17 February 2012

Disney Daze: Week 7: The Three Caballeros

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Saludos Amigos was a rousing box office success, first in its initial release south of the border and later in the U.S. where the film recouped its meager production cost twice over. This windfall kicked pre-production on a second South American shorts package into overdrive. Plans for the next film included a segment on Mexico and the introduction of a rooster character. By the time the resulting film - originally titled Surprise Package - was released, it had ballooned to twice Saludos length and was renamed The Three Caballeros. Unfortunately this expansion was ultimately to the film's detriment.  

Caballeros begins in much the same fashion as Saludos. We get a brief introduction to what will be our thematic wraparound segment - here it is Donald Duck's birthday and we see the waterfowl opening presents from all of his Latin American friends. Each present segues us into a short on a different country. This is how an anonymous gift of a film projector throws us into the feature's first short, The Cold-Blooded Penguin. The story of a penguin named Pablo who longs for warmer climates, the short has nary a thing to teach us of Latin American life, besides the fact that it is warm there. Basically, Pablo is freezing cold in the Antarctic, then he devises a plan to sail to Argentina where he will laze in a hammock drinking lemonade and fanning himself. Despite its complete lack of cultural relevance, the short has its charms. There are some clever visual moments on Pablo's journey, for instance when he literally runs into the equator and needs Neptune's help to lift up the barrier so he may pass. A shot of the earth shows water dripping off the ocean and into space, and so on.

The next short, called the Flying Gauchito, is Caballeros' most successful piece of entertainment. The story returns us to the culture of the gaucho, previously exemplified by Goofy in Saludos Amigos. Here a narrating gaucho is recalling his life as a little boy who - while out hunting condors one day - captures a winged donkey. The two become fast friends and enter a race where they are laughed at by the onlookers and fellow contestants for their diminutive size before ultimately triumphing by well, cheating. Using the donkey's hidden wings they win the race, become exposed, and fly off towards the horizon never to be seen again. It's all a bit derivative, basically Pinocchio finds the Latin equivalent of Dumbo and they live happily ever after, but the animation is stellar, with some lovely flourishes and the storytelling is fluid and engaging. The narration is especially good with its gentle rhyming nature and emotional outbursts during the climactic race.

Unfortunately at this point the film decides to abandon the short subjects and become a musical. As we return to Donald, he opens up a pop-up book from (and featuring) his Saludos buddy José Carioca, identified here and on almost all promotional copy for the film as "Joe". Is this nickname to signify the closeness between the two birds or was José too ethnic for the public? Either way, Joey takes Donald on a trip to the Brazilian city of Baia by shrinking down and catching a train in the book. In this sequence we are introduced to the aracuan, a bird with a goofy little song who is portrayed here as a Harpo Marxist agent of chaos. The nameless aracuan's appearances in Caballeros are brief but always welcome. He runs out of the frame, or should I say the frame runs out on him. He sketches out multiple railroad lines sending José and Donald's train shooting off in myriad directions. 

Once in Baia the film makes its first foray into animation/live-action hybridization. This was nothing new to Walt Disney whose first productions back in Kansas City - pre-Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - were known as the Alice Comedies and featured a live action girl interacting with an animated environment. Disney's familiarity with the effects does yield some nice visual inventiveness in Caballeros. Here Donald and José watch as Aurora Miranda, Carmen's sister, dances her way through the streets of Baia dotted with houses that dance along to the samba.

Between the Baia sequence and the rest of the film's musical numbers we get a brief interlude where the story of Las Posadas which tells of a Mexican Christmas tradition involving children walking through town reenacting Joseph and Mary's search for a room by inquiring at households for a place to stay. This story is told by the third Caballero, the heretofore unknown Panchito, a gun-toting, sombrero-wearing rooster of Mexican lineage. The scene is most notable for the lovely Mary Blair pastels that tell the story. These images are precursors to Blair's global children immortalized in Disneyland's it's a small world attraction which originally opened at the New York World's Fair some twenty years after CaballerosFollowing Las Posadas, Donald, José and Panchito climb aboard a magic sarape and head off on a journey to many Mexican locales where a variety of dances and songs are performed.

What are the two things one learns from The Three Caballeros? This viewer learned that the people of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico love to sing and dance; and that Donald Duck is really, really horny. Those two elements literally make up the majority of the last two-thirds of the picture. Several times throughout the film some Latin chanteuse will appear onscