As a young boy, Dan Lanigan collected “Star Wars” action figures and was interested in how movies were made; now he gets really excited about discovering film artifacts like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag or the prototype Jack Skellington doll.
That’s what makes him the perfect host for Disney Plus’ newest series “Prop Culture,” which takes a look at the stories behind the memorable objects featured in Disney’s most iconic projects. Each 30-minute episode focuses on a single film from the studio’s catalog, including “Tron,” “Mary Poppins,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
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But Lanigan, an executive producer of 2017’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return,” isn’t just concerned with examining the hardware; he aims to spend time with those involved in the process of creating it. “I wanted to do as much as I could to help celebrate these people,” he says. “It was important to talk to Penny Rose [costume designer for the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise], Syd Mead [conceptual artist who developed the electronic world of ‘Tron’] and their teams. They did amazing work.”
In the first episode, Lanigan takes a deep dive into the props for “Mary Poppins,” searching for the famous umbrella by which Julie Andrews makes her appearance, descending from the clouds. Lanigan had heard stories that no one knew what happened to the brolly. But Kevin Kidney, a prop replica designer, owns an original casting of the umbrella’s parrot-head handle. “This molding was the closest anyone had” to the actual prop, Lanigan says.
A key reason for the missing parasol? When “Mary Poppins” was made in 1964, props were generally discarded or given away. No one considered them valuable, Lanigan says. It wasn’t until 1970 that Disney established an archive. Lanigan’s visit to the Burbank location does produce one memorable “Mary Poppins” original – the character’s magic carpet bag that contained pretty much everything.
Another installment revisits 1982’s “Tron,” and Lanigan talks with Mead, in one of the renowned concept artist’s last interviews (he died Dec. 30). Mead walks viewers through the drawings he made for the film, which creates a mind-bending digital world. “Syd did so much, not just in film but outside of it, and to learn how difficult [‘Tron’] was to make visually and conceptually was amazing,” Lanigan says.
Crew members from the film — visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor, storyboard artist Bill Kroyer and design supervisor Kenny Mirman — tell stories of the 3D animation process the team used to build the film’s look. “They plugged in numbers for each frame of a scene, and it was backbreaking,” Lanigan says. Today’s 3D models are less handmade and require less work.
The show peeks into the underbelly of Disneyland for inside information about “Pirates of the Caribbean,” based on the popular theme park ride. While the treasure chest at the end of the first film is the actual artifact from the ride, viewers don’t get to see the writing on the walls in the pirates’ treasure cove from staff who worked in the park.
The episode also takes Lanigan to Aberdeen, Wash., where he sails out on the Lady Washington, the ship used in the picture. And he travels to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where the movie was shot, to talk with costume designer Rose and examine a few of her creations for the project in all their textured glory. The island held another surprise as well.
“I was talking to Penny at a bar, and there was this mast that looked like the mast from the ship that Jack [Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp] was on,” Lanigan says. “I thought it was a replica, and it turned out to be the real one from the film.”
One of the movies featured later in the series is Lanigan’s favorite — stop-motion classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” a film he says he’s seen 60 times or more. Speaking with the movie’s visual consultant, Rick Heinrichs, the host spies a mockup of a Jack Skellington doll — which turns out to be the original piece that Heinrich sculpted for director Tim Burton. It’s clear from the design that the idea for Jack never changed from first concept.
“It’s such an important piece of history,” Lanigan marvels.
Clearly this is one host who has the right job.