Next time you’re in Orlando, Planet Earth’s Vacationland, drop the name “Billy Flanigan.” Just don’t try to find somebody with anything bad to say about him. That’s an exercise in futility that would eat up your whole visit.
“Mr. Disney,” “The Happiest Man on Earth,” Flanigan is the embodiment, the exemplar of live entertainment at Walt Disney World — an ebullient song and dance man whose smile has been his signature for over 40 years of musical revues at the Park that Walt Built.
“Billy Flanigan: The Happiest Man on Earth” is a documentary celebration of a 60something who’s been lauded by People Magazine and the subject of scores of TV feature stories, locally and globally. Cullen Douglas’s film digs into the magic that is Billy, expanding on what turned out to be Flanigan’s Finest Hour — his morale-boosting bike-rides to deliver singing, dancing “Billy Flanigrams” to every isolated, locked-down “cast member” of the park he could think of during the COVID lockdown.
Using Disney-flavored graphics, a long interview with Billy and lots and lots of his fellow Disney World cast members, relatives and friends, and sampling generously from a one-man “Dear Diary” show Flanigan’s performed locally, Cullem gives us an almost relentlessly upbeat portrait of the performer behind Disney World’s most celebrated smile.
He’s so adored that his friends even laugh through the cliched spotlight-craving foibles endemic to song-and-dance folk. “He’s a legend here,” sure. But “Billy will tell you how great he is.” There are amusing showbiz stories of auditions or rehearsals where he’d be the last to figure out that the performer playing Nemo or his Dad Marlin or Dory were the headliners of a revue based “Finding Nemo,” and not whoever Billy was cast to play.
“But...I’m the star, always the star,” this colleague or that one giggles. “I wondered if he’s being serious, or just being kitschy.” On no. Yes, he “shines a light on others” in every show he’s in, but “He gets a nosebleed if he’s not” center stage, center of attention.
I mean, how else are you gonna get a “Mousecar” for being the most magical Magic Kingdom performer of them all?
Flanigan talks of his bullied childhood, discovering his true passions and finding his tribe in college. The once-married workaholic father of four who always had “The Wizard of Oz” playing at home when he wasn’t performing or rehearsing, Flanigan heard the “You’re married, to a woman?” remarks over the years, before falling in love with a man and coming out — at 45. He weeps over the “hurt” he caused and the wife he left “alone.”
The film shows how Flanigan’s positivity was most severely tested by the COVID shutdown, and the layoffs (something Disney periodically does as a cost-cutting move) of live performers. And it ends before Florida’s homophobic governor went to war with Disney Corp and Walt Disney World, so don’t expect anything in the way of “edge” to this generally fluffy profile, which plays like an unusually long, slick surface-gloss of a TV news feature story.
But “Happiest Man” gets at what makes Flanigan the perfect brand ambassador for the theme park, the “Happiest Place on Earth” that’s smart enough to employ “The Happiest Man on Earth” for decade after decade, a guy who isn’t shy about going above and beyond to “bring the magic” to everyone who visits, every single day.
Rating: unrated, PGish
Cast: Billy Flanigan, and a whole lot of people who love him
Credits: Scripted and directed by Cullen Douglas. A Good Deeds Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:24