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Disney Sundays: The Three Caballeros (1944)

After Saludos Amigos went over surprisingly well, a follow-up was made. The Three Caballeros keeps some focus on Latin America but also delves into Hispanic and Mexican culture. Though unlike its’ predecessor, this film focuses on the characters, the music and comedy more than the cultural appreciation. This results in the film being funnier and more entertaining in some places, where in others …it shows us cactuses turning into awkwardly dancing women?
Unlike Saludos Amigos, this film actually has a framing device. It’s Donald Duck’s birthday and he’s opening presents from his friends in Latin America. First is a film reel through which we watch a couple shorts similar to the segments of the last film.
One’s a pretty cute story about a penguin called Pablo who wants to leave the Antarctic for the warm tropics of the Galapagos. He tries many times before successfully shipping off and sailing around the southern coasts of South America. It’s pretty nicely animated, has some lovely looking visuals and is even funny in an almost Warner Brothers way at times. It’s narrated by Sterling Holloway whose voice perfectly lends itself to the homely little narrative.
The next short is about a little Uruguayan boy, narrated by him from the future leading to an odd continuity error at its end; who captures and befriends a flying donkey (thankfully not voiced by Eddie Murphy) who he names Burrito. It’s sort of like the Pedro story from Saludos Amigos in construction, though not as quirky or tense. This narrator also gets a little too into it but I like that his unreliability leads to a few good visual gags. It’s okay, but not great.
After these shorts though the film starts on more of a continuous narrative when Donald is visited by Jose Carioca who shows him some more of Brazil, before the two are joined by the wild gun-toting rooster Panchito Pistoles and become the Three Caballeros (no, not played by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase) as they tour his homeland of Mexico interacting with live-action people and scenes.
And that’s by far the weakest part of The Three Caballeros. This is Disney’s first film to have hybrid scenes between animation and live-action and it’s far from perfected. Mary Poppins and Roger Rabbit this is not. The characters’ texture changes noticeably when the live-action extras appear on screen, and particularly in the Baia segment where they’re accompanied by Aurora Miranda (you may have heard of her sister Carmen) and spend most of the time doing the Samba, they can never transition from behind to the forefront. Now these were still early days of animation so I understand the limits, but it really doesn’t age well. The scenery even looks a lot more like paper when the real people are in front of it, there’s clearly no weight when Miranda lifts up Donald, and with virtually no three dimensional attributes to their characters, the animation feels very fake. We get this same problem in reverse when the animated characters enter the live-action world, though it looks slightly better with our main trio being the only things superimposed. A lot of the animation budget I imagine went into the closing sequence, so I feel that some of that effort ought to have been used for touch ups here.
Alternatively the best part of the film outside of the two shorts which just wind up being disjointed by the end, are the interactions between Donald, Jose, and Panchito. Jose is still a good foil for Donald and actually shows here he’s capable of a couple moments of comedy on his own. Panchito though at times little more than a stereotype, brings a spontaneity that’s actually fairly welcome. The title song, which features mostly reaction to Panchito’s arrival, is really energetic and fun with again some great physical comedy that reminds me of Roadrunner cartoons and is probably my favourite part of the movie. However for a film called The Three Caballeros we don’t actually get a lot of their personalities bouncing off each other, which is a shame as that could prove very enjoyable. In fact, they’re not even together for most of the film, Panchito’s arrival not being until after the halfway point with mostly a focus on Donald. And yeah Donald in this movie…he’s creepy. He starts off fine, his responses to the shorts and Jose being very in character. But once he starts interacting with the human characters he goes full Pepe Le Pew. But at least Pepe thought he was chasing another skunk. Donald goes after quite lustfully human girls on a beach in an awkward display. This could work if the comedy was on spot but most of the time it isn’t, and is just …indecent (he even calls one of them “tuts”, not cool Donald). Those women he’s chasing are charmed as they would be I guess if a cartoon duck was chasing them, but they all seem out of it too. Most of the human extras don’t really seem to know what they’re doing. But in that, they can join the animators.
I’m not sure why the animators on this movie wanted to replicate “Pink Elephants on Parade” apart from the fact that it was just so weird and fun on a surreal level. Some singer Donald’s fallen for is singing “You Belong to My Heart” and it starts off fine with a reverie that feels like a psychedelic daydream, but eventually gets interrupted by weirdness when cacti start turning into people, the singer’s face unflatteringly shows up in a flower, Jose and Panchito show up at inopportune times (including one insane bit where theirs and Donald’s faces are superimposed over line dancers). It’s all kinds of weird and makes you wonder just how high the animators at Disney get. The problem here though is that it’s just weirdness and not fun. “Pink Elephants” is a wonderful acid trip of a scene that though nonsensical, delivers some really interesting visuals that you can’t take your eyes off of. This bit’s just not as engaging and doesn’t have a place in the story either. At least in Dumbo it was in the context of drunken hallucinations. It just kind of appears here with no purpose, no outstanding visuals, and just manages to be strangeness and nothing else.
All that said there are some redeeming qualities. Panchito does educate Donald and the viewers on the history of the Mexican flag and tells a very nice story about the origin of Las Posadas with some wonderful artwork and coincidentally a Christmas theme (Merry Christmas everybody!). There’s also a little short early on about birds of South America which is fun, and introduces the mischievous Aracuan bird who pops up throughout to cause trouble and sing an annoying song. His eccentricity also reminds me of the Looney Tunes and his bits are very colourful. The music overall is still that nice blend of other cultures, both Brazilian and Mexican. Also we get to see Donald Duck use black magic. How often does that happen?
But the awkwardness of the live action hybridization, the uninteresting and weird final segment, and Donald’s lothario addictive behaviour brings The Three Caballeros down. Compared to Saludos Amigos, it educates very little about other cultures, and feels more like a vehicle for Donald Duck. It’s unfortunate because I genuinely like this trio for their physical, geographical, and comedic contrasts, but this film didn’t take advantage of them enough. I enjoyed the first two segments but they’re really disconnected from the rest, and maybe it should have gone the full package film route of Saludos Amigos and the films to come. It’s got some interesting bits, but for the most part is unmemorable and dated; and if you want to see three happy chappies in snappy sarapes, I’d recommend The Three Amigos.

Next Week: Make Mine Music (1946)        

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