Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are strange films, especially compared to the five Disney classics that came before them. The former is the only movie in the studio’s animated canon to be part documentary, showing Walt Disney and his artists traveling around South America. The latter is the first in the canon to mix live-action performers with animated characters and backdrops in increasingly surreal sequences.
Both movies are “package films,” or collections of animated skits and segments, rather than singular feature-length stories. Both veer away from the previous films’ Eurocentric fantasy fare and portray various South American cultures. Maybe strangest of all, both are propaganda films supporting the United States military in World War II.
Disney and Propaganda
Walt Disney Studios became extremely popular at a difficult time in world history. Their signature characters and Silly Symphonies shorts entertained a weary world during the Great Depression. The threat of war loomed over Europe while they released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, then broke out and spread across the globe during the production of Pinocchio. World War II closed off the lucrative European market, causing most of Disney’s expensive films to fail financially. The young studio faced bankruptcy.
Immediately after entering the war, the American government, recognizing the studio’s global reach, immediately commissioned them to produce propaganda for the Allies’ war efforts. Disney accepted, partly out of patriotism and partly to receive federal subsidies. As part of this, the State Department asked Walt to serve as a cultural ambassador to Latin America, where Disney films were massively popular — and where national governments were leaning towards the Axis Powers. Out of this goodwill tour came two movies intended to serve not just as entertainment, but as cultural bridges between the Americas.
Donald Duck the Tourist
Saludos Amigos shows documentary footage of Walt and his team of artists traveling across the continent, and each country they visited directly inspired one of the movie’s four cartoons. The segment for Chile stars a new character named Pedro, a child airplane tasked with delivering mail across the Andes Mountains. In Argentina, Goofy trades cowboy galoshes for gaucho bombachas and learns about life on the pampas. Donald Duck opens the movie as a bumbling tourist in Lake Titicaca and the former Incan lands of Peru and Bolivia. He returns for the end, where his new friend — a music-loving, easy-going Brazilian parrot named José “Joe” Carioca — shows him around Rio de Janeiro and teaches him the samba.
Donald returns as the star of The Three Caballeros, which takes place on his birthday — Friday the 13th, naturally. He receives magical birthday presents that reunite him with Joe Carioca, introduce him to the energetic Mexican rooster Panchito, and take the trio on a tour of Brazil and Mexico. The movie is liht on plot, but finds some interesting ways to fill the runtime. Donald listens to amusing stories about cold-hating penguins and flying donkeys, sings with his new friends, and dances with famous South American actors and singers. Most of all, he chases after live-action women — which is when the movie descends into utterly bizarre musical sequences. The last third of the movie is an eclectic Mexican-themed music with striking influences from Fantasia, and it is dazzling.
Making Art from Propaganda
Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros certainly fulfilled their goals as propaganda pieces. South American fans flocked to Walt Disney and his artists on their goodwill tour. North American audiences, through the experiences of their own representative, gained new perceptions on their neighbors. The box office haul from both continents gave Disney a new hit, and they would pursue package films for the rest of the 1940s. The movie even helped Latino music come into vogue worldwide: “Aquarela do Brasil,” centerpiece of the ending of Saludos Amigos, was the first Brazilian song to also be a hit with American audiences.
This is not to say that these movies alone firmly aligned South American countries with the United States in World War II. However, film historian Alfred Charles Richard Jr. did write that they “did more to cement a community of interest between the peoples of the Americas in a few months than the State Department had in fifty years.”
However, Walt and his team of writers, animators, and musicians found a way to fulfill their mission while still creating some really entertaining films. They are especially fun to watch together, with Amigos showing the artists getting their inspiration and Caballeros displaying the glorious results. The brisk, lighthearted cartoons endear them to families, and their unique qualities appeal to ardent Disney fans. Moreover, the cross-cultural misadventures of the all-American duck and his Brazilian and Mexican buddies remain popular with fans around the world — including many young Latinx Americans like myself. Flashy, experimental, and just plain fun, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are worth visiting and revisiting.
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