Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Three Caballeros

The Three Caballeros original theatrical release poster

The war years were proving to be some of the hardest times Walt Disney had faced to date. His staff had been reduced, thanks to both an acrimonious labor strike and from men going off to fight overseas. The lucrative European markets had been closed off to him for years. The company was barely getting by on the strength of its contract work. Disney needed cash but he didn’t have a project ready to go. And even if he had, he didn’t have enough theaters to screen it.

But the government-sponsored goodwill tour of Latin America had opened up a new market for Disney’s work. Saludos Amigos had been a surprise hit, not just in America but south of the border as well. Since it was less than an hour long, Disney still had plenty of leftover live-action footage from the tour. He also had a couple of unfinished cartoon ideas that he could dust off. Walt padded this skeletal framework by focusing on Donald Duck, whose sequences had been the most popular parts of Saludos Amigos, and lo and behold, Disney’s first sorta-kinda sequel was born.

If Saludos Amigos seems like an unusual candidate for a sequel, The Three Caballeros itself is a most unusual sequel. This is one of the strangest movies Walt Disney ever produced. There’s a lot to unpack here, so you may want to get comfortable.

Unlike Saludos Amigos, which presented itself as a fairly straightforward travelogue, The Three Caballeros goes to the trouble of establishing a framing device excuse for its various bits and pieces. Donald’s birthday is coming up (on Friday the 13th…not that anything comes of the bad luck association) and his new friends from Latin America have sent him a bunch of presents! He excitedly tears into the first package and finds a projector and some “home movies”. This flimsy excuse provides the set-up for practically the entire first third of the movie.

These first segments all revolve around a rough theme: “Birds of South America”. First, “Professor” Sterling Holloway, already well on his way to becoming a Disney favorite, introduces us to Pablo, a little penguin who can’t stand the cold. So he contrives a way to leave Antarctica and settle on a tropical island. That’s it. The end. There’s no real story to speak of and the gags are pretty basic but at least the penguins are cute.

Donald’s next movie is all about rare and unique South American birds, including the most unusual of them all, the Aracuan Bird. The Aracuan Bird, who continues to pop up throughout the picture, has more in common with the dodo from the classic Looney Tunes short Porky In Wackyland than with any Disney character. The Aracuan Bird breaks multiple fourth walls, jumping out of Donald’s movie to introduce himself and later strolling right off the edge of the frame of our movie. The appearance of the Aracuan Bird is your first clue that this is not going to be your typical Disney movie.

In the third segment, Fred Shields, another familiar Disney voice thanks to Goofy’s How-To shorts, tells the story of a little boy in Uruguay and his winged, flying donkey, Burrito. They enter a horse race, which they manage to win despite some initial hiccups. The segment ends on an odd, ambiguous note when Burrito flies away, with the little Gauchito dangling from the leash, never to be seen again. It wouldn’t surprise me if this cartoon was cut from Saludos Amigos because they couldn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion. They still couldn’t but I guess it didn’t matter so much anymore.

Donald’s second present is a pop-up book about Brazil sent by, and actually containing, his old amigo, José Carioca. Continuing his work as spokes-parrot for the Brazil Tourism Board, José is here to extol the many pleasures of Bahia (misspelled “Baia” in the film…whoops). The first part of this segment is actually one of the most tranquil and lovely sequences in the movie with a beautiful color palette and a great song. It’s a welcome moment of calm and serenity before the chaos to come.

After repeatedly asking Donald if he’s ever been to Bahia (he has not), José shrinks Donald down and brings him into the world of the pop-up book. After a quick train ride (which is almost derailed by that pesky Aracuan Bird), they arrive in Bahia. Donald immediately falls head over heels in love with a cookie seller played by Aurora Miranda, Carmen’s younger sister.

Yes, some 40 years before the arrival of Howard The Duck, Disney was a pioneer in the field of interspecies romance. Much of the movie’s second half revolves around Donald’s insatiable attraction to human women. There’s nothing remotely subtle about it but I guess you can’t blame a sailor on vacation for wanting to get lucky on his birthday.

