Walt & El Grupo kicks off with some wonderful material: audio of Walt Disney himself. Throughout the first 20 or so
minutes, I was transfixed, both by the story, concerning a strike by the animators at the studio and by Walt's description of
how he was affected by watching animators and artists he liked very much tearing him down as an impersonal businessman. The
rest of the movie shows us wonderful sights, like a bustling dance hall in Brazil and the numerous sketches and drawings the
talented artists Disney brought with him created while they were away. After those opening 20 minutes, though, Walt & El
Grupo feels like an overextended chunk of a longer movie just floating out on its own, lacking in any real focus.
In the middle of World War II, President Roosevelt was worried about the potential turn in South America towards Nazi ideals,
and so he introduced the Good Neighbor Policy to try and create a cultural exchange between us and them. At first, Disney was
reluctant: the strike continued, and his studio was low on funds. The government offered to help bankroll any shorts that sprung from the trip, and with that, Walt, his wife and 16 animators were taking the trip to what they referred to as the "A-B-C's" of the country: Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
I'm not a Disney buff, and I'm too young to have seen Walt's TV appearances (I've seen a couple, but I was probably about four). For me, Walt & El Grupo is one of the first extensive looks at the animator I've gotten to see, and he seems like one of the more charming and friendly men the movie industry has ever had. The look of joy on his face is infectious as he celebrates with the various people he meets and learns about their culture. It's also amazing to see the sketches of the people and places he visits, not just from Walt but from all of the artists he brought along, which vary greatly in style and tone. Artist Mary Blair's work in particular is a perfect blend of fine art and the classic Disney style.
There are also great stories from a few of the South American people who met Disney on his journey. Not surprisingly, some of these stories are related by surviving sons and daughters, but they help fill in an outside perspective of what Disney was like on his journey. As the film is being released by Walt Disney Pictures, it would be easy to accuse the studio of presenting a "good news only" version of the story -- certainly not propaganda, but definitely a retelling with any speed bumps left out, but the black-and-white footage and photographs of "Walt and el grupo" on the journey seem so vivid and joyful it's hard to imagine that anything particularly sinister is being covered up.
Unfortunately, the journey is more of an experience than a story. The group visits the three countries on their 10-week tour, and the documentary covers each stop sequentially. After the first few stops, it becomes clear that each stop is going to follow essentially the same arc, and the movie begins to become monotonous. Writer/director Theodore Thomas is clearly invested in Disney, having directed the famous documentary Frank and Ollie, about two of Disney's most famous animators, and I'm sure for him, hearing these stories is all the hook he feels his movie needs. To me, it seems like more explanation of these people and their overall place in the grand scheme of things would really help invigorate the movie's second half. The Disney audio also vanishes, and some of the film becomes heavy on montages. Almost criminally, the majority of footage from "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros" is also held back until the very end, when it might have worked better spliced in throughout the film.
For animation history fans and Walt Disney addicts, Walt & El Grupo will probably scoot over the speed bumps and potholes without any problems. Even general audiences will likely find it hard to resist some of the celebratory images packed into the movie; this is nothing if not a feel-good film. Alas, it feels more like it should be an hour-long episode in a miniseries about Disney's life and career rather than a feature-length film.
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