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Disney Sundays: Saludos Amigos (1942)


                It’s necessary to give some context before diving into these next six films. Disney gave a lot of money to the war effort once America entered and so the budget for features was severely reduced. They had to make concessions after all for many animators fighting overseas, and so they could produce those wonderful propaganda films where Donald Duck fights Hitler and so forth. So during this period and in the immediate post-war years (due to the length it takes to produce an animated film), Disney’s releases consisted of ‘package films’ –collections of shorts or segments with a smaller budget and generally less story. The first couple of these had specific geo-political aims, a few of them incorporated a lot of musical segments in a manner similar to Fantasia, and some even included live-action content.
                With that said, Saludos Amigos is the first of them and a pretty clear propaganda film to promote tourism to South America and keep South American nations from siding with the Nazis. But in that, promoting a rich continent many Americans didn’t often consider isn’t a bad thing. And the film works hard to appeal to both cultures by basking in one and sharing with the other.
                The film presents us four segments set in different parts of Latin America showcasing different avenues of the local culture through animated shorts. And they’re interspersed with transitions of footage chronicling the animators including Disney himself, taking in the people and places. And whatever else, it’s fascinating seeing this artistic process, including the actual sketching of characters and sites.
                So I’m going to break this down by each segment and how they fare out individually. The first segment is pretty much a travelogue of Donald Duck’s vacation to Lake Titicaca (stop laughing!), Donald Duck being a popular character in that part of the world. He takes in and reacts to the sights, befriends a musical child and meets other locals, then goes mountain climbing in the Andes on a llama. It’s about what you’d expect. Donald is excited by everything he sees and has some comical mishaps along the way. The narrator gives a significant description of the kind of boat he’s in before he sinks in it. And there’s a funny sequence when he’s climbing the mountain with his llama and a rope bridge begins to fall apart. I love the animation on this sequence which is comically energized yet graceful at the same time. Both Donald and the llama are pretty expressive but I wonder if the scene may have failed to attract people to the mountains around Peru. I certainly never want to go mountain climbing in the Andes if those kind of rope bridges aren’t recalled. It has some dull but necessary exposition and is generally a nice light-hearted romp and Donald Duck’s debut in a Disney movie.
                “Pedro” has more of a narrative and follows a young anthropomorphic airplane in Santiago, Chile who has to prematurely take over for his ill father in picking up the air mail from Mendoza, Argentina. He has a mother plane but I guess she can’t get the mail because…she’s female… Nevertheless the story is actually pretty cute and still probably better than Disney’s dumb Planes movies. The little plane Pedro has a bit of a tense adventure in his flight. He has to avoid a storm around Aconcagua the highest mountain in South America, and the characterization of the mountain with a grim but unmoving face is pretty good. The story actually manages to heighten tensions. Not too much mind for such a light-hearted story, but about on par with the “Little April Showers” sequence in Bambi. The narrator gets really into it, almost too much so, but it makes the whole story feel like one of those old radio plays where the narration had to be exhilarating enough to make up for lack of visuals. But his exclamations of “good job Pedro!” “Oh no!” and the like still may get an unintentional laugh. It has a deus ex machina ending which I’m not a fan of, but did go out with a little joke about the important mail that most would react to with more anger than Pedro, and that was fine. A cute short that may be the least connected of these segments but enjoyable. Kids will like it more than adults but there’s stuff there for the grown-ups to appreciate.
Then we get a segment with Goofy which of course doesn’t disappoint. He starts out as a sheriff in the American west who through the power of movies is whisked to the Argentine pampas (the plains) where he becomes a local gaucho and takes in the life of the Latin American lawman. Like the Donald Duck segment it’s more the comedy and culture that drive this sequence rather than plot. But since it’s starring Goofy we get some pretty good comedy. I particularly like the nice bit where they go into detail of the names for all the individual gaucho articles of clothing and then cover it all with a poncho. And the interactions between Goofy and his horse were pretty funny too. Again the comedy is pretty graceful while still being funny and we get some good slapstick. The only problem is there’s maybe too little substance. There isn’t a lot of direction and it’s not as memorable as it could be. But in this it feels closer to the earlier Disney shorts. And hey we do get to see Goofy sing in Spanish and dance with a cross-dressing horse. How often do you see that?
                Finally we get to my favourite segment called “Aquarela do Brasil” (Watercolor of Brazil). The entire scenery is painted in watercolor before our eyes and includes some really interesting animation. Objects and vegetation turn into animals and other things making it impressive to watch. Eventually Donald Duck is concocted out of this world. To accompany him, the artist creates a new character Jose Carioca a classy looking Brazilian parrot who befriends Donald and introduces him to the environment in and around Rio de Janeiro. In this Donald becomes the audience surrogate with Jose as his guide and they learn to dance the samba. The watercolor is fantastic both as its rendered and just in the background. Rio by night even as little more than painting looks glorious here. The bit is also accompanied by some good local music that gets you into the Latin American spirit. And I’m very fascinated by Jose Carioca. As a kid I remember a toy of him as part of some Golden Age Disney reissue and his design always interested me as well as the fact that he was a Disney character I’d never seen. Jose Carioca smokes a cigar and dresses very distinctly compared to other Disney characters. He’s set up here to be something of the South American equivalent of Donald only less funny. And he is at times incomprehensible. But for his distinct visual design and how well he works as Donald’s foil, I like him.
Saludos Amigos is a charming goodwill message to South America by Disney and while very different from conventional Disney films, is an insightful glimpse of a continent many Americans at the time were unfamiliar with. At about forty-five minutes, Saludos Amigos is very short. But despite this, it’s paced fairly well due to how the documentary transitions seamlessly move the film on from short to short. I admire how culturally educational it is, being a better interpretation of another culture than some later Disney films would be.  The research done was accurate and articulate emphasizing the time that went into producing the film and I admire how much effort is put into relating the culture to Americans. In that, it’s sort of an elementary Spanish Humanities lesson with some funny and attractive visuals. It’s probably not a film you’d see more than once, but if you’re curious I’d definitely recommend checking it out. It’s not that memorable and doesn’t quite hold up, but as far as experiments go and given what Disney could have just churned out, it’s okay, and certainly worth watching if you want to be entertained while learning about some fascinating culture.

Next Week: The Three Caballeros (1944)

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