Hello again! A new review, and it’s a three-fer!
Cuz for the first time in forevvvvveeerrrrrrr…. I can spend some time with this project!! It does feel like it has been forever since I’ve been able to direct my attention over here. Long story short: Distance Learning. I’m an Elementary School Special Education teacher, and preparing for this school year has been MOST challenging. The usual prep and creation of lessons, schedules, training for myself and my staff, and all-over settling in has taken at least three times the amount of time and effort that it usually does. And I can speak for all teachers when I say, these things usually take a significant amount of time, so this year, it’s been all consuming. There have been so many evenings over the past month where I have put the baby to bed and had thoughts of grabbing my laptop and writing, but either the need to continue to do schoolwork, or completely vegetate while mindlessly scrolling Instagram has prevailed. But here I am, it’s the weekend, and it feels right to allow myself some time for this project again.
For this go-round, I’ve watched three films. The reason for this is they go hand-in-hand. Some back story: 1941. Disney was coming off the heels of the success of its first few animated films, (but mostly Snow White). Walt spent much of the company’s earnings on a beautiful new studio. World War II caused overseas profits to dwindle and the studio was gearing up to go on strike. Walt was stepping into one of the most difficult moments in his career when he was asked by the US Government to take a good-will tour in South America to bolster relations. Walt & El Grupo (2009) is a documentary about that trip. Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros are the creative offspring that resulted!
Walt & El Grupo
What I love most about this documentary is that it allowed for a deep dive into a piece of Disney history I didn’t even know existed. Walt, his wife Lillian, and 16 of his artists traveled to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil on the request of FDR. Narrated by historians, as well as children and wives of the pilgrimage attendees, the documentary details each leg of the trip from both a historic and personal perspective, and gives us the why behind the films that came next in the Disney canon. In the beginning of the film, there is audio from an interview where Walt himself describes the exchange with the US government. He recounts the shock of hearing his studio was striking combined with the uncertainty of taking this trip overseas to shake hands and make nice in an Ambassador role. But when the government suggested that he use the trip as artistic study to make films, and that the films would be guaranteed and covered at the expense of the US government, Walt was all in. So off they went, Walt and the group, or “El Grupo” as they came to be known, to learn, experience, and gather.
Look to this documentary for trip footage and audio from a young Walt, (which always feels like somewhat of a treat to me), testimonials from the locals who recount the excitement surrounding the visit (and those from a more recent crowd who have perpetuated and insist upon the myth that Walt is indeed frozen), and history peppered in between giving insight to Disney royalty (Mary Blair) and the influence of this trip upon future films like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros
Comprising animated and live action sequences woven by the stuff of South America, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros read like the kind of relic a Disney aficionado can get behind, but maybe not so much for everyone else. So if you’re not all in, and your kids have flown the classic-cartoon coop, I’ll put it simply.
The best and most withstanding part? The three frisky fowl. In Saludos, Donald meets Jose Carioca, a fedora wearing parrot with a Brazilian tongue and cigar in hand. I like him. You will too. In Caballeros, the feathered duo team up with Panchito Pistoles, a Mexican parrot, and the three samba their way through an artistic tribute to Brazil and Mexico.
Also worth mentioning, the Miranda sisters! Carmen and Aurora Miranda lend their talent in song, dance, and expression, each with a prominent musical number (Carmen in Saludos and Aurora in Caballeros) dancing alongside that sassy Donald and his pals. D23 has much more to say on the Miranda Sisters’ history and artistic contributions to Disney in a recently released article.
Look, these films, they’re not Frozen okay? The kids probably won’t watch them from start-to-finish. But if you do turn them on with the fam, you will get that warm vintage Disney vibe. The music, color palate, and South American influences make for a viewing experience that’s fun, lighthearted, and may have you shaking it to some Samba in your kitchen. And if you’re really into it and want to take the deep dive with all three films, I highly recommend watching Walt & El Grupo first, as the info from the documentary really allows the viewer to lean in all the more.
It speaks to the universal and long withstanding joy Disney brings that our government looked to the brand to create ties overseas in a time when the world was upside down. And here we find ourselves in 2020, a pandemic, a war on racial justice, general political unrest. In a world where I find myself teaching elementary students from behind a computer screen, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned to Disney plus for comfort, even for a few minutes before I drift off to sleep at night, because watching these films makes things right side-up again.