Walt & El Grupo (Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures, PG)

film_walt_sm.gifAlthough Walt & El Grupo contains fascinating information, it too often has the feel of a vanity project or extended home movie.








Things weren’t going well for Walt Disney in 1941: Revenues were down sharply due to the war in Europe and the animators had just gone out on strike. So the opportunity to conduct a Good Neighbor Policy tour to Latin America could not have come at a better time. It got Walt away from the studio for a few months and allowed 16 Disney staff members to collect material for new films at government expense. In return for financing the trip, the U.S. government got a chance to spread goodwill through a popular cultural emissary at a time when Germany was trying to attract Latin American countries to the Axis cause.

This episode in Disney history is documented in Walt & El Grupo, directed by Theodore Thomas, whose father Frank was one of the staffers who made the trip. The mission was successful on all counts: It actually did spread good will for the United States in Latin America, it provided material for the Disney films Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944), and with Walt out of the way, the strike was settled quickly by mediation.

Although Walt & El Grupo contains fascinating information, it too often has the feel of a vanity project or extended home movie—and you know how much fun it usually is to sit through other people’s home movies. In addition, Thomas seems determined to present Disney in the most positive light possible, thus robbing the film of any tension which might have given it life.

For instance, although the animator’s strike is mentioned several times, it’s mainly in the context of how terrible it was that nice Uncle Walt had to deal with those ungrateful artists. The fact that the federal mediator brought in to negotiate between the strikers and management found in favor of the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild on every issue somehow got left out of the film, while the director finds time for endless interviews with grandchildren and excerpts from letters which are mostly variations on the theme of "having a great time-wish you were here."

What makes Walt & El Grupo worth seeing is the vast collection of archival materials to which Thomas had access, including many sketches and paintings made by Disney artists during the tour. In case you didn’t realize it already, these guys were really good and could capture the essence of a scene in just a few strokes of the pen or brush. Many were invigorated by their contact with Latin culture (and bear in mind that in 1941 a trip to South America wasn’t even a remote possibility for most people), most notably the artist Mary Blair, who used her experiences to develop a strikingly original style which can be seen in the concept art for several Disney films, including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Cinderella, as well as the "It’s a Small World" attraction for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Thomas includes clips from Saludos Amigos which demonstrate both the undeniable skill and artistry of the Disney team and the studio’s imperialist attitude which treated Latin cultures primarily as backdrop for Disney gags. Chilean cartoonist René Rios Boettiger was so offended by the segment set in Chile that he developed the comic strip Condorito (featuring an anthropomorphic condor) in response. But if you can overlook the unfortunate Disney attitude toward other cultures, there are treasures to be found in Saludos Amigos, most particularly the Brazilian segment ("Aquarela do Brasil"), which is positively stunning.

And that’s true for Walt & El Grupo as well. If you can overlook its worst elements (which include fawning over Walt and spending way too much time cleverly manipulating still photographs and doing "then and now" shots), there are wonderful things to be found therein. | Sarah Boslaugh

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