January 10, 2013

Video Vault: The Three Caballeros

The following article originally appeared on ScreenInvasion.com:  

The film that I am looking forward to the Blu-Ray release of most has got to be Disney’s The Three Caballeros (1945). During childhood it was a frequent VHS rental from my local Video Vault and remains one of my all-time favorite animated features.   Unfortunately, I do not think the film has ever received the appreciation and recognition it deserves.    The Three Caballeros is the second of two features that were the direct result of Walt Disney’s goodwill tour of Latin America in 1941, pre-Pearl Harbor.  As part of the Good Neighbor Policy, the United States Department of State sent Mr. Disney and a team of 20 of his artists to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Peru as goodwill ambassadors with the goal of swaying Latin American governments away from Nazi Germany’s influence.  The Disney characters were very popular in Latin America at the time. The ultimate goal of this trip was to produce a film that represented Latin American culture and strengthen ties with the United States.  The details of this government-sponsored vacation are fascinatingly chronicled in the documentary Walt and El Grupo (2008).  Unfortunately, Disney’s first attempt Saludos Amigos (1943), though popular enough at the time, would not be what I would call…a good movie.  The Three Caballeros, on the other hand, is an immensely entertaining musical journey though Latin America and a significant achievement in animation history.

The Three Caballeros, combining animation and live-action, is split up into 7 distinct segments ranging from narrative to the surreal and are connected through a frame story involving Donald Duck opening presents “from his friends in Latin America” on his birthday.  He is joined by the smooth, cigar-smoking, samba-dancing Brazilian parrot, Jose Carioca, and a manic gun-toting rooster, Panchito Pistoles.  Several Latin American stars of the time also appear in the film.  Sterling Halloway, voice of Winnie the Pooh and The Cheshire Cat, narrates a particularly comical segment about a penguin that journeys to the Galapagos from the South Pole for a warmer climate. The film brims with lively music based on traditional and popular songs of the time from south of the border.  The fully packed 72-minute running time unfolds like a finely crafted music album – exciting climactic emotional peaks interspaced with beautiful, reflective interludes.

When reflecting upon The Three Caballeros there are two sections that stand out as being particularly memorable.  The first segment, “Las Posadas,” tells the story of the Mexican Christmas tradition of children reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for a room in Bethlehem.  Accompanied with a lovely choral score, the tale is told truth a sequence of beautiful Mary Blair paintings, the only animated portion on which are candle flames.  Mary Blair is the famous artist who designed the classic Disney attraction It’s a Small World and whose concept art was the main influence for the looks of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Cinderella.  Blair was an unknown working for Walt Disney at the time she was invited to join him on the goodwill tour of Latin America, but her signature style was developed during the trip.  While her influence is seen throughout many Disney features, The Three Caballeros perhaps bears her most prominent fingerprints, and this section is the most blatantly Blair.  Her vibrant colors, abstract backgrounds, and sweet child characterizations bring the tradition of Las Posadas to life perfectly.  Also of note is a fantastic transitional sequence in which Donald takes a train to Baia, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, which is signature Blair-style animation.

Donald’s infatuation with many live-action Latin beauties throughout his cultural journey culminates in the film’s psychedelic finale called “Donald’s Surreal Reverie,” the pinnacle of several abstract musical sequences in the film.  Donald becomes drunk on love and is immersed in a “Pink Elephants on Parade”-esque extravaganza of flowers, dancing cacti, and live-action Mexican women.  It is an incendiary animated experience unlike any other.  The film concludes with Jose and Panchito blasting Donald away on firecrackers in the shape of a bull.

While I personally find Disney’s earlier episodic musical feature, Fantasia, tedious at times, The Three Caballeros is an exhilarating dance on a flying sarape through the music and culture of Latin America.  It is pure entertainment and gorgeous animation. Any missteps taken in the production of Saludos Amigos were surely made up for with this joyous triumph of sight and sound.  Also, I’m fairly certain this movie is the reason we won the war.  Go check this out if you are not already a fan so we can petition Disney to pull this fiesta out of the vault and onto the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray release it deserves.

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