Sunday, December 25, 2011

Three’s A Charmer: Disney’s “The Three Caballeros”

Disney’s Seventh Animated Feature – 1944
Having seen The Three Caballeros as a child, a college student, and a fully-grown adult, I can confirm that it has more layers than you may think it does. For the kids, it’s got simple, silly visual humor and music that will get their little feet moving; for adolescents, it’s just weird enough to get them texting “LOL” and “WTF” to their friends on the other side of the room. Now that I’m a grownup (and an artist/educator to boot), I see that the folks at Disney managed to make a mostly respectful, informative celebration of Latin American culture that’s a lot more engaging than that description makes it out to be.

Disney’s previous foray into pro-South American propaganda, Saludos Amigos, didn’t even bother to disguise its purpose, including documentary footage of Walt and his animators touring Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil. For the second installment, the Disney team is gone and we are allowed simply to enjoy the film as entertainment. How much you enjoy it depends greatly on your level of tolerance for Donald Duck (and how well you can understand him). Personally, I’m on Team Donald, so it’s a pleasure for me to watch him learn eagerly about the birds of South America, flirt with singer Aurora Miranda (Carmen’s sister), and attempt the traditional dances of Mexico.

The two other caballeros (Spanish for “gentlemen”) are Joe Carioca, the dandy, cigar-smoking Brazilian parrot introduced in Saludos Amigos, and Panchito, a Mexican rooster who had previously appeared in Disney’s comic book series. Both arrive in the film via post, in a box full of presents sent to Donald for his birthday. This should give you a sense of the playfulness of the narrative (if a narrative can even be said to exist); at various points in the movie, the characters step in and out of the pages of books, travel by flying serape, and interact with live-action humans. At first, Donald is enchanted by the unique and beautiful sights and sounds of Latin America, but eventually, all he’s doing is trying to score with gorgeous (human) babes. Finally, he becomes so intoxicated with longing that he (or is it we?) begins to hallucinate, leading to a final sequence that makes you wonder whether the animators had been experimenting with peyote.

Of course, by modern standards, all this skirt chasing is extremely tame (check out the full-coverage swimsuits on those healthy-looking girls in Acapulco). Besides, the film does have its educational elements. A vignette about a penguin seeking a warmer climate than Antarctica doubles as a geography lesson, as we watch the little guy sailing up the South American coast on an ice floe; and when Donald’s birthday box reveals a piñata, Panchito explains how the children’s party game is connected to Mexican Christmas traditions (did you know that? I didn’t!). A surprising amount of Panchito and Carioca’s Spanish and Portuguese dialogue is left un-translated, the animators clearly depending on the visuals to tell the story when the language doesn’t. Because of this, bilingual children would experience the movie in a special way.

Considering how long ago The Three Caballeros was made, the cringe factor is amazingly low. It goes without saying that there are no black people in Disney’s 1944 version of Brazil, but at least Aurora Miranda is actually Brazilian. Panchito’s slap-happy gunplay might make 21st-century parents uncomfortable, either because it seems to perpetuate Mexican stereotypes or simply because gun violence is a sensitive topic; however, it’s important to remember that the American cowboy is, essentially, a variation on the Spanish vaquero tradition, which flourished in northern Mexico. Fortunately, the guns are put away fairly quickly, and Panchito shows his companions a wide-ranging travelogue of his country, from the ranches to the beaches to the urban vistas of Mexico City.

If kids learn a little something about the Galapagos Islands or the Straits of Magellan while watching The Three Caballeros, that’s a plus. However, what will most likely stick with them after it’s over (in an economical 72 minutes) are the antics of the caballeros themselves, particularly the title song, performed in a sequence that strays slightly into Looney Tunes territory. Entertaining for kids, amusing for adults, and refreshingly free of irony: this is what cartoons used to be, and what Three Caballeros provides for us on DVD today.

Regina Robbins is a theater and film artist. She has worked with several New York City stage companies, including Manhattan Theatre Source, the Looking Glass Theatre, UTC #61, and the Directors Company, and her films have been screened at venues in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Chicago, Asheville, and NYC. She also teaches kids how to write and perform, and is a four-time champion on the game show Jeopardy!

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