The Walt Disney Archives are like the Fort Knox of movie artifacts — it'd probably be easier to think about finding the Ark of the Covenant somewhere in New Mexico, to be honest.
But a new Disney+ series Prop Culture gives fans and host/collector Dan Lanigan the chance to go inside the archives and uncover some of its greatest treasures. Premiering May 1, the show revisits classic Disney titles and looks at them through the lens of how props helped to shape and create some of their most magical moments.
Over eight episodes, all available the same day, Lanigan goes on the hunt to find costumes, set designs, music, and props from films like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Mary Poppins, Tron, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Muppet Movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.
EW has an exclusive first look at the series, including key art, a sampling of the incredible Mary Poppins props plucked straight from the archives, and stills showcasing Lanigan's adventures through these films. We also called up Lanigan to talk the art of collecting, what inspired Prop Culture, and how emotional it was to reunite creators with these treasured artifacts. Check out the photos below and read more from Lanigan after that.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In episode 1, you explain how you fell in love with movies, but how did you get bit by the collector bug and what was the first item in your collection?
DAN LANIGAN: I started collecting when I was a kid. Like a lot of kids my age, I had a lot of Star Wars figures. When I was in my mid-teenage years, my mom gave them all to my brother's kids. And I wasn't happy at the time. It was always in the back of my head, like, "Why did these things mean so much to me?" I wasn't still playing with them, but they still were important to me. As I got older, I started collecting things like prop replicas. In the early days of the internet, somebody was selling an original prop. I always watch behind-the-scenes making of [specials], and I was always interested in the people that did this work, but that you could actually own it and preserve it yourself was pretty amazing. So, long story short, I picked up what I thought was an original Who Framed Roger Rabbit? toon gun from a person who worked on the film. It was sold to me as an original piece with some maquettes of the bullets. Many years later, I found out that it was a crew gift that was a replica, which disappointed me to no end. But it did get me into prop collecting.
How did you first devise the concept of this show?
I had been working in television production for a while. All the while, I've been collecting original props and costumes and movie ephemera/memorabilia for well over 20 years. I felt like there were a lot of people that did a lot of amazing work that weren't getting the light shined on them. I thought wouldn't it be great to do a show that celebrated them. Even though the show is called Prop Culture and our way into the show are these artifacts, it's really about the people that are behind them.
Why do you think movie objects have come to hold such power in our collective consciousness? I think about something like the Maltese Falcon or the ruby slippers and how much power they still hold in our collective memory.
You have these movies that are made. And then everybody shares these movies, right? You watch these movies in the theater, and you become connected to these films. People share that connection. Now, the only physical, tangible part of that movie that's left is the copy of the movie. And whatever else might still exist that was used to make that move. These props, these objects, this ephemera, seem to have magic to it. A shared magic that when somebody sees it, and they know that this was connected to that movie when it was made, there's something about it that's super special. I collect so I can get closer to the movie. As weird as it sounds.
How did you choose which eight films to focus on?
There were a number of movies that I wanted to do. I kind of led the way. But there was a list of movies that Disney+ wanted to profile on a grand scale based on what was gonna be on the service. It was important to both them and to me that any movie we profiled was going to be represented on Disney+ so that someone could watch the episode and then watch the movie again. Because the hope is that you've probably seen most of these movies, but you watch the episode and then you're like, "Well, I didn't realize that detail" and go back and watch the movie again. Because it's all about sharing the love of the movie.
You got to go inside the Disney Archives for nearly every episode, which is like being invited inside movie collector Fort Knox. How amazing was that and can you walk us through the experience of being there?
When you go to the Disney Archives, there's an X-ray machine you have to go through; they do a strip search; the whole works. No, no, no, no. It's a nondescript warehouse somewhere in the United States. I can't say any more than that. Otherwise, [they] would be very upset. But they have been tasked to save as many of the artifacts that they are allowed to by the other company units. To go into those doors, it's creepy and nice and kind of scary all at the same time. When you walk down these aisles with all these treasures, some things are in crates, some things are just out in the open, but iconic imagery just surrounds you. It's spectacular. It makes me feel very small. And I'm a big guy.
It’s pretty emotional watching the creators and actors reunite with these pieces. How close to tears were you on some of these episodes?
I would say pretty close. I probably had tears a number of times. It's emotional when you meet these people, people that have given life to these movies that you love. For them to be appreciated and then be reconnected with some objects of their past that they never thought that they would see again, that helped define who they were, at least publicly, it's a powerful moment.
In the Pirates of the Caribbean episode, you get to both go to the Caribbean where they filmed and walk around inside the actual Disneyland ride. Which of those was cooler?
Well, they both were hot (laughs). The Caribbean was warm. Actually, they turn the air conditioning off on these rides after hours. So you're 25, 30 feet underground and you have all this water, so the humidity is super high. I will say that although I was sweating profusely on the Pirates of Caribbean ride, it was an amazing experience to be able to walk those cobblestones and go behind the bars where the dog is trying to keep the pirate with the keys. It was amazing to see the history of how that ride was made literally on the walls around you. But in the Caribbean, to go down there with [costume designer] Penny Rose and bring her costume back to where they shot this movie, it was spectacular.
As someone who has seen a lot of this stuff out there, how do you think Disney ranks in terms of preserving its own history?
I would say that Disney has done better than most. They're doing the best job that I think anybody's done. I think the only thing that could be better was if there was money for them to build their own museum. It's one thing to save all this material from a company's perspective. Another thing is to try and put money to display it, which Warner Brothers has done but it's only specifically with Harry Potter. Disney's trying to save everything. When it comes to the animation art, they've done a spectacular job. But the core of the reason for that collection was so that they could share that information with future animators and keep the art of animation and not lose the Disney edge. But they've also built this amazing collection at the Walt Disney archives where they keep the physical props.
Do you hope this show inspires others to be collectors, and if so, how would you recommend they start?
Ultimately, I would want to inspire people that love film to be collectors. There are collectors out there, in the world that I'm in, that collect because it's a financial thing. But my collecting inspired me to work in the industry. I actually was a collector and then I became a filmmaker. You learn about filmmaking through collecting. So, I would love to inspire people that want to preserve this material and or want to learn about filmmaking because there is still a lot of stuff out there that doesn't get saved. If we could have like-minded collectors out there trying to save this stuff, that would be wonderful. As far as what to collect, collect what you love. Don't collect it based on if you think someone else is gonna like it. Collect because you find it interesting, because then you're going to definitely take care of it and you are going to preserve it. It has to be important to you.