Apart from the weird sexual tension between Donald and Aurora Miranda, the Bahia samba sequence is notable for its pioneering mix of live-action and animation. The technology was still developing but there’s something charming about the lo-fi version on display here. For the long shots, they simply projected the finished animation onto a screen and had Miranda dance in front of it. The illusion is far from seamless but it works.

After returning from Bahia, Donald has one present left to open. It contains the third caballero, Panchito Pistoles from Mexico. Panchito bursts into the movie with a rousing rendition of the title song before sharing a piñata and a Mexican Christmas tale called Las Posadas. This is the only Christmassy thing about The Three Caballeros but it was enough for Walt to later justify airing an edited version of the movie on his Disneyland TV series as A Present For Donald. All he had to do was switch the occasion from Donald’s birthday to Christmas and poof! Instant Christmas special.

Title card for the Disneyland episode A Present For Donald

Panchito’s magic serape then whisks the Caballeros off for an aerial tour of live-action Mexico, with special attention paid to its beaches and their lovely señoritas. Donald’s sexual frustration nears its peak here, so when Dora Luz appears singing “You Belong To My Heart,” it’s little wonder than he’s instantly smitten.

Donald’s obsession with Dora Luz takes us into the film’s madcap climax, Donald’s Surreal Reverie. The Disney animators really go for broke here. If some Disney Archivist discovered a missing scene that has Panchito, José and Donald heading into the Mexican desert to drop peyote, it would go a long way toward explaining this non-stop barrage of music, sound, color and visual trickery. There’s some genuinely cutting-edge work here, especially in the combination of animation with live-action. As a technical achievement and as a creative exercise, it’s all very impressive. As an entertainment, it’s more than a little exhausting.

Like all of Disney’s package films, The Three Caballeros is a mixed bag. The various segments sit uncomfortably alongside one another. The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito both play better on their own, which they did when they were re-released as individual short subjects a few years later. And while the character and effects animation are both up to Disney’s usual standards, Walt decided to save money on the backgrounds by essentially eliminating them entirely. Donald opens his presents in a formless void against bright, solid colors. After the lush backgrounds of Bambi, Pinocchio and others, The Three Caballeros feels like a low-rent, no-frills affair.

But the movie’s biggest problem is simply that it’s relentless. It wants to show you a good time so badly that it doesn’t know when to let up. Animators like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery were a lot better at pulling off this kind of sustained wackiness than anybody on the Disney lot. And they were smart enough to realize that audiences couldn’t really take much more than seven minutes of it. The Three Caballeros just won’t quit. It’ll pause occasionally to catch its breath but then it goes right back into the crazy. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Just calm down, Caballeros.

The Three Caballeros did OK business when it was released in February of 1945 (it had premiered in Mexico City the previous December). It received nominations in Disney’s usual Oscar categories (Best Sound and Best Original Score) but it didn’t win anything. Almost none of the songs were completely original compositions, so it failed to grab an Original Song nomination. Even the memorable title song was based on a popular Mexican ranchera song. Only the lyrics by Ray Gilbert were new and they had nothing whatsoever to do with the original words.

But The Three Caballeros proved less popular than Saludos Amigos, which probably explains why the Caballeros didn’t ride again for many years. José Carioca will make one last appearance in this column before long and both he and Panchito Pistoles went on to appear in Disney comics. But the trio effectively disbanded after their maiden adventure until the 21st century.

Recently, Disney has taken to using the Caballeros in shows like House Of Mouse and the current incarnation of DuckTales. In 2007, Disney opened the Gran Fiesta Tour ride at Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion and in 2008, they were added to the refurbished It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland. And in 2018, José, Panchito and Donald finally got their own show, Legend Of The Three Caballeros.

