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The Classic Caballeros Collection: Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros

by on May 6, 2008

It was 1942. After the unprecedented success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, Disney had put out three further feature-length films: Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo. Although these films garnered critical acclaim at the time – and went on to become all time classics of animation – they struggled to break even at the box office. Then the studio was hit with a one-two punch dilemma, which would force Walt to rethink his strategy for the next eight years. First came the outbreak of the animator’s strike, one of the most acrimonious and significant events in the history of Disney’s internal affairs that effectively reduced its animation staff by almost half according to some accounts. Second, Franklin D. Roosevelt finally took the decision to take the USA into the Second World War. In short, these were hard and troubling times for Disney, the honeymoon period of the 1930s was pretty much over and the mood had changed.

Around this time, the Office of Inter-American Affairs (under the future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller) asked Walt to make a tour of Latin America to bolster relations between the US and its potential allies – especially those which were prone to far right dictatorships (and therefore ‘natural’ allies of Hitler): Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina. As Disney himself explains in a (very short) CBC interview included as a bonus on the DVD, Saludos Amigos is the result of that tour. It became a surprise hit in South America in 1942 and was released in North America in 1943. Walt tells us that it did well enough for the studio to waive the State Department’s subsidy fee. It also did well enough for a sequel, The Three Caballeros, to be made in 1945. Seemingly, market conditions must have changed in the two years between the two films, as Walt tells us “I almost needed the subsidy on that one”. By 1950, the studio was once again knocking out feature-length classics like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan for a living; Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros (along with the other vignette-laden, made-on-a-shoe-string films of the 1940s such as Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free) were destined to remain locked in Mickey’s vault, barely remembered and scarcely missed. To my knowledge, unlike the majority of the ‘official canon’ classics, neither film received a home video re-release during the 80s and 90s and each only received one DVD release in 2000 as part of the Gold Classic Collection. Needless to say, for about fifty years these films were something of a holy grail for Disney completists the world over.

And now they receive a second re-release only eight years later, packaged together with a nice half an hour bonus feature documentary, made at the time, entitled “South of the Border with Disney”. The package includes a couple of Donald Duck shorts too: “Don Donald” and “Contrary Condor”. There are also options to watch the films with Spanish or French language tracks. It comes in a standard DVD-case with a cardboard sleeve over it. Judging by the amount of scratches and the general faded look of the features, it seems like the studio have used the original prints and not bothered to re-master them at all. It is no surprise then that they only play at 1:33:1 ratio. This is a shame – Disney don’t seem to have spent the same care or effort on this release that they spent on their Treasures releases or their various Special Editions. If nothing else, it gives the impression that they are still slightly embarrassed by these films.

So what of the features themselves? To use an old football cliché, “it’s a game of two halves”. One of these films seems dated – an historical curiosity, exactly as you’d expect. The other feels fresh, vibrant, alive, and a little like the ‘lost classic’ some Disney fans would hope to find.

I’m afraid to say that Saludos Amigos is the former. Clocking in at just over forty minutes, it barely qualifies as a ‘feature film’. It has an odd structure, oscillating between real-life footage of Disney and his team on tour looking for “inspiration” and fairly rudimentary cartoon shorts themed on whatever country they happen to be exploring. A stiff narrator tells us what’s going on – I spent much of the film wishing he would go away (and he does eventually, not a moment too soon, at about thirty-five minutes in). My main criticism of Saludos Amigos is that it fails to cohere as film. The framing device of following the plane of Disney artists around the continent might have worked if the shorts themselves had something to do with the bits in between. But, for whatever reason, the artists’ concepts and drawings, which they keep showing, seldom find their way into the shorts. For example, there is a section about the llama and how it is a haughty animal. The artist draws it wearing a monocle with a snooty expression its face. When we get to the toon itself, the llama Donald encounters is nothing like the ones the artists talked about. The artists’ search for ‘inspiration’ and the shorts seldom correlate — a fact made all the more baffling after watching the extra “South of the Border with Disney”. That documentary covers similar ground only it actually shows you the parts of South America that inspired the characters and artwork seen in the film. I have used italics here to stress what a fundamental oversight the Disney team appear to have made. It is as if they chose to use entirely the wrong real-life footage for the feature and saved the best material for the “making-of” documentary. It is a bizarre creative decision and one that leaves Saludos Amigos hopelessly broken-backed: less than the some of its rather uneven parts.

Speaking of “parts”, there are four animated vignettes: “Lake Titicaca”, in which Donald Duck meets the locals and struggles with a Llama; “Pedro”, which is set in Chile and features a plucky but not especially endearing plane who has to deliver some mail; “El Gaucho Goofy”, a typical Goofy “how-to” short in which our hero attempts to become an Argentine gaucho and hunts an ostrich; and, finally, “Aquarela do Brasil”, which introduces a new star José Carioca, a suave cigar-smoking Brazilian parrot, who teaches Donald how to dance the Samba. “Aquarela do Brasil” is the only essential short of these four. “Lake Titicaca” is throwaway Donald stuff. “Pedro” proves, just as Budgie the Little Helicopter and Jimbo and the Jet Set would do years later, that anthropomorphic planes aren’t cool. “Gaucho Goofy” is a little more inspired. It moves with good pace and there’s an interesting moment where the narrator calls for the action to be rewound and replayed in slow-motion – an unexpected bit of innovative fun in an otherwise pedestrian viewing experience thus far.

