In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.
The two most disastrous events to affect the Walt Disney Studios during their namesake's tenure occurred within months of each other in 1941. The first was a cartoonists' strike that started on 29 May and lasted for five weeks. The toll this bitter and divisive dispute took on the company was incalculable. Loyalty was questioned and relationships were irrevocably strained. Six months later Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, kicking Dumbo off his planned Time Magazine cover and thrusting the entire United States - including Walt Disney - into war. Within a week of the attack, some 700 soldiers began to occupy various buildings on the company's Burbank grounds, due to its close proximity to the Lockheed aircraft plant.
The government enlisted the studio to create propaganda films for the Allied cause. The war provided a source of much-needed funds for the continually cash-strapped studio. Unfortunately for a visionary artist like Walt Disney, being chosen as a hired gun - even by an organization as powerful as the United States government - was a hard pill to swallow. Walt spent his entire career giving other people orders, overseeing their work, but he bristled at the thought of having the tables turned, being forced to take orders from officers who knew nothing about filmmaking or storytelling.
Earlier in the year, prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II, the studio had its first taste of government work when it was assigned to help strengthen ties with Latin and South America through the Good Neighbor program. It was believed that countries in this region could be highly susceptible to an alliance with the Nazis. The Disney studio was tasked with creating a film that celebrated the cultures of these diverse countries, thus establishing a bond and sense of brotherhood with the rest of the Americas.
The resulting film, Saludos Amigos, is a cheaply made, slap-dash picture with very little to do with South American culture, history, or people. It is a trifle of a film, clocking in at a mere forty-two minutes, the shortest of the fifty-two features in the studio's animated canon. The movie is divided into four distinct sections ostensibly focussing on a particular region. Each section begins with repurposed 16mm home movies that were shot by El Grupo, the artistic envoy Disney selected to travel south for inspiration and study. Footage of scenic locales is interspersed with shots of the artists observing and sketching native rituals. These then lead rather clumsily into the animated sections.
The first segment of Saludos Amigos centers on the Inca people living near Lake Titicaca. Our intrepid guide is none other than Donald Duck, who portrays the haphazard tourist getting into all sorts of mishaps as he dons the native garb, wrestles with a proud llama, and attempts to cross a precarious mountain bridge. This is by far the weakest section of the film, feeling like unfunny outtakes from any run-of-the-mill Disney short. Most of Donald's gags are recycled from several of his previous shorts and here are rather lazily executed.
Leaving Lake Titicaca for what is purported to be Chile, we get a taste for this land by a story about a plucky little mail plane named Pedro. What this has to do with the region is anybody's guess, but the section is charming in its own low-key way. Pedro has to make his first mail run when both of his winged parents are out of commission. Full of vim and vigor, Pedro takes on the challenge which includes a treacherous pass through unforgiving terrain. The animation in this sequence is occasionally notable, particularly in regards to the some of the angles chosen for Pedro's harrowing return. An ominous low shot looking up at rain falling past the granite gremlin etched in the Andes mountainside is a stand-out. Despite the fact that the sequence was singled out and released as a standalone short, the segment did not go over too well with some Chileans, particularly cartoonist Rene Rios, a.k.a. Pepo, who thought that Chile being represented by a puny little plane was an insult. He created the long-running and immensely popular comic strip and character Condorito in response.
The second half of the film begins with Argentina and a treatise on their version of the American cowboy, the gaucho. Our guide this time around is Goofy and the section has all of the hallmarks of a classic Goofy How-To short. There is the know-it-all narration, offbeat wackiness, and the oblivious good humor of our protagonist as he fails time and time again at whatsoever he tries to accomplish. There are some interesting moments in the section, for example when the animators depict the lassoing of an ostrich and then rewind the footage, before showing it to us again in slow motion, replete with warped narration. This is followed by the natural impulse to go in the opposite direction and speed everything up until the narration is a shrieking little chirp. There are also some really interesting wipes, where Goofy and his horse are forcibly pushed off the screen by the next encroaching scene.
Lastly we travel to Brazil where a returning Donald Duck meets his South American avian counterpart, the dapper, cigar-smoking Jose Carioca. The beginning of this segment - called "Aquarela de Brazil" - is by far the film's most fantastic sequence. Before we even meet up with the birds, an animated artist's hand and brush create the elegant tableaux of Rio de Janeiro before us, with several Disney-certified psychedelic flights of fancy. A freshly painted bushel of bananas evolves into a tree full of toucans. A meat-eating tropical plant consumes a bee and sambas into being as Donald Duck. The music in this sequence is also the film's best, with Donald learning the moves to several exotic dances. There is a glimmer of excitement and challenge here that the rest of Saludos Amigos sorely lacks. As Donald gets dunked in a recently dabbled drop of blue, the playful sense of wonder seen so frequently on the screen in Fantasia or Bambi pokes its head out as if to say hello, friends.