It makes complete sense that Disney would want to revitalize the Caballeros. With the Latino market more important than ever, why on Earth wouldn’t they? It’s not like they have an overabundance of minority characters. José has always remained popular in Brazil. And as a representative of Mexico, you could do a lot worse than Panchito. Just ask Speedy Gonzales.

But the Disney studio has always been hesitant to engage with The Three Caballeros. Its only theatrical reissue was a badly hacked-up version back in the 1970s. They haven’t exactly tried to hide it, like some movies I could mention, but it has never been a priority.

I suspect the reason for this has nothing to do with cultural sensitivity and everything to do with how utterly strange this movie is. In many ways, it’s Disney’s most off-brand release, a madcap, hyper-sexualized romp with nothing on its mind other than fun. That is both its greatest strength and weakness. The Three Caballeros provides a unique, exhilarating rush but it’s really easy to overdose on its manic energy. Use only as directed.

VERDICT: Any Disney movie that leaves you wondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” must be considered some kind of success, so Disney Plus but only just.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Victory Through Air Power

Original theatrical release poster for Victory Through Air Power

World War II affected every single Hollywood studio. But perhaps no one was hit harder than Walt Disney. After the US formally entered the war in December of 1941, Walt put virtually every one of his projects on hold to focus on the war effort. This was not entirely by choice. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Army troops moved into Disney’s Burbank studio, which was strategically close to a Lockheed aircraft plant. The studio remained under military occupation for eight months.

With the Army already enjoying Disney’s hospitality, it was only a matter of time before the armed services and other branches of the government asked Walt to join their propaganda effort. For the Office of War Information, Disney produced animation for Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. He produced short subjects urging citizens to pay their taxes, buy war bonds, and conserve grease. And in 1943, he released his most ambitious wartime effort and one of the most unusual films of his career: a feature-length animated documentary based on a book arguing the theoretical applications of aviation in wartime. Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, doesn’t it?

Surprisingly, Victory Through Air Power was not a government commission. This was all Walt’s idea. Like a lot of people, Walt had read the best-selling book by Major Alexander P. de Seversky and was completely won over by his ideas. Walt felt the book had a message that needed to be heard. He believed in it so much that he financed it personally, fast-tracking the film’s production. When RKO, Disney’s regular distributor, refused to release the decidedly uncommercial project, Walt brokered a deal with United Artists to get it into theaters. RKO’s instincts turned out to be correct. Victory Through Air Power was another money-loser for Walt, although to be fair, he wasn’t really looking to turn a profit on this one in the first place.

The movie starts with the History of Aviation, an entertaining sequence that continued to be screened on its own for years after the rest of the film fell into obscurity. It is astonishing to realize that the Wright Brothers’ first flight had only happened 40 years prior to this movie’s release. Walt himself was actually two years older than the first airplane. That’s a lot of change in a really short time and this sequence does an admirable job condensing it into a fun, easy-to-understand animated short, even as it glosses over and oversimplifies some of its information.

With the background established, it’s time to turn to the themes and ideas in Major de Seversky’s book. And who better to convey those ideas than Major Alexander P. de Seversky himself? In live-action footage helmed by journeyman director H.C. Potter, de Seversky addresses the camera directly, using giant maps and oversized globes to help illustrate his points. The props help a little but the movie unavoidably swerves into sleepy lecture-hall territory whenever de Seversky pops up.

The animation in the second half is somewhat simpler than what had become the norm for Disney, with less detailed backgrounds and more abstraction. But the work is still striking, especially since we’re seeing the Disney style applied to some very atypical subject matter. The Dunkirk sequence is a grim and starkly beautiful standout.

But here’s the thing. Victory Through Air Power is unquestionably an interesting film, especially if you’re a Disney historian, a student of animation or a World War II buff. But “interesting” is not the same as “entertaining”. Even at just 70 minutes, this can be a long sit. Watching someone painstakingly explain strategies and theories from over half a century ago may be fun for some Monday morning quarterbacks but I suspect that most people would rather watch just about anything else.

