After five animated classics of sublime complexity and artistry, it is a bit of a cold water treatment to arrive at Saludos Amigos. It doesn’t look, sound, walk, talk, or feel like it exists in the same universe as Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo or Bambi and that’s not necessarily a good thing . The animation in those films were the benchmark of animation as art. Here, for the first time, Walt wasn’t working for himself and that may have contributed to its less-than-stellar effect.
In 1941, after The United States entered World War II he was commissioned by the government to make propaganda films with the goal of boosting home front moral and extending good will among Latin American countries. This meant that any film project that didn’t fit this purpose was put on the back burner. So, for his next two films he would be working for the government and for the next four films that would follow, he would be trying to rekindle shelved projects that he couldn’t turn into features in an effort to keep money flowing into the studio while distribution in Europe was cut off due to the war. That avenue closed, Disney tried to boost distribution from Latin America. Hence, Saludos Amigos.
During the war years the Roosevelt administration created the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs with the goal of advancing cultural diplomacy and solidarity in Latin America. The OCIAA’s Motion Picture Division was closely related with the major Hollywood studios to create films that would incorporate and promote Latin culture. They were employed mostly as an education to the American public so that we could better understand their way of life. This education would play against the public perception of Latin American countries being culturally backwards – most Americans were unaware that countries like Rio had skyscrapers.
The government’s goal was two-fold, outwardly it was to create a simpatico relationship with Latin America, but strategically it was a political maneuver to end the so-called Banana Wars, a series of military campaigns, political interventions and police actions of Latin countries in an effort to further American interests in South America. Roosevelt’s plan was to maintain good standing with our neighbors to the south without interfering with their affairs. The goal was not only establish a relationship with those countries but also to stave off the spread of Nazi influence in this part of the world.
Walt was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, who at the time was Roosevelt’s Assistant Secretary of State for American Republic Affairs, to be a sort-of ambassador to help with this endeavor. During this time he made two films that filled the bill, Saludos Amigos in 1942 and The Three Caballeros two years later. This was not necessarily a grudging task. At the time Walt Disney, and in general most Americans, were fascinated with Latin America. Its influence was all over Hollywood musicals of the period with the region’s ersatz ambassador being Carmen Miranda whose fruity hats, samba dance moves and colorful songs sold Americans on the idea of South America being a place that was nothing short of a tropical paradise. That erroneous, though never-the-less positive, image mostly came from Hollywood and in Saludos Amigos Walt Disney did not go to great lengths to correct it.
His mission was to charter a plane to the Latin American countries for a good will tour of “The ABC countries,” Argentina, Buenos Aries and Chile. Disney had argued that a “handshake tour” was not really something he was comfortable with so he accepted the government subsidy to take himself and his animators down to South America to gather material and make films about those countries. Walt needed this. Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi had sorry box office returns and the studio needed money. With European distribution cut off due to the war, the Latin American distribution would help recoup the studio’s potential losses. Added to that, Disney was dealing with a lingering labor strike at his own studio. Getting out of his office seemed like a good idea.
That’s a hefty load of history to lay on a 42 minute movie.
The problem with all this history is that you kind of have to carry it into the movie with you. Without it the movie feels odd and badly disjointed (actually it feels that way even if you know the history). Saludos Amigos is basically just a mixture of animation and live action footage of Disney and his artists – the ones that hadn’t been drafted – traveling around different countries while the artists draw and paint ideas for cartoons. A narrator introduces us to the traveling Americans but avoids using names – he only identifies them as “artists, musicians and writers setting out for a trip through Latin America to find new personalities, music and dances for their cartoon films.” At one point we see two haughty looking llamas and then we see a sketchpad in which the artist has not only drawn them but given them monocles. They draw landscapes and people and give them the cartoony edges that Disney artists are heir to.
The first section takes place at Lake Titicaca as we meet an American tourist, Donald Duck. Dressed in a pith helmet and a serape, he takes photos of just about everything and enlists a traveling companion when he rents a llama that, naturally, he doesn’t get along with. This is a particular problem when the two approach a rope bridge with crumbling planks over a precipitous drop. The bull-headed llama won’t budge and Donald panics. The narrator reminds him to remain even-tempered to which Donald retorts “Aww shut up!”
The second section takes place in Chile as the artists take to sketching the airport while we get the information that this particular landing strip is important because it is where planes depart to deliver the mail over a particularly difficult route through mountains to the Mendoza province. That leads to our second animated bit, the story of a tiny mail carrier airplane named Pedro, proud product of Mama and Papa plane. When his mother and father are grounded due to technical difficulties, it becomes Pedro’s job to man-up and take this dangerous assignment. This section is a play on the old “Through rain and snow and dark of night” bit. It is fun but, personally, this same idea was done better (and with far more laughs) 10 years later in Tex Avery’s “Little Johnny Jet.”
