Sunday, September 16, 2012

Disney Canon: Slaudos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944)

The Disney Canon is back! And with a double feature. You see, it is almost impossible to think of 'Saludos Amigos' without thinking of 'The Three Caballeros' or vice-versa. Actually, 'Caballeros' is a somewhat of a sequel to the first film. They share characters, settings, themes and even have very similar structures, so I saw it fitting to pair them up in just one post. Also, had I written two different posts for these films, the second one would be one paragraph long. There isn't much to say about the other once you've said something about the one, really. 

'Saludos Amigos' and 'The Three Caballeros' are not that well remembered today and go largely unseen by most audiences (except for Disney completists like myself). Probably because of their production history. You see, by this time in Disney's career, he was a little disappointed that his latest films (particularly his very ambitious 'Fantasia') had failed to live up to the enormous success of 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'. Also at this time, the United States had just entered World War II. Given the circumstances, the United States' government contacted the hugely popular Disney to make a series of films for the war effort. Most of them were propaganda shorts and films used for training purposes. However, Disney was also approached to take a tour of South America to make a film that would strengthen the U.S.' ties to its neighbors south of the borer as part of the Good Neighbor Policy and to prevent the countries to side with Germany during the war. 

Disney accepted, probably not only because he was highly involved in the war effort, but because government cash would also be a good thing for a studio that was failing to make a profit out of its theatrical releases thanks to the closed European market. It's in this fashion that 'Saludos Amigos' and 'The Three Caballeros' kicked off the second phase of the Disney Canon. During the following years, Disney would not release proper feature length films, but rather a series of compilations of shorter cartoons. This happened, in part, because of the already mentioned financial inefficiencies of producing movies as ambitious as the ones that came before. These are all mostly forgotten films in Disney's filmography. With the exception of some of the segments produced for these films, most of them remain largely unwatched. 

We've already mentioned Disney's trip to South America and that is precisely the framing device for 'Saludos Amigos'. The narrator tells us about the expedition in which Disney and his animators traveled through South America apparently looking for inspiration for new shorts. The real reason why they traveled is never mentioned, of course. 

The movie is divided into four segments. The first has Donald Duck dealing with a temperamental Llama at the shores of Lake Titicaca, in the border between Peru and Bolivia. We then go to Chile, where we meet a little messenger plane called Pedro, who has the dangerous mission of crossing the Andes in order to deliver mail in Argentina. Talking about Argentina, the third short stars Goody as an American cowboy trying to become an Argentinian Gaucho. Finally, the last short has Donald Duck meet José Carioca, a brazilian parrot who introduces him to samba dancing. Between segments, we see documentary footage of the animators' trip. The narrator is heard throughout the film commenting, mostly informatively, about the cultural aspects of South America. 

This latter part is the primary goal of 'Saludos Amigos'. It is amusing at parts and somewhat educational about certain aspects of South American culture of the time, but it feels as if the film is just pandering to South American audiences, hoping that they will like what they're seeing because it features familiar stuff. As a matter of comparison, imagine how much american audiences would automatically like a film made in Bolivia just because it features cowboys. It's just not enough and that's the main reason why 'Saludos Amigos' doesn't really hold up as an entertaining movie.

The biggest historical significance of 'Saludos Amigos' is the introduction of José Carioca, who became a fairly popular character in Brazil appearing alongside Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in local comic strips. Another big significance, at least in South America, is that it inspired Chilean cartoonist Pepo, who believed an aeroplane wasn't all that representative of Chilean culture to create the popular comic-strip character of Condorito. 

I couldn't find information on the internet whether 'Saludos Amigos' had a successful run on South American (or American) theaters, but it couldn't have done that badly, since two years later, it was followed by 'The Three Caballeros'. 

This time, the framing devise of the film has Donald Duck opening birthday presents from his friends in South America. We see the stories of Pablo, a penguin who wants to leave for warmer climates, and a little Argentinian gaucho boy and his flying donkey before José Carioca comes back to take Donald into a samba musical number. Later, they are joined by Panchito, a Mexican rooster that makes the three feathered characters into the 'Three Caballeros'. 

I have to say that 'The Three Caballeros', despite being very objectifying of the Latin American actresses featured in the film, works better than 'Saludos Amigos'. Without the documentary framing devise and the constant narration of the former film, it feels less pandering and more like a continuing film, having Donald as an active character reacting to what is happening and recurring jokes like the presence of the eccentric Aracuan Bird. Stories like Pablo the Penguin's and less straightforward information make it a better mvie, but still nowhere near the full-length stories of the previous films. 

I would like these films to be better. Coming from South America, I think a lot of great stories could be told based on the cultural elements of the region. They could have made a true classic (at the very least for South American audiences). As it is, the films are just a couple of anecdotes in a larger, richer, filmography.

Next Time: Disney first "package" film not based on the southern part of the continent, 'Make Mine Music'. For the meantime, here's the titular song of 'The Three Caballeros'.

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