In 1941, while Walt Disney was dealing with an animator’s strike, the U.S. government requested he serve as a cultural ambassador and make films about South America in an effort to court the continent’s favor before Nazi Germany did. After financial guarantees for the projects were secured from the government, Walt took a team of writers and artists with him to explore what Argentina, Brazil, and Chile had to offer.
That trip is now documented in writer/director Theodore Thomas’ Walt & El Grupo, which plays like a home movie, which it essentially is as Theodore’s father Frank was one of the Disney animators who made the trip to South America, and some children of other attendees are interviewed to provide their perspectives, including Walt’s daughter Diane.
Theodore makes great use of his resources. The film is filled with archival material from the trip such as photos, films, and letters home. The best material is archival audio interviews of Walt himself.
The DVD contains Bonus Features. There is an informative commentary track by Theodore and film historian J.B. Kaufman, who wrote South of the Border with Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948, helps explain the history behind what’s on screen. “Photos In Motion” (3 min) shows how photos taken from the trip were incorporated into the film, “From the Director’s Cut” presents three deleted scenes (8 min), and the Original Theatrical Trailers for Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are available.
Saludos Amigos (42 min) is the first film that came out of the Latin America tour. It is a combination of live-action location footage and four animated shorts. Donald Duck visits “Lake Titicaca” in the Andes. “Pedro” is a small Chilean airplane on his first assignment to pick up mail. Argentina is represented by “El Gaucho Goofy” and completists will be happy to know the film appears as originally released with the scene of Goofy smoking a cigarette. Donald returns in “Aquarela do Brasil” which features the debut of José Carioca, a parrot, who shows Donald around the continent. The duo would reteam in 1945 as two of The Three Caballeros.
Walt & El Grupo is a great bit of Disney history, although its limited focus may only appeal to the most committed fans of the studio.