The third section has the animators in Argentina, fascinated by the South American gaucho – or cowboy – examining the difference between the cowboys of the U.S. and the gauchos of the southern hemisphere. In an effort to examine the difference they find the perfect test subject: Goofy. Suddenly and unceremoniously transplanted from Texas to Argentina, Goofy experiences a culture shock as he learns the customs of frontier life and finds that most of his troubles come from a smart-allecky horse that he’s been saddled with.
This is the only section of the film that I had seen before. The better portions of the film were later chopped up and shown as filler on The Disney Channel. Personally, I could watch “El Gaucho Goofy” all by itself. Goofy has always been my favorite Disney character because, unlike Donald, he seems so undaunted. The animation here is great too, especially a slo-mo sequence in which the narrator tries to show the grace and accuracy of the bolas, but of course it only serves to show what a clumsy oaf he can be even at a reduced speed. Anyone who has ever seen Goofy’s “How to” cartoons will get the idea.
The last section takes place in Rio at the Carnaval. It’s called “Aquerela de Brasil” or “Watercolor of Brazil” and it’s the kind of artistry that I wish was employed by the rest of the movie. A paintbrush paints various things that become other things. For example, the painter paints bananas, then he adds a touch of black and the bananas become Toucans. At one point we think we’re looking at a palm tree and with a slight adjustment from the paintbrush we’re suddenly looking at a bird with enormous plumage. I like that technique, seeing what the animators can create and how their imagination can stretch. There’s a lovely moment when we see a line drawing of a landscape; the paintbrush dabs a little blue and suddenly a waterfall runs through the unfinished picture. This section also incorporates Donald’s tour of Rio de Janeiro by a suave green parrot named Jose Carioca, introducing him to the culture and the local customs like the Samba.
I saw Saludos Amigos for the very first time on the same day that I revisited Bambi for this series and I can tell you that they are as different from one another as night is from day. The watercolor details and beautiful textures of Bambi are visual poetry, but to jump from that film to this is a little jarring. While it is colorful and some of the segments are a lot of fun, I can tell you that something is lacking here. Saludos Amigos feels less like a feature than the stuff I use to watch on The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights when I was a kid. This was my first time seeing the film, I had always heard of it; its on the list of official Disney theatrical animated features but I can’t really reason why. It’s not very long – only 42 minutes (40 minutes is considered a feature) – and it’s a world and a galaxy away from what had come before.
Having watched entire the output of Disney’s animated features from the 1940s – the rest we’ll get to in the weeks to come – there is something of a melancholy feeling particularly when you know that Bambi was essentially the end of an era for Walt. His first film films, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi were great creative and artistic achievements. He wanted to (and did) push the artistic form forward and made it into something more than just slapdash kiddie fare. He saw the potential in the medium. He saw that animated features had the potential to be great art, great storytelling. They had the potential to speak to an audience in a way that live action film never could. His films were put together with loving care, with details both in character and style that really meant something to the development of motion pictures. He wanted to make films that were going to last forever.
After the box office failure of Pinocchio and Fantasia, and with the coming of the Second World War, Walt found that he had to cull his instincts. At the time, animated features were so expensive to produce that financial ruin was due if he continued to try and push the envelope. For the rest of the decade, in films like Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free you could feel the resilience of trying to make films in which the artistic instinct eked around the corners but also trying not to outdo an audience that made it clear that it wasn’t prepared for art.
In examining the history of Disney (the company) it is important to divide it into its two halves – the first is the 43 years in which Disney was the head of his studio. The other is the time from his death in 1966 to the present. Beginning with Saludos Amigos and continuing on basically for the rest of his life, Walt’s output of theatrical features would be dedicated to the “package films” produced during the war, and then the post-war era in which many of his films were dedicated to fairy tales. No film would ever match the texture, the artistry or the craftsmanship of those first five films. Popular entertainment had trumped artistic pursuits and it would show in Disney’s work. That is not to suggest, in any way, that his work was lazy or invalid, its just that something of his early adventurist spirit seemed to have gone out of his work thanks to the business end of the motion picture industry and public taste.
NOW, what does that mean to the film itself? While I admire the intent of Saludos Amigos, I wonder about the film’s legacy. How does it play now to a kid who doesn’t know all the history? Does it stand well on its own? Not really. It’s more interesting than it is entertaining and most who seek it out do so for completion sake, so they can say they’ve seen all the films on the official list of Disney animated features.
To be honest, there isn’t much I can really say about Saludos Amigos beyond its historical properties. Its not deep so I can’t do an in-depth study. It is entertaining enough if you happen to be a Disney completist but it isn’t one that you’re going to want to spend an evening with. You can’t really, not at only 42 minutes. Frankly, I got kind of bored for most of it. Except for the cartoon bits and that watercolor section I kept thinking that this is not a trip I’m going to take again, if ever. It’s an interesting bit of cultural history, but it’s a movie that I find dated and disjointed. Seen through the prism of the times, I understand its purpose but it’s just not something that lingers in my mind.