With war raging in Europe during the 1940s, America was in the grip of terror. While Politicians publicly tried to stay out of the war, they were privately afraid of the Nazis who were rapidly moving through Europe. Believe it or not, at the time, many countries around the world sympathized with Germany, a fear of the US Government.
So, in order to nip that sentiment in the bud, the United States began the Good Neighbor Program. They sent ambassadors of good will to neighboring countries to show the positive influence that the US could have. Walt Disney and his team of artists made one of the most successful of these trips when they were sent to South America to gather information for films that would later be made about their experiences.
The two features that resulted from that trip, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, were never meant to be feature films at all. Instead, Walt’s team planned to create a series of shorts featuring characters they had been inspired to create while on the trip. As development continued, though, it turned out that packaging these shorts together in a full length feature was a much easier way to go.
You can see how things were stitched together in Saludos Amigos. This film features several charming shorts, but the quality of animation is not up to par with earlier films like Snow White or Pinocchio. That said, there’s some great stuff in the film: Donald, Goofy, and the introduction of Jose Carioca.
Each segment opens with footage shot by the Disney artists while on the trip. The loose framing device is a recap of the trip, with the shorts showing little interludes of what artists encountered along the way. Lake Titcaca, the first short, shows Donald’s adventures along the lakeside. Aquarela de Brasil, the final one, has Donald and Jose touring Brazil and learning the native dances.
In between, we get to see Pedro, a lonely plane who tries to deliver the mail despite horrible weather, and El Gaucho Goofy, where Goofy attempts to become an authentic gaucho, using the device of the narrator similar to his “How To” series of shorts.
It’s still a very loose gathering of pieces, so Saludos Amigos does not hold up well as a feature. Each of the shorts is entertaining, but Aquarela de Brasil is the one that shows the potential of the South American series. The success of that short is probably why Jose would return in The Three Caballeros to introduce more detailed and higher quality segments.
While The Three Caballeros opens with two more shorts designed to be seven minute cartoons, the final two segments are feature quality, and were created as such. As a framing device, Donald receives gifts from South America to celebrate his birthday. The first gift is a film on rare birds, which manages to encapsulate two shorts, one featuring The Cold-Blooded Penguin, a South Pole penguin who sails the same route as Walt’s crew up the coast of South America. The second features a flying donkey and the young boy who tames him. Quite a stretch to call it a rare bird, eh? Despite the loose ties, both shorts are entertaining.
The final two sequences, though, are breathtaking. Baia, the first of them, gives us a tour of the city in Brazil, led by Jose Carioca. It manages to combine animation from Mary Blair, live action, effects, music, and Donald Duck into a beautiful piece of filmmaking. The quality of the animation combined with shifting scenes that integrate Aurora Miranda with Jose and Donald is simply amazing.
Baia alone would be enough to make this a film animation lovers should see, but the final sequence, La Piñata, puts it over the top. La Piñata begins with some wild Ward Kimball animation introducing Panchito, the final member of The Three Caballeros. Then it adds amazing music and dancing and finally stirs in surrealist imagery that far surpasses that of Fantasia or the “Pink Elephants on Parade” in Dumbo.
If you’re a big Disney film fan, you owe it to yourself to see The Three Caballeros. It contains some of the finest work by Walt’s animators, and it is very rarely re-aired by Disney. Saludos Amigos is good, but the quality of work on Caballeros makes it superb.
Contributed by: Ryan K. (NDD #137). Ryan is our resident film expert and creator of The Disney Film Project.