Victory Through Air Power opened on July 17, 1943, six months after the mini-movie Saludos Amigos. Hardly anybody went to see it but it did at least get in front of people who mattered, like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (although the music categories were essentially participation ribbons at this point) and quietly faded back into the fabled Disney Vault. Disney would not release another feature film until 1945.

But the work the Disney studio produced during these lean years would end up having a lasting impact. His government contracts not only kept the studio afloat, they resulted in some truly innovative and daring short films. Education For Death: The Making Of The Nazi is a radical departure, following a young German boy named Hans as he grows up and is indoctrinated into the party. It’s beautifully animated and one of the most serious, somber films Disney would ever produce.

On the other extreme is one of Disney’s wildest cartoons, the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face. Donald Duck wakes up in “Nutzi Land”, jarred out of bed by a band (whose members include Mussolini, Tojo, Himmler, Goebbels and Göring) playing Oliver Wallace’s memorable title song. Spike Jones and his City Slickers had a big hit with their rendition of the tune. After breakfast (one-bean coffee, a slice of bread-shaped wood, a bacon-and-egg-scented mist) and a little light reading of Mein Kampf, the band hustles Donald off to his job at a munitions plant. The job and the constant “heil”-ing of Hitler sends Donald off the deep end…at which point he wakes up in his own bed (and his own stars-and-stripes pajamas) back in the good old U S of A.

Disney's Donald Duck enters World War II in Der Feurher's Face

Even though the whole thing is just a dream, it’s more than a little jarring to hear the words “Heil Hitler” coming out of Donald’s beak. Of course, that was the whole point. Donald Duck became Disney’s go-to wartime character, even doing a hitch in the Army in a whole series of cartoons. But Der Fuehrer’s Face stands out as one of Disney’s most effective and entertaining pieces of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Perhaps the most important legacy of films like Victory Through Air Power was the discovery of a new source of income for the studio: educational films. In the years that followed, Disney and his team would produce dozens of short films for use in schools. Some would use familiar characters like Donald Duck and Jiminy Cricket. Others would be more straight-forward, on topics ranging from The ABC Of Hand Tools to The Story Of Menstruation.

Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother and business partner, had also learned a valuable lesson from movies like Saludos Amigos and Victory Through Air Power. Live-action sequences were a lot cheaper to produce than fully animated features. At his urging, the studio would start incorporating a lot more live-action footage into its features moving forward.

VERDICT: It’s certainly not without interest but for most people, Victory Through Air Power is far too specialized and frankly dull to be considered anything other than a Disney Minus.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Saludos Amigos

Original theatrical release poster

If there’s one word the Disney Marketing Department loves to toss around, it’s “timeless”. Not without some justification, of course. So far, this column has looked at six films made around 80 years ago. All but one of them has continued to enchant and delight audiences around the world to this day.

During this time period, Walt only seemed to know how to make two kinds of movies: timeless classics and hyper-specific oddities that make almost no sense when you take them out of context. Falling squarely into the latter category are such films as The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos.

The backstory of Saludos Amigos is almost more interesting than the movie itself (in fact, it’s the subject of its own Disney-produced documentary, Walt & El Grupo). In 1941, Disney was in a bit of financial trouble. Walt had opened an expensive new studio in Burbank, his features were struggling at the box office, and his animators had gone on strike. So when Nelson Rockefeller, President Roosevelt’s newly appointed Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, called to commission a feature, Walt wasn’t exactly in a position to say no.

Rockefeller was on a diplomatic mission, strengthening ties between the US and our Latin American neighbors and counteracting the Axis propaganda that had been flooding these countries during the early days of World War II. To do this, Rockefeller met with a number of celebrities and artists, appointing them Goodwill Ambassadors and sending them off on cultural tours of Latin America. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters went on tour and recorded Latin music with Xavier Cugat. Orson Welles hosted the radio show Hello Americans and started work on the film It’s All True. And Walt Disney assembled a team of artists and musicians to sketch their way through Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. But unlike Welles, Walt was able to finish his movie.