However, once we get to Rio de Janeiro and the narrator finally goes away, things take off. For starters, the music is wonderful; Aracay Cortes’s “Brazil” is still a great tune. Then there are a number of flourishes in animation. We see the artist’s paintbrush colour in the landscape, bringing things to life as it goes – an idea later reused to great effect by Warner Brothers in the Daffy Duck short “Duck Amuck” – parts of this sequence are light-years ahead of their time. We are treated to a number of clever and inspired metamorphoses including a bunch of bananas that turn into a flock of toucans. It looks and sounds like a love-letter to Brazil. José Carioca is a very cool character too. He’s smooth, calm and effortlessly rhythmic. Of course, Donald who is over enthusiastic and quick-to-temper, makes an excellent counterpoint. We only get about five minutes of them together but their chemistry is unquestionable. It makes you want more, which is exactly what we get in The Three Caballeros.

For starters, The Three Caballeros just feels more like a proper film. Whereas Saludos Amigos is a short and odd mix of documentary and cartoon shorts, this film is almost seventy minutes long and plays like a cohesive feature film with a plot and (semi-)developed themes. This is achieved mainly through a much better framing device: it’s Donald’s birthday and he’s got a pick package that has arrived from South America. It’s full of presents from his newfound Latino friends. Unlike last time, the shorts (of which there are seven) segue into each other with ease. It feels natural rather than jarring. I should mention also that Donald’s on his best behaviour throughout this film, by which I mean he’s more the wide-eyed, slightly-over-enthusiastic-but-harmless-enough duck rather than the psychotic sadist (more on that dichotomy here. That said, he is worryingly lusty in this film as I’m about to tell you.

Donald’s first present is a projector, a screen and a film reel, on which there are two shorts that he promptly watches with excitement. The first short is set in the South Pole and features a penguin that can’t stand the cold. He longs to leave the South Pole for warmer climes and we follow his several attempts to get there. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff but some great visual jokes and lovely character designs keep things very watchable. The second short is set in Argentina and follows a young boy called Burrito who finds a flying donkey and endeavours to win (by cheating) at the local donkey race. Again, it is not brilliant but not bad either.

Then José Carioca arrives in a pop-up book of Bahia and the film really begins. There’s a nice little scene in which Donald is chuffed to see his old mate José and can’t wait to get to know more about Bahia. José and Donald get into the book and, quite unexpectedly, a real woman turns up with a tray of local delicacies. Disney were quite obviously keen to show off their new technology of blending colour cartoons with real-life colour people – an effect they’d use to better effect a couple of years later in The Song of the South and, more famously, in Mary Poppins. Sadly, it is probably the most dated aspect of this movie. Anyway, this woman, Aurora Miranda, is quite intent on singing and dancing the samba and Donald falls completely in love with her. There is a long sequence featuring various Brazilians singing, dancing and playing musical instruments during which Donald tries and repeatedly fails to woo the “lovely” Aurora. This sets the tone for the rest of the film. Donald seems completely besotted with Latino women and falls in love with almost every woman he sees. The animation in many of the dance sequences is exquisite, ranging from Fantasia-style pretty to Dumbo-style trippy. It’s a feast of colour, sound and movement – or at least it would be if Disney had bothered to re-master this properly. At one point, when Donald smashes a piñata a stunning mix of colours, clowns, horses and God knows what else burst onto the screen; it’s one of many visual highlights undermined by the age of the print.

Soon enough, the third of our titular Caballeros arrives, Panchito Pistoles, an all action Mexican cowboy-rooster with an amazingly high-pitched “yee yee hah”. Like José, Panchito is a great character who is a slightly eccentric loose cannon. He makes a big impact in his first scene in which he sings “The Three Caballeros”. He has bought Donald a piñata and tells him how Mexicans celebrate Christmas and about the origins of piñatas. He also tells him about the origins of Mexico City: apparently, it was built (by the Aztecs) on a cactus in the middle of Lake Texcoc where an eagle caught a snake – even I learnt a little something there! The rest of the film plays out like an extended sequence of Mexican singing and dancing (clearly, Disney took the decision to concentrate almost entirely on buddying up to the US’s World War II allies, Brazil and Mexico, this time). There is one particularly amusing section where “the three caballeros” catch a carpet ride over Mexico and hone in on a beach full of (real-life) women. Donald goes crazy and starts chasing them all. They seem intent on having fun with him and the end up playing blind man’s buff. I’ll admit that I laughed out loud at the sight of a blindfolded Donald standing in the middle of a circle of scantily clad women yelping “come to papa”- that’s the sort of thing they usually slap Leonard Maltin’s “THIS IS NOT PC” warnings on.

So, all-in-all, I’d tentatively recommend this to casual animation fans. Saludos Amigos has not dated well but it’s a piece of history that may be of interest to students of World War II, especially when viewed alongside “South of the Border with Disney”. The Three Caballeros is a real feast of colour, energy and music that is pleasant to watch. That said, I can see the sheer amount of samba dancing grating on some viewers after a while. And the mix of animation and live actors was clearly in its nascent state – the animated characters are either behind the action or in front of it, but never fully integrated. Therefore, ironically, it looks very much of its time. If you even remotely entertain the notion of calling yourself a Disney aficionado, however, I’d recommend you buy this set, if only satiate curiosity. Had Disney given this set “the works” and re-mastered it properly, I would be telling the aficionados that this is a must-buy, but as things stand I can only offer a milder recommendation.

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