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In 1941 Disney and a planeload of his top artists undertook an extended goodwill tour of three South American countries. International diplomacy was the mission, but the trip also related to Disney's problems with labor organizers. The group shot movies, took photographs and soaked up the local culture; Disney was captivated by a local composer's work and ended up importing his music for use in his animated films.
Walt & El Grupo is a beautifully designed 2008 documentary about this goodwill tour. Normally, Savant's radar lights up whenever a Disney documentary about the studio comes near. Even when the subject matter is no more controversial than talking mice or nannies that fly with broomsticks, I never quite get over the fact that everything on view has been filtered through proprietary filters to remove anything that smacks of controversy or that might cast a shadow on any aspect of the company. Writer-director Theodore Thomas, the son of one of Disney's legendary "Nine Old Men" animators, gives an account of events that doesn't ignore the touchy issues. This is the first reason that makes Walt & El Grupo a fascinating show.
Mr. Thomas tells the story of the tour through photos, movies, letters and other correspondence by the participants, all of whom are gone now. We hear some of Walt Disney's views on the trip through archived voice recordings. When Disney was first contacted by the State Department for a possible goodwill tour, he demurred: playing a glad-handing make-pretend ambassador didn't appeal. But a number of factors changed his mind. Work at his animation studio was stalled. The war had taken away his overseas markets, reducing the studio's income to the point that his expensive productions had little hope of turning a profit. Worse yet, the studio employees were on strike, with no settlement in sight. This conflict was a complicated stew involving legitimate complaints and Disney's initial inflexibility on the issue. The negotiations were also tainted by the truth that organized crime was involved in some of Hollywood's new labor politics.
Walt Disney's eventual solution was to go into business with the government, turning his studio over to full-time work on war films. This period in Disney's output is covered in the excellent "Walt Disney Treasures" DVD set, On the Front Lines: The War Years. But even before we entered the war conflict, Washington wanted Disney's help in what would come to be known as the "Good Neighbor Policy", a diplomatic effort to persuade neutral South American governments to side with the Allies over the Axis. German diplomats had made serious inroads in Argentina, in particular, trying to route the country's resources to the Nazi war effort.
The film shows Walt and his employees packing up and literally 'flying down to Rio' to participate in receptions and parties and to attend local premieres of Fantasia. The Disney artists fanned out, drawing and painting everything exotic in Rio de Janeiro. The docu introduces all this as a detailed account of a fantastic vacation as told through letters received through the Pan-American mail. "El Grupo" (The Group) turns hotel suites into art rooms, and day trips take the group to local attractions. In Brazil's Rio, Uruguay's Montevideo (an overnight trip across the Rio de la Plata), Argentina's Buenos Aires and Chile's Santiago, El Grupo meets with local artists, musicians and dance groups.
The docu traced Disney's steps to all these countries to find people with a connection to the tour. Disney received a group of Argentine folk dancers on a hotel roof, an episode covered in photos and movies; when Walt dresses up in traditional local garb he's not performing a publicity stunt. One of the dancers is still alive. The granddaughter of a famous authority on folk dances talks about his legacy. With admirable candor (for a Disney release) she avers that her parents were persecuted in the political repression of the 70s. A Buenos Aires newspaperman remembers respecting El Grupo because they interacted with local political cartoonists, at a time when the city had dozens of competing newspapers. Preserved posters and cartoons acknowledge that many Argentinians were sympathetic with the Germans. Disney's tour had a very strong pro-American effect. He drew enormous crowds wherever he went. At one of the premieres for Fantasia he was informed that the German envoys had not been invited.
The stay in Brazil seems to have made the strongest impact on the visitors -- an artist writing home described the Brazilian's as a "lusty" people, and the Americans were intoxicated by the music they found. Disney fell in love with the songs of Ary Barroso, especially his "Aquarela do Brasil". It became the centerpiece of the Disney's first "good neighbor" animated film, Saludos Amigos ("Greetings Friends").
Director Thomas engaged a digital effects company to give Walt & El Grupo a very special look, a sort of "super scrapbook" approach. Clips from the feature films inspired by the goodwill trip are used sparingly, and the bulk of the film's non-interview visuals are beautifully designed and executed manipulations of photos and 16mm Kodachrome movies. Events like the rooftop dance reception are so well covered, we feel like we are there. The digital artists confect diorama 3D effects with certain stills. We've seen most of these techniques before but they're used with uncommon good taste and judgment. Pictures morph together, but never for a cheap effect. Moves on the stills always illustrate the points in Theodore Thomas's voiceover script. The last docu that made such impressive use of animated photo collages was The Kid Stays in the Picture. The visuals here are smoother and more fluid, in keeping with the nature of the subject and the music.
The docu follows through on its premise. South Americans go on record with varying opinions about the films inspired by the tour. One interviewee thinks that Disney's spoof of the Gauchos is wonderfully accurate, while other opinions say that not enough of the real character of Argentina and Chile was communicated -- Chile is represented almost exclusively by a plucky mail plane that flies over the Andes. Brazil receives the most memorable treatment, especially in "Aquarela do Brasil", rendered as a magical (and literal) watercolor come to life. Brazil also inspired the fanciful José Carioca character, a parrot who loves the nightlife and a good cigar.
As for Disney, the weeks spent down South rescued him from having to deal with the unionization trauma; when he came back the matter was settled. Barely seven weeks later Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the studio practically became "Fort Disney", a producer of training films and educational entertainment, as well as number of propaganda classics.
We also learn what became of the Disney staff that made the trip. Thomas chronicles one lady artist who found her personal style, the graphic stylization we all know from the Disneyland "It's a Small World" attraction. A number of other talents left Disney for other artistic pursuits. The docu doesn't say so, but the implication is that some of them may have been disenchanted by new labor-management tensions.
Disney's DVD of Walt & El Grupo looks fine, with a high-quality enhanced widescreen encoding. Director Thomas and historian J.B. Kaufman provide more insights on a feature commentary. A "Photos in Motion' featurette focuses on the docu's highly creative visuals. "From the Director's Cut" collects a number of deleted sequences. Also included is the entire short feature Saludos Amigos. This copy differs from Disney's previous release in that the scenes with Goofy as a Texas cowpoke have not been censored to remove a smoking scene. José Carioca's ever-present cigar was never deleted, however. Trailers for Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Walt & El Grupo rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.