move to take, as I at least expected a small plug for the upcoming film.
Toy Story at 20 was followed by an airing of Toy Story, giving viewers the opportunity to connect what they just learned by actually seeing the movie in its entirety, which was a nice touch. The special is now streaming for free on Watch ABC.
The Wonderful World of Disney presented by Target
As evidenced by its official title, this night was just as much an ad for Target as it was a peek into Disney history, delivering a mixed bag with its screening of Mary Poppins.
Let’s start with the good. The very good, actually. Mary Poppins is thought by many to be the greatest Disney film of all time, and this was echoed by the telecast being the most-watched program on TV Saturday night and by the film’s title climbing to a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. Even after 50 years, the magic of Mary Poppins still resonates. Scrolling through social media, it was easy to see the emotional response many viewers had to watching the film and returning to their childhoods.
What warranted the Wonderful World of Disney label as opposed to being just a regular screening was the insertion of interstitial clips with Dick Van Dyke sharing his memories of making the film. It is great to have Wonderful World back in the game, hopefully permanently. This is a tradition begun by Walt himself in 1954 that had not aired since 2012. The anticipation for the event was high. Unfortunately, the payoff was disappointing. While Van Dyke’s memories were fun and insightful, they were minimal and, even though the set (inside the fabled, fictional “Disney Vault”) contained some incredible props from the movie and from other areas of Disney history, no actual archival footage – of which there surely is plenty – was shown. The breaks were also filled with blatant advertising for Target, including excessive commercials and the inclusion of the mascot dog, Bullseye, accompanying Van Dyke inside the Disney Vault. Even still, minimal or not, Van Dyke’s presence was better than not having him there at all and he made for a fun, conversational guide throughout the evening. It could also be argued that the emphasis here is on the movie itself rather than the backstage information, and in that respect the program succeeded in its goals of creating a visible response.
The highlight of the telecast was the new sizzle reel intro for the show, which features favorite Disney moments old and new, from entities as traditional as the animated films and as diverse as the newer acquisitions like Marvel and Star Wars. Walt Disney narrates the montage, saying “Hello, I’m Walt Disney. Thanks to some old-fashioned magic we call imagination, right now we’re leaving the world of today behind. So if your imagination is ready, here we go.” It immediately elicits chills. You can see the intro, along with (get this!) all of Mary Poppins streaming for free on Watch ABC for a limited time.
Behind the Magic: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Talk about production value! Professional and crisp, this special blends a traditional talking-head documentary with cinematic, live-action recreations of the Snow White story and what happened at the Disney Studio during its development. The hour is narrated by Ginnifer Goodwin, who voices Judy Hopps in Disney Animation’s upcoming Zootopia and plays Snow White on ABC’s Once Upon a Time. In fact, OUAT typically airs in the same time slot that this special did, and it’s clear from the live-action footage that ABC was trying to reel in the same audience.
We hear from a slew of scholars, including J.B. Kaufman and John Canemaker, as well as Disney greats like Richard Sherman and Alan Menken and even current Disney Animation directors. The overall tone is a bit more poised than the Toy Story special and actually has the feel of something we might see in a theater. Goodwin’s diction is at times a bit dramatic, and the live-action footage is a risk that I’m not sure paid off, but that doesn’t take away from this being an extremely insightful special. Something I learned that I did not know was that Walt Disney was reassured in moving forward with a full-length feature film when he saw a theater in Europe had stitched together several Mickey Mouse cartoons into a full-length presentation.
Behind the Magic was not followed by a screening of Snow White, perhaps to intentionally see if it produced any different viewing patterns from the Toy Story screening.
The entire special can be viewed on Watch ABC.
What Does This All Mean?
So what gives? Why so much Disney all at once? Owned by The Walt Disney Company, ABC is certainly no stranger to synergy-spurred programs. It airs the annual Christmas Day parade from the Disney theme parks and produces Once Upon a Time, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and The Muppets, all extensions of existing Disney properties. The idea of a documentary special is also not new to ABC, having aired a Frozen special last year and more recently a behind-the-curtain look at A Charlie Brown Christmas (not Disney, but definitely in the same vein). It is not illogical to think that the huge attention PBS grabbed for its American Experience Walt Disney biopic earlier this year prompted ABC to develop its own Disney-fied content. This is hardly the only reason for this weekend’s programming, but it certainly could have been a factor. But why three new specials within such close proximity of each other and that are so different?
From the outside looking in, it seems as though ABC was testing the waters for audiences’ tastes for future (and, perhaps, long-term) Disney programming. By airing three distinctly different types of programs all designed for the same niche audience back-to-back-to-back, ABC can accurately gauge audience reception for each. They can not only analyze which film generated the biggest audience (with all three titles being from totally different eras), they can monitor which style of special got the best feedback… all within a matter of one weekend. They can then use these results to map out future projects for this Disney fan audience, which the network clearly is interested in, whether that be in more occasional specials or something regular in a style similar to The Wonderful World of Disney.
Granted, this is all pure speculation and the three nights of Disney programming could have been coincidental happenstance. If that’s the case, then it was still admittedly an incredible weekend of television. However, if there’s something bigger going on behind the scenes at ABC, it will be exciting to see what happens next.
Want to learn more about all three of these films? Check out these past episodes of the Rotoscopers’ Animation Addicts Podcast:
Toy Story (Episode 5)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Episode 50)
Mary Poppins (Episode 54)
Which of these TV specials did you enjoy the most? Did you learn anything you didn’t already know?
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes