Review: Blockbuster Disney Exhibition Digs Deep To Deliver The Magic

Disney100: The Exhibition, ExCeL London ★★★★☆

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 6 months ago

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Review: Blockbuster Disney Exhibition Digs Deep To Deliver The Magic Disney100: The Exhibition, ExCeL London 4
The fairy godmother sprinkling magic with a wand
Disney100: The Exhibition sprinkles on a thick layer of magic. Image: Joanna Rutherford

Cinderella's glass slipper and the carousel horse ridden by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins are among props on display at a new nostalgia-drenched Disney show in east London.

2023 marks 100 years since Walt Disney formed a cottage industry illustration studio, which would soon conquer the world. The company — now worth tens of billions of dollars — had already launched an all-out charm offensive on a public desperately in need of some escapism. Yet its Wonder of Friendship Experience, which visited London this summer, proved more lacklustre than Home on the Range — and there's some making up to do.

A carousel horse
Dick Van Dyke was 'ere. Image: Joanna Rutherford

For Disney100: The Exhibition — an all-out blockbuster that takes up a big chunk of ExCeL London — they've largely hit the right note. The infectiously-enthusiastic archivist director, Becky Cline and her team have dug deep into Disney's Burbank archives, retrieving a sackful of magical memories, at which only the most cynical person won't smile. (And really, if you're that cynical, why are you here at all?)

A stormtrooper and a lightsabre
There's a whole Star Wars section. Image: Londonist

Whisking you through 10 spaces that hop themes including storytelling, music, and theme parks, this is a savvily-curated lap of honour, sprinkled liberally with interactive bits and pieces (the huge magical storybook you turn the pages of is lovely, while other installations admittedly fall short of the mark). There are no new groundbreaking revelations, but the titbits come thick and fast. Did you know that Woody from Toy Story was originally going to be an evil ventriloquist's dummy?

A red ballgown dress on a mannequin
Emma Stone's blood-red dress from Cruella. Image: Londonist

For all the big numbers — Emma Stone's blood-red dress from Cruella; a light sabre wielded by Mark Hamill — it's some of the littler things that stick in the mind; a leather wallet used by foley artists to create the sound of the Dwarfs' squeaky shoes in Snow White; a section of hand-drawn storyboard for Mickey Mouse's 1928 debut cartoon, Steamboat Willie; the Multiplane camera that magicked up the 3D cartoon worlds, which children felt they could step into.

A leather wallet
Some of the littler things that stick in the mind. Image: Londonist

With the near-bottomless well of the Disney oeuvre (while this wing of the show tours internationally, a sister exhibition is doing the rounds across North America) you're always going to wonder if they couldn't have put more in. Couldn't we see the piano Feed the Birds was written on? Why no sniff of the Muppets? Maybe that's just a sign of a great show — leave them wanting more.

An Olaf the snowman puppet
An Olaf puppet used in Disney Theatres. Image: Joanna Rutherford

For those hoping for a rounded appraisal/all-out dirt-digging on Uncle Walt, you'll be left wanting; there is no mention of his tyrannical treatment of workers, or the link between early cartoons and minstrelsy — which would surely only add depth to the show. At times, the eulogising of the Big Man and his conveyor belt of inspiring quotes borders on the mawkish. But then to do a Disney exhibition down for being too schmaltzy is like touring a chocolate factory and complaining you don't like sugar.

A glass slipper on a purple cushion
From 2015's live action Cinderella. Image: Londonist

Say what you like about Disney, but the sheer scale of its repertoire is staggering — and this show is a wonderful way to explore a tip of the creative iceberg. As the Disney100 name suggests, there's something to tickle the fancy of anyone between one and one hundred. Now pass us that pair of Mickey ears...

A silhouette of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse holding hands
Image: Londonist

Disney100: The Exhibition, ExCeL London 13 October 2023-21 January 2024

Last Updated 13 October 2023

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