It probably didn’t hurt that Walt’s movie really stretches the definition of what’s considered a feature film. At just 42 minutes, Saludos Amigos makes Dumbo look like Lawrence Of Arabia. Watching it today, it’s hard to believe that it actually played in cinemas on its own. I can’t imagine most audiences left the theater feeling like they got their money’s worth. It almost feels like an extended teaser for some other movie. Live-action footage introduces the premise that Walt Disney and his team are traveling south of the border to do research for an upcoming picture. The movie’s almost over before you realize that this is that picture.

The live-action footage continues throughout, linking four new animated segments. This wasn’t really Disney’s first “package” film. Prior to the release of Snow White, Disney had strung together five Silly Symphonies and released the compilation to theaters under the snappy title Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons. Fantasia had been a highly prestigious package film and The Reluctant Dragon had padded out its animated scraps with extensive live-action footage. But in the years to come, Disney would rely more and more on package films like this one to keep the doors open. They were cheaper, they were faster, and they could be easily chopped up and sold for parts.

Saludos Amigos kicks off with tourist Donald Duck exploring Lake Titicaca and having some trouble crossing a suspension bridge with a llama. Next, we meet the young Chilean airplane Pedro. Disney would essentially revisit this concept some 70 years later in the Cars spinoff Planes. Goofy, always a welcome presence, shows up in the third segment to demonstrate the ways of the Argentinean gaucho. Finally, Donald reappears to help introduce another new character, the Brazilian parrot José Carioca.

José “Joe” Carioca (voiced by Brazilian musician José Oliveira) was positioned as the breakout star of Saludos Amigos. His segment is certainly the most exciting, both visually, breaking the fourth wall of animation by having the animator’s paintbrush creating backgrounds around the two birds, and musically.

The song, “Aquarela do Brasil”, had been around for a few years but didn’t become a hit until Oliveira performed it here. Today, of course, everyone knows it as simply “Brazil” and it’s one of the most instantly recognizable samba songs ever recorded.

Saludos Amigos soundtrack album

José Carioca did in fact become a beloved, heavily merchandized star in Brazil but he never quite took off here in the US. Though that wasn’t for lack of trying on Disney’s part. We’ll see José in this column again soon.

Saludos Amigos isn’t really a bad movie. It’s far too slight and inconsequential for that. In fact, it’s barely a movie at all. Unlike some of Disney’s other package films, the segments here are extremely forgettable. Pedro is a little wisp of a cartoon and El Gaucho Goofy is far from the Goof’s funniest showcase. Donald fares slightly better. It’s always fun to see him in obnoxious tourist mode and the musical and visual flair of the finale ends things on a high note. But the whole thing’s over before you’ve even finished your popcorn.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Saludos Amigos is that the damn thing worked. There was no way the movie was not going to make money. The whole project had been bankrolled by the government and guaranteed with federal loans. But audiences actually turned up for this mini-movie. For many Americans, this was their first exposure to South American culture and they liked what they saw. More importantly, they liked what they heard. Latin American music became the hot new sound and its popularity continued to explode throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Saludos Amigos was even nominated for three Academy Awards, albeit in the traditionally overstuffed categories of Best Sound, Best Original Song and Best Original Score (Musical). Still, that’s the same number of nominations as Bambi. The movie’s best songs, “Brazil” and “Tico Tico”, weren’t original, so that left the title tune to compete in the Best Original Song category. It didn’t win any of the awards it was up for. But the fact that the Academy even recognized this as a feature and not a short subject is fairly impressive.

At best, Saludos Amigos was a minor success. It certainly wasn’t a dream project for Walt or anyone else at the studio. But Walt needed something to stay afloat. If that turned out to be a government-sponsored piece of South American boosterism, so be it. By turning his talents to propaganda, Walt would make it through World War II.

VERDICT: Disney Minus seems a little harsh, so let’s call it a Disney Neutral.