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"Walt and El Grupo": Buy It for the Bonus

by on December 1, 2010

Walt Disney of Kansas City made vulgar entertainments, and I mean “vulgar” in the best possible way. Everything he touched—the sacred, the profane, the mundane, the magical—he turned into the same mix of Kansas barnyard humor, Kansas classroom respectability, Kansas Sunday school piety, and Kansas nursery sentimentality. But everything vulgar is potent, too; the best pie fights are those fought with cow flop. And Kansas is where the sky touches the earth, sometimes sublimely, as at the unbounded horizon, and sometimes violently, as with those infamous twisters. Kansas was where Dorothy Gale found Oz, a land that reflected her own homestead grotesquely back at her; and who of us, once returned from Oz, cannot dream of going back?

So let J. R. R. Tolkien denounce the dwarves of Snow White; let Igor Stravinsky denounce the “unrelieved imbecility” of Fantasia‘s “Rite of Spring”; and let me, far at the back of the parade, denounce the entirety of Alice in Wonderland. None of it matters. Disney made Disney pictures; no one can touch them; and their popularity, undimmed even as live-action movies from the same period turn stylized and dated, proves that they aren’t just “masterpieces” like Citizen Kane. They are good.

Still, Disney was very provincial, and every story, no matter its setting, wound up as part of the same universe. (There is nothing jarring about meeting Cinderella and Donald Duck both at Disneyland.) He couldn’t look at the wild mountain men of a dark Grimm grotesquerie like Snow White without turning them into fat little cuddlebunnies. The Jungle Book is a Las Vegas revue. The Sword in the Stone is more absurd (with far less excuse) than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When he visited South America, he took Donald Duck and Goofy along in his luggage, and he came back with Saludos Amigos, a portrait so inauthentic it couldn’t offend even the most hypersensitive patriot of the South. If he’d claimed it was set on Mars none could have gainsaid him.

Technically, Saludos Amigos is an account of a good will tour he took of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile in 1941. The circumstances behind the trip are actually somewhat murky, and the purposes of the picture are unclear. Is it a record of his good will tour? Disney and his crew do not really appear in it. Is it a documentary about those countries? It is thin and uninformative. Is it a movie made to bring a little Latin splash to the Disney output? In that case, was the picture a justification for the trip, or was the trip a justification for the picture? The only thing that is clear, as I said, is that he flew south of equator and found another Hollywood-style playground for his cartoon troupe.

The history behind the trip is even more mysterious, suggesting some blend of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chinatown and The Molly Maguires. In the early 1940s the still-neutral United States was struggling with Nazi Germany for influence in South America, and the government prevailed upon Disney to make a good will tour. The trip could be justified on non-political grounds as a research venture for a new movie; but the government would guarantee all losses on the resulting picture so that Disney could turn out a propaganda piece without risking his foundering studio. One wonders what the US government thought it was getting for its money: a propaganda trip or a propaganda film? Both? Maybe the government had no clear idea either.

And what did Disney think he was getting? A trip to an exotic locale, certainly; terrific research material; a chance to make a movie that couldn’t bankrupt him. And a chance to help his country, even if no one knew how, exactly, such a thing would help. But his studio was also in the midst of a strike back in Los Angeles. It was a bitter thing that could destroy his studio. But he took off in the middle of it, and when he got back it had been settled in a way that let his enterprise survive. We know the government had provided assurances there, too. What happened? It is too easy to speculate; anyone who has read Otto Friedrich’s Eric Ambler knows that any meeting in 1940s Hollywood between one labor negotiator, one movie mogul, and one government official would contain no less than three men, six double agents, nine secret alliances, twelve hidden agendas, and a partridge in a pear tree whose murder would never be solved.

This is the explosive situation defined by Walt and El Grupo, a 100-minute documentary about that trip to South America, the making of Saludos Amigos, and the most perilous moment in the history of Walt Disney Productions. It is also the most mind-dulling and butt-numbing thing I have ever seen, and I’m including Dora the Explorer when I say that. Everything I have said above can be gleaned (directly or inferentially) from the film, and yet it tells us nothing about any of those events or their relations to each other. It blandly lets dead bodies fall out of every closet door it opens and then steps over them without even noticing. Now, perhaps there is no “story” here. Maybe everything that happened was done transparently and innocently, and every suspicious coincidence was just another manifestation of Walt’s Mickey Mouse-like luck with the world. But it is ludicrous for a documentary to not even acknowledge how close his career in 1940 came to mimicking the plot of an Eric Ambler spy novel.

Instead we get a documentary about that trip. That’s interesting, isn’t it? No, it isn’t. It gives us a dry recital of the places Walt’s group visited punctuated by a lot of talking heads—descendents and relatives of those who took the trip—reading from the letters they sent back. These, in turn, contain no gossip, no news, no flashes of character; certainly no fine writing; basically every letter from every person says “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.” It takes forever to roll out these scenes, too. The movie contains exactly three elements: film of the scenery or activities, local music, and talking heads reading letters. It can’t even bring these elements into a nice synthesis but strings them along piecemeal, so that five minutes of silent film footage is followed by five minutes of music (played over stock photographs), which is then followed by five minutes of big-head shots of old people reading letters to no musical accompaniment. None of the readers have any charisma or energy, and more than a few come off as kidnapping victims reading their own ransom notes for the camera.

A few interesting stories get told, and it is touching to see that some of the locals—now very, very old—are still alive and still have vivid memories of meeting Walt Disney. (He really was a rock star in 1941.) But the pacing is glacial and the construction is slovenly. The individual shots are expertly photographed and framed, but they are edited together into a “story” with no discernable theme. Even if it had avoided the hints of juicy intrigue that it cheerfully acknowledges and then ignores, it could have said something, if nothing else, about the connections and disconnections between the realities of Latin America and the movie that Disney made.

If this documentary is a scrupulously accurate account of the trip that Disney took, then only one thing happened during it: He and his crew took a lot of pictures. It shouldn’t take 100 minutes to say that. But Walt and El Grupo takes that long, and it strains mightily to make those 100 minutes feel as long as possible.

But maybe that’s all that did happen: Lots of pictures got snapped. And maybe that’s the explanation for Saludos Amigos, too. Walt took a trip; came back with no story; and so just made up another one of his terrific yarns instead. That’s one of the differences between talent and hackery, and between vulgarity and tastefulness: The talented and the vulgar know when to substitute overripe illusion for underbaked reality. And it’s another reason Kansans make good storytellers: no prairie-dweller is likely to mistake emptiness for anything else. Walt Disney would have let his studio sink into bankruptcy before releasing anything as stupefying as Walt and El Grupo, though not before firing everyone connected to the darn thing first.

The DVD comes with the documentary, a featurette on how the filmmakers induced a 3D effect in old photographs (!); three deleted scenes from the “Director’s Cut” (!!); an audio commentary (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!); and the original Saludos Amigos in all its glory. The latter is also the version that shows Goofy smoking a cigarette, which apparently puts it ahead of other home video releases of this short feature.

And the inclusion of Saludos Amigos all by itself makes this DVD worth purchasing. Yes, believe it or not, I just said you should buy this disc.

Still, it’s the ultimate reduction to absurdity: The studio that Walt Disney founded has fallen so far into bland hagiography of its founder that it will release a brutally banal account of the most dramatic time of his life, and consign the man’s own vivid, exciting and life-affirming work from the same period to the back menu as a “bonus.”

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