Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Disney’s “Saludos Amigos”

Disney's Sixth Animated Feature - 1942
The year was 1941, before our entry into WWII, and the Department of State commissioned a goodwill tour of South America for Walt Disney and his creative team. Already popular in Latin America, Disney seemed a good choice to counteract the Nazi ties forming with several Latin American governments.

The resulting film was 1942s Saludos Amigos, or Hello, Friends. It was the first Disney “package film” made up of a series of shorts. The film includes documentary footage of modern Latin American cities with skyscrapers and fashionably dressed residents that contributed to a changing impression of Latin America. Film historian Alfred Charles Richard, Jr. commented that Saludos Amigos “did more to cement a community of interest between peoples of the Americas in a few months than the State Department had in fifty years.” We also get to see Walt Disney himself, cigarette in hand, con-fabbing with Latin American artists. You’d never suspect that back in the U.S., Disney was struggling with labor unrest, including a strike that was underway at the time the goodwill journey began.

A voiceover narration attempts to illuminate the Disney team’s creative process from inspiration to sketch to finished animated product. All but one of the shorts features the immensely popular characters Donald Duck or Goofy. Donald visits Lake Titicaca and meets some locals, including a small boy who controls his llama with his flute. This inspires the requisite jitterbug and pop culture jokes. Likewise, the sequence where cowboy Goofy is transformed into an Argentinean gaucho is peppered with jokes that had whiskers on them in 1943.

In the short Pedro, a tiny “little boy” airplane from Chile makes a hazardous mail run because his “parents” are incapacitated. The film has little to do with Latin culture and the Chilean backdrop seems grafted onto the story. Annoyed at this, cartoonist René Ríos Boettiger (Pepo) was inspired to start one of the most famous Latin American comic magazines, Condorito, in part because of his disappointment with Pedro as the image that the outside world had of Chile.

The film does feature some wonderful music, including the song “Aquarela do Brasil,” written by Ary Barroso and performed by Aloysio De Oliveira and an instrumental version of “Tico-Tico no Fubá,” written by Zequinha de Abreu. “Aquarela do Brasil” did not achieve much success when it was released in 1939, but after appearing in this film, it became an international hit. It was the first Brazilian song to be played over a million times on American radio.

The film introduced the animated parrot Joe Carioca voiced by José Oliveria (Zezinho). He star-trips Donald Duck and promises to show him “the land of the samba” in what is the best segment of the film. Donald drinks and gets a little tipsy. The artist dips his brush in the liquor and paints musicians and instruments in appropriately hot colors as Donald dances. Flamingoes dance and orchids sing back-up as a bunch of bananas morphs into a bunch of toucan beaks. What the Disney team attempted to do for classical music in Fantasia, they succeeded in doing for Brazilian music in Saludos Amigos, and the modern music video was born.

Joe Carioca was popular enough to come back (with his pal Donald) in the film, The Three Caballeros, which we will examine here soon. Ultimately, Saludos Amigos is outdated as travelogue and not terribly scintillating as animation. We see the artists’ inspirations and their sketches, but it all seems a bit self-congratulatory for what is ultimately the least compelling Disney feature to date. A more complicated and involving narrative could have been a better route to creating a film worth seeing year in, year out. There simply wasn’t an engaging story here, and the product suffers for it. But oh, that music.

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