Sunday, December 12, 2010

Walt & El Grupo

This is an excellent documentary chronicling the three month tour of South America by Walt Disney and assorted artists at the request of the U.S. State Department. With World War II already underway in Europe in 1941, the State Department was concerned that South America might align itself with the Axis powers, giving the Axis military bases on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Their response, when the U.S. was still officially a neutral country, was to send cultural celebrities such as Disney (and, separately, Orson Welles) to South America to promote ties between North and South America.

This documentary, now on DVD, is written and directed by Ted Thomas, the son of Disney animator Frank Thomas who was one of the artists on the trip. Other participants included Lee and Mary Blair, Jim Bodrero, Herb Ryman, Ted Sears and Norm Ferguson. As all of the participants have passed away, the documentary relies on the memories of spouses, children and grandchildren who have often saved letters from the trip and read from them. Animation historians John Canemaker and J.B. Kaufman add their perspectives.

I have to say that I prefer this documentary to Waking Sleeping Beauty. The time period of Walt & El Grupo was a complex one, affected by both world and studio politics. In addition to the threat of war, the trip coincided with the famous strike at Disney and one incentive for Disney's participation was to get away from the studio so that less emotionally involved parties might work out a settlement. Beyond politics, the film is also good at focusing on the artists. We learn of their backgrounds and their contributions to the expedition while seeing examples of the art created during the trip. In this regard, the film is better balanced than Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Ted Thomas traveled to the places visited by the group, interviewing surviving participants or their descendants, showing newspaper clippings and movie footage of the time. The trip was well documented, both by the participants and by the local media, so Thomas has a wealth of material to work with.

The documentary does reveal that certain live action scenes of the trip used in Saludos Amigos were taken back in Burbank when the editors needed bridging material. (And if my eye doesn't deceive me, they were shot in 35mm where the actual footage was shot in 16mm.) The original release of Saludos Amigos is included as an extra. It's "original" in that it includes footage of Goofy smoking cigarettes, something deleted from later releases in order to protect children.

The film has a very large cast and if I have any criticism it's that I wish people were repeatedly identified. Seeing so many adult children of the group, it is easy to forget who they are relatives of. I also wish that more of the artwork produced on the trip was identified by artist where possible.

Walt & El Grupo does a good job of capturing a time and place in both world and Disney history. It's a pleasure to spend time with the artists and to see the magnitude of Walt Disney's popularity at the time.

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