Saludos Amigos was the first Disney film produced from the creative material gathered during Walt Disney’s “El Grupo” goodwill trip of South America, which is the subject of the new documentary Walt & El Grupo. The part-travelogue, part-animation film was first released in August 1942 in Brazil and Argentina, and it is still available on DVD, which is how I saw it last week.
I’m not really a Disney person myself. I grew up watching the edgier Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes works more than the often squeaky clean Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy offerings from Disney (not that Mickey was always squeaky clean). Nonetheless, I thought this film was great. The movie’s four sections–based in Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil–deftly weave together animation, live action, narrative, cultural information, and experimentation. In the first section of the film, for instance, Donald Duck visits Lake Titicaca and a small Peruvian village. Though we get a Disneyfied view of the area, some Spanish is introduced, there’s a great comedic llama character, and we even see some rather realistic views of the American tourist…in the form of a talking duck in a sailor’s suit (Pato Donald).
The second section of the film is the weakest, though it’s still enjoyable. It features a young mail airplane trying to make a delivery from Argentina to Chile. The segment’s lack of cultural exposition, according to Walt & El Grupo, comes from the brevity of the Disney clan’s visit to Chile. Political tensions from the war in Europe were being strongly felt in that long coastal country at the time of Walt Disney’s visit, and the group only remained a few days before needing to bolt.
The film quickly returns to form in the third chapter when Goofy is transported to the Argentine pampas, stripped of his cowboy getup, and dressed for success in gaucho attire. With a trusty bolas and ill-tempered caballo, he gets himself into good trouble. I’m sure more than one Argentinian has found this part of the film disrespectful to traditional Argentine culture, but I think it says more about the silly mythos of the North America cowboy than anything else. Goofy the cowboy can’t keep up with the rigors of gaucho life on the plains.
The strongest section of the film is the last, which starts out as a travel diary of the Disney artists’ adventures in Brazil. It quickly morphs into a Donald Duck cartoon in which our pato friend gets a tour of Brazilian culture–including samba lessons–from what was then a new character, José “Joe” Carioca. I never really had an interest in Brazil before seeing this film (other than having my rooting interests crushed repeatedly by their overly skilled soccer team in every World Cup, Copa América, Confederations Cup, and on and on and on). But the Disney group clearly fell in love with the country–Rio in particular–and it’s hard not to be caught up in their infatuation. Rio makes for a beautiful, exotic, and colorful backdrop to the exquisitely voiced Carioca. Book my ticket. I’m there.
(Below is an appearance by José Oliveira, the voice of Joe Carioca, on the Mickey Mouse Club.)
My only complaint is that I wish I had seen Saludos Amigos before seeing Walt & El Grupo. I think I would have gotten more out of the latter if I had. Oh, and if you’re interested in more about Disney’s Latin American projects, Recca Phoenix has a great site dedicated to all of Disney’s Latin-influenced films, comics, and such at the blog Latin Baby.