Halloween has come and gone and we’re back on our weekend schedule; starting with a return to the Disney Vault! We last left Disney at Bambi (although I did post up the Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad early for Halloween). We’re entering into Disney’s period of short “package” films that would carry them through the 1940s into the 50s. The package films were a series of short, animated cartoons held together by a thin framework of an overarching plot. These films helped the studio in several ways: the short length cut down on time spent and animators needs since many had gone to war, and it helped Disney get out of the financial slump left by their earlier films. Saludos Amigos is the shortest of the package films, and is actually the shortest Disney film ever at 42 minutes. It was created mainly to foster relations between the US and South America. Overall, it’s a fun travelogue that mocks the tourist while embracing South American history and its length prevents you from becoming bored, but it’s apparent the animators haven’t quite figured out what to do with these movies.
The Disney animators all travel to South America in order to find inspiration from the local residents. As they travel throughout the region a series of stories arise. At Lake Titicaca, Donald Duck depicts the life of a tourist in South America. In “Pedro,” a little mail plane goes on his first mission but comes up against various obstacles. “El Gaucho Goofy” places Goofy in the life of a South American cowboy, or gaucho. Finally, “Aquarela do Brasil” introduces parrot Jose Carioca (voiced by Jose Oliveira) who teaches Donald the art of the samba.
If you read my early review of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad then you know I wasn’t too fond of it, and I feared that the rest of the package films would be hard to get through. While I’m not saying I’ll go out and buy this, I did enjoy it. I do question the legality of it being a part of the Disney animated canon though. The film starts with live action in showing the animators boarding the plane (by the way, that was staged as a last-minute narrative device to tie all the stories together) and we don’t get any animation till the five-minute mark. From that time there’s about a good ten to fifteen minutes of live action within the 42 minute run time I ask you, should it belong in the Disney animated canon? I did enjoy seeing the Disney animators, several of them legends in the field. We also get to see Walt himself working with the animators later on. Any film that includes footage of Mr. Disney himself is elevated and he’s so youthful in this film.
Saludos Amigos is a fascinating, albeit brief, look at South America during WWII. You obviously don’t see anything negative about the country, but there’s still a lot of beauty to take in. The bright colors and the culture clashes of clothes the South Americans wear highlights the mix of influences they had; from the wearing of conservative bowler hats with bright local clothes. You really see a true melting pot of cultures during the live action segments. Of course I mentioned that this is a happy look at South American and it becomes a tad ironic once the animators start to “Disney-fy” what they see. In a few of the drawings they look like characters from It’s a Small World. I can’t complain too much; I’d kill for one of those drawings the animators create during the film, all of which are hand-drawn during filming.
The various animated shorts all have pros and cons but generally are fun and do a solid job of following the narrative of showcasing South America. It’s far more coherent than Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The first short is funny as it appears to mock the tourists that go to any foreign country. We see Donald make common mistakes such as taking photos obtrusively, use simple hand signals as a means of communication, and forces the locals to dress him up in authentic clothes. This short, along with the rest in the film, are standard Disney shorts of the time but this one has some bite to it. It’s obvious that tourists don’t know how to react to the culture shock and by placing Donald in this situation removes any offense it might create.
“Pedro” is the darkest short of the series, mostly due to the amazing narration by Fred Shields. Real suspense is created by the narration and the animation. A great scene is when the lightning starts during the store, and with every bolt you see Pedro’s wooden exoskeleton; highlighting his fragility. Little Pedro is on a mission to get mail and ends up getting trapped in a horrific storm. The way Shields narrates, and yells at Pedro to go higher or keep moving is nail-biting. When it’s believed that Pedro is dead you really believe it. I mean there’s literally no way he should have survived after running out of gas. It’s probably why the narrator says something to the effect of it being a miracle. The short is aware it has a deus ex machina going on towards the end. It was probably my favorite next to the “Lake Titicaca” segment above.
I found “Gaucho Goofy” a taste confusing because I believe we actually leave South America and go to Texas. Is the gaucho than an American offshoot of the cowboy, or are we simply stopping in America to show the cowboy then winging back to South America? I was paying attention so I’m not sure how I got confused. Regardless, the “Gaucho Goofy” segment is a standard “Goofy Does…” cartoon where Goofy has a hard time being a cowboy. It’s funny, especially his interactions with his horse, but it’s a fairly rote premise that you’ve probably seen in countless Goofy cartoons.
The final short is similar in tone and set-up to Fantasia as both are based on songs. In this case, the story is based around the song “Aquarela do Brasil.” We have the introduction of Jose Carioca, whom I believe will be in next week’s short The Three Caballeros. The opening animation features an unseen hand painting the world of Brasil, and it is simply stunning. It’s the best animation I’ve seen from Disney during this period; filled with lush colors and beautiful tricks to make you question what the final product will be. It truly shows that Disney could turn out beautiful animation during lean times. The short continues to show Donald as the bad American only this time we see him leafing through numerous Spanish dictionaries to understand what Jose is saying. I laughed as I’ve been through this numerous times, not to mention I watch a lot of I Love Lucy. It’s a quick short that feels a bit cut off once Donald starts dancing. Apparently he’s a quick samba learner.
Overall, the film has a strong narrative framework, and has humor and warmth for the country it depicts. It does sag during the parts where it’s live-action, mainly because it’s obvious it was a last-minute fix to the package itself. Being the first film of its kind the story is hasty and feels unfinished, but I’m sure these will be smoothed out in later shorts.
Next Week: The package films continue, and we see the return of Jose Carioca, in The Three Caballeros
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Saludos Amigos/Three Caballeros Double Feature
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.