A few weeks ago I went bouncing through Disney+ looking for a documentary to watch (as I’ve mentioned before, my brain is really happy with non-fiction right now) and came across The Imagineering Story which is six episodes telling the (slightly biased*) story of the creatives behind the physical creation of the theme parks, and its link to the animation and other departments throughout Disney. I have a special place in my heart for all things Disney, but the Imagineers might be my favorite group – the thing I would have liked to do if my skills were more aligned with the artistic.
*it is a story about a Disney group on a Disney service produced by the granddaughter of one of Walt Disney’s most trusted inner circle, Ub Iwerks, so there’s an expected amount of bias. But it handles much of the contentious relationships accurately and steers away from being company propaganda. Do recommend.
By the back half of the documentary series the Imagineer story becomes linked with the Michael Eisner story, including his ouster in 2005. It was fascinating to se from the inside perspective, but it still was only from one section of the company – but I was reminded that I have a book on my shelf all about the Eisner years (1984-2005) at Disney which I figured would have a much broader look at the troubled years 1994-2004, which lead my to picking up the nearly 600 page DisneyWar by James B. Stewart.
Stewart was an author in the right place at the right time. He had an agreement to work on a book about Eisner and Disney before the main events that bring about the end of Eisner’s time with Disney take place – putting his in a position of having access to the people and events from a near insider perspective. He is also a journalist with a law and financial background, which is the perfect set of knowledge banks to take on the layers of this story. Stewart gets to the bottom of mysteries that enveloped Disney for years: What really caused the rupture with studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg leading to his departure from Disney and creation of DreamWorks? What caused the break between Eisner and Pixar chairman Steve Jobs that caused Jobs to announce Pixar would not work with Disney again until Eisner was gone? Why did Eisner so mistrust Roy Disney that he assigned Disney company executives to spy on him? How did Eisner control the Disney board for so long? How did Bob Iger become the heir apparent?
This book is incredibly dense – it took me over a week to get through because there are so many people doing so many things and eventually there are so many components of the company that it all becomes too much to track. But it is also all very interesting to a certain set of people – me. The book has weaknesses, an overreliance on the reader’s memory of the literally hundreds of people involved, some sloppy copyediting that allowed references to the wrong year or occasionally the wrong person to sneak through. Also, it was published in 2005 when we knew less about the misdeeds of certain men, chief amongst them John Lasseter and Harvey Weinstein. Miramax belonged under the Disney corporate umbrella and the Weinstein brothers were still employed there, so it was very jarring to see Harvey Weinstein presented in a mostly positive light given what we know now about his personal behavior in those years as well as Lasseter’s pattern of misconduct while at Pixar.
Would I recommend this one? Only if you are extremely interested in this era of Disney history or the politics of an enormous corporation. Otherwise, you can find the gist of the story elsewhere.