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The story behind how Saludos Amigos came into existence is far, far more interesting than the actual film itself. In 1941, before America’s entry into World War 2, the US State Department approached Disney and said “Sure, you’re good at making funny animal cartoons. But are you ready to make funny animal cartoons for your country?”
To understand why, you have to appreciate the complex network of intercontinental diplomatic relationships of the early nineteen forties. It sort of went like this.
I kid, but, yeah. That was pretty much it. Not the bits with Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe, obviously. I’m just aware that we’re going to be moving to the Post-War movies soon and I just gotta milk that guy for all he’s worth while I still have the chance. But the US was genuinely concerned about the close ties between Nazi Germany and many Latin American nations. In fact, American fears of German/Latin American canoodling dated back to the first world war, when an attempted alliance between Germany and Mexico actually spurred America to join the Allies.
Anyway, the worry of Nazis getting all up in America’s grill prompted President Roosevelt (a man well known for his zero tolerance of grill Nazis) to create the “Good Neighbor” policy. In his own words:
“I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor, the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others, the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.”
A big theme of the Good Neighbor policy was a de-emphasis on hard power (American troops were withdrawn from Haiti and Nicaragua), and a big push on soft power, using America’s cultural clout to win over a hostile region. Which was why, in the early months of 1941, Disney was asked if he would like to take a load of animators and musicians and go on an all expenses paid trip to make a movie extolling the wonders of South America. Not surprisingly, Walt was only too happy to get out of the country what with everything that was going on in the studio at the time.
And that’s how Saludos Amigos came to be. Is it a bad movie? No. But…well…it’s not really a movie. It’s…an edutainment travelogue interspersed with animated shorts united by the common theme of it all taking place in Latin America and gosh darn it if the English language doesn’t have a word for that.
Well yeah, but can we make it more Latin American?
That’ll do English. That’ll do.
Alright, so anyway, the movie begins with a…live…action…segment…
…showing the various animators being bundled onto one of those really shiny forties planes bound for South America while a narrator explains the concept behind the film. The narration is actually pretty hilarious, as it just boils down to: “Yeah, we stuck a bunch of animators on a plane to South America. Let’s see what happens!”
The movie then follows this formula: We arrive somewhere in South America. We see the animators putzing around, taking in the local colour. We then see how they get ideas for a cartoon from said local colour and then lastly we see the cartoon. First stop is Lake Titicaca.
Which leads to a Donald Duck segment of him exploring the lake in a boat made of reeds, suffering altitude sickness and generally interacting with the local Peruvians. Now, I love The Donald.
But I thought this short was only okay. The animation is good, but most of the gags are pretty weak. It does pick up towards the end with a sequence where Donald is trying to get a llama across a rickety suspension bridge. It’s suitably manic, but all in all it’s too little too late.
The next segment takes place in Chile and I personally think it’s the strongest of the movie. It’s called Pedro, and features a young, very anthropomorphised airplane as he attempts the hazardous mail run between Chile and Agrentina, passing Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. What really sells this short…sorry, I mean, what sells the short cartoon, rather than what sells the cartoon short for me, is the degree of detail they go into in showing just how a world of sentient airplanes would actually work. Pedro and his family aren’t simply airplanes with faces, but are clearly shown to be living beings. Pedro goes to school to learn skywriting, and drinks from petrol pumps as if they were water fountains. It reminds me a lot of Pixar’s Cars movies. And remarkably, I mean that as a compliment because I. Fucking. HATE. Cars.
Seriously. I don’t just think it’s not as good, or not up to the standard of Pixar’s other work, or just aimed at a younger audience, or any of the other namby-pamby, wishy-washy, mealy mouthed equivocations I’ve heard flung about like so much verbal monkey poop. No. Look at this thing. Look. At. This. Thing.
Hate, my friends. That is the only acceptable response. You should hate this movie. You should hate it like it slept with your wife or husband. You should hate it like it broke up your parent’s marriage and now it’s moved in and you have to call it Mom/Mum/Mam (adjust for your region) and see it’s smug, soulless face every day at breakfast. You should hate this movie because it represents infidelity. This is Pixar’s sordid fling with mediocrity and avarice. This movie shows that even the best of us are not beyond corruption, and I hate it for that. Because for a few years after Toy Story came along Pixar were everything that we wanted a movie studio to be. They were heroes. Cars and Cars 2 have a moral. And that moral is, there is no such thing as heroes.
But, credit where credit is due, they did put a lot of work into showing how the world of the movie works. I mean, you really got a sense of how an entire universe of dead-eyed, charmless, talking happy meal toys would operate.
Pedro is a fun, inventive little short and I really fell for it. I also love how Aconcagua is not just a dangerous piloting challenge but is actually rendered as this scowling, malevolent giant who actively sends storms to bring down any plane that comes near him.
The next short is El Gaucho Goofy, which uses Goofy to demonstrate the differences and similarities between North American cowboy culture and Argentina’s gauchos. Goofy, in my honest opinion, is Disney’s best actor when it comes to shorts. All the best Disney shorts I’ve ever seen have starred him. Mickey Mouse is a twenties cartoon character who they’ve never really been able to make work in the technicolour era. Donald is great, but he needs a foil to work against. Goofy though? You can plonk that mutt into any situation and just let the chaos unfold. I don’t have that much to say about El Gaucho Goofy other than to say that the gags are stronger that the Lake Titicaca segment, but the animation is a little weaker.
The last segment brings us to Rio de Janeiro. While this movie’s main purpose was to foster positive opinion of the US in Latin America, it also had a major effect on the public perception of these nations back in the states. Many Americans at the time did not know that there were skyscrapers, planes and cars in Brazil and Chile and had an image of the continent still rooted in the nineteenth century. I will say this about the live action segments, I like them a lot more as an adult than I would have as a child. As a kid I have no doubt that I would have been fast forwarding through these to get to the cartoons like I used to do with Song of the South (which, yes, I will be reviewing) but now I kinda enjoy them. There is a nice tone to them, genuinely enthusiastic and appreciative of Latin American culture, educational without being professorial, light without being condescending. It reminds me a lot of the BBC’s Panorama newsreels from the same period. It’s that kinda tone.
Anyway, the Rio footage leads us into Aquarela do Brasil (“Watercolor of Brazil”), where an artist’s paintbrush brings various plants and birds to life, before creating Donald Duck. The paintbrush messes with the cartoon duck for a while, driving him into a rage…wait a minute.
And there is a scene that’s actually really surreal if you stop to think about it. Donald steals some black paint and creates a crude stick figure man (not duck, oddly enough) but the paintbrush quickly intervenes. Presumably, this is to spare us the sight of the stick man coming to life and shambling towards a weeping Donald, it’s crooked arms outstretched, it’s misshaped mouth slurring “FAH-THURR! STICK MAN SHUD NOT BEEEEEEE!!!”. Then, the paintbrush creates José Carioca from scratch as Donald watches curiously. What must it be like for a cartoon character, to see life created before his very eyes like that? It’s almost Biblical, isn’t it?
José Carioca was a new character created for the movie, as an attempt to give Brazil it’s own cartoon mascot like Donald was to the US. And I know this character has his fans (I believe he’s still quite big in Latin America) but I never really liked “Zé”. To me he smacks of a character that was created by committee. “We need a Brazilian cartoon character.” “Okay. What kind of animal?” “I think they have parrots in Brazil.” “Okay! A parrot who…likes something Brazilian.” “Samba? Cigars?” “Brilliant!”
José introduces Donald to Samba, there’s a musical number about Brazil and then…the movie ends. Just like that. Nothing to tie in to the other segments, we don’t even get to see if the animators made it back to the United States or whether they all got lost in the Amazon and were crucified by the Guaraní.
The movie just ends. Okay. Huh.
What a weird little movie. Not bad, don’t get me wrong. I mean, I liked it. But I’ll be glad when next week we get back to normal Disney movies like…
Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. They made a sequel?!
Oh little continent, you have no idea what is in store for you.
TO BE CONTINUED…
This is tricky to gauge. The animation is on the whole better than Dumbo’s, but it’s also less technically ambitious. These are good, well animated Disney shorts, but nothing close to the studio on it’s A-Game.
The Leads: 15/20
Donald Duck and Goofy. You can’t say the movie doesn’t have star power. And Pepe is great.
The Villain: 10/20
I’m starting to realise just how hard it’s going to be to get my usual scoring system to work on these war-era movies. I suppose Aconcagua is the movie’s villain, and the character design is interesting and inventive but he doesn’t really have much to him beyond that.
Supporting Characters: 06/20
Oooooh..Donald’s llama? Goofy’s horse? They’re…fine?
If you like South American music, this is the El Travelogutainmation for you! The Saludos Amigos theme song is also very catchy.
Final Score: 56%
NEXT WEEK: The Unshaved Mouse learns that the Coachman is still alive and living in 1885, Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe ventures into Jabba’s palace to rescue Walt Disney who’s been frozen in carbomite, and we look at the first sequel in Disney history, The Three Caballeros. And shit gets really, really messed up.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!