Donald Duck, Judge Clark Douglas, Walt Disney, and Goofy once took a trip to South America. What happened there stays there. No really, don't even ask.
Walt Disney goes South American in his gayest Technicolor feature!
Once upon a time, a man named Walt Disney had an ambitious vision for his company. Mr. Disney's head was bursting with new ideas and exciting concepts; the future of his organization looked very bright, indeed. One of Disney's ideas was that his feature films could be both entertaining and educational, offering viewers informative looks at other cultures around the world while also providing laughs. Two of Disney's early attempts to do this have been preserved as part of a single DVD package. Looking back, are Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros anything more than mere footnotes in Disney history?
Facts of the Case
First up is Saludos Amigos, which shows Disney and a team of his animators going to South America to try and learn more about that culture. They hope to find new and exciting material for their cartoons, and their scribblings are bridged by four animated shorts. It's a short, sweet, simple 41-minute film, about 80% animation and 20% live action footage.
The second film, The Three Caballeros, is an even more animated effort. The film stars the perpetually annoyed Donald Duck as himself. Donald receives a package of birthday presents, and as he opens them he begins to mentally immerse himself into the exotic parts of Latin America. Before too long, Donald's feathered friends Joe Carioca and Panchito show up to add even more flavor and chaos to the increasingly trippy proceedings. It's going to be quite a fiesta!
Let's begin with the shorter and simpler of the two films, Saludos Amigos. There's really not a whole lot to say about this good-natured and straightforward little movie, which only intends to offer a satisfying blend of cultural education and fun. The live-action sequences featuring the animators are brief and to the point, showing quick images of the animators finding nifty odds and ends and scribbling down ideas for future Disney productions. I suspect some of these turned up in The Three Caballeros, which we'll address in a moment.
The meat of the program is four cartoons, each running about eight minutes. The first stars Donald Duck as a clueless American tourist who is having a miserable time due to his sheer lack of preparation. This is quite a funny short, especially the interaction between the narrator (Fred Shields, who also briefly voiced "The Great Prince of the Forest" in Bambi) and Donald Duck (at one point, Donald angrily tells the slightly smug narrator to "shut up!"). "Pedro" is a cute little short about a little airplane that has to deliver some mail. "El Gaucho Goofy" features Disney's lovably dense character in some goofy (lame pun intended) physical comedy. Finally, the very colorful "Aquarela de Brasil" features Jose Carioca and Donald Duck in a vibrant musical short centered around the well-known song "Brazil."
Saludos Amigos is perfectly pleasant, and everybody won with the production. It permitted Disney and the animators to soak in some culture, it brought some welcomed publicity to parts of South America during World War II, it provided a little culture for audiences, and it made a handsome little profit at the box office. After all these years, it still holds up pretty well, as the cartoons have a timeless quality that both kids and adults of the modern era will enjoy. The short was the first of a string of "package" Disney films (fragmented features spotlighting various cartoons, musical numbers, etc.). While I know that some dislike these films, I've always enjoyed them. Especially the one that immediately followed Saludos Amigos.
The real highlight of this package is the less financially successful, more artistically ambitious The Three Caballeros. It starts by picking up where Saludos Amigos left off, with gentle, good-natured cartoons and cultural education. Donald watches a fun little short about a penguin that yearns to live in a warmer climate, and there is another fun bit about a boy who finds a flying donkey. It's sweet, innocent, charming, fun. Things take a slightly different turn when the cigar-smoking Jose Carioca shows up with an invitation. He wants to take Donald to the world of live action.
This was an ambitious endeavor for Disney, as the technique of blending live action and animation was still a pretty new idea. At that point, it had only been used in some animated shorts such as the Porky Pig cartoon "You Ought to Be in Pictures." This was Disney's first feature-length film to use the technique, and it's done very successfully. Granted, there's not a whole lot of interaction between the animated and live-action characters (mostly Latin American dancing women), but whatever is attempted is done well. A nice blend of animated antics and music appears here, but the best is still yet to come.
Once the gun-toting character named Panchito arrives, things take a turn toward the wild side. After the sensational title song performance by the three characters, the film lurches ahead into trippy animation, energetic techniques, and Donald Duck's raging libido. Yes, you heard me. In the final act of this film, Donald Duck turns into one of the horniest cartoon characters ever to appear in a Disney film, running after every pretty (live-action) woman that comes by with reckless abandon until he finds himself in a drunken state of lust. A creepy male voice appears in the background as Donald pants with desire, "pretty girls, pretty girls, pretty girls." All of this hedonistic animated material is intercut with surreal animated images, Panchito firing off gunshots, parties, and cock-fighting. Pure insanity. It's all directed with feverish giddiness, and the film appropriately comes to a close with a cheerfully over-the-top display of fireworks.
Do you remember the drunken "Pink Elephants on Parade" scene from Dumbo? The final sequence of The Three Caballeros is like an extended, even crazier version of that sequence. What began as merely a goodwill statement toward South America during WWII has suddenly turned into a wild display of unhinged creativity by the animators, which I suspect is part of what caused The Three Caballeros to make less money than Saludos Amigos. One of the special features is an interview with Disney discussing the films. He notes that he could have accepted government subsidies if the films had not been profitable. Saludos Amigos was quite a hit, he informs us. "You also made a movie called The Three Caballeros," the reporter says. "Ah yes," grins Disney, with a little twinkle in his eye. "I nearly had to get the subsidy for that one."
A couple of extras included on the disc are pretty decent. A 35-minute documentary from the 1950s gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Disney and his animators in South America. It's a little dull in spots but has some nice interview footage with Disney. Two old cartoons starring Donald Duck are light fun, and both have a Latin flavor in one way or another. As for the technical side of things, it varies. The Three Caballeros looks very good for the most part, and the Dolby 5.1 audio is about as good as you could expect for something from the 1940s. On the other hand, Saludos Amigos suffers from a lot of grain during the live-action scenes, but sound is still pretty solid. Both films are very colorful, and they really sparkle during the more ambitious animated scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As thrilling and imaginative as the final act of The Three Caballeros is, it may not necessarily be great "for the whole family," as the packaging claims. Parents will want to consider such elements as smoking, cock-fighting, and Donald's rather lustful behavior before letting their kids watch the film. That said, I watched this movie a lot when I was a kid, and look how I turned out. Hmmm, maybe that's the problem…
Animation fans really can't afford to miss this set. Saludos Amigos is nice, The Three Caballeros is terrific; they're both included in one affordable package. So what are you waiting for? Grab your sombrero and head south.
Donald Duck is ordered to get tested for STDs, but otherwise this DVD is not
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Scales of Justice, Saludos Amigos
Perp Profile, Saludos Amigos
Distinguishing Marks, Saludos Amigos
• "Backstage Disney: South of the Border"
Scales of Justice, The Three Caballeros
Perp Profile, The Three Caballeros
Distinguishing Marks, The Three Caballeros
• "Don Donald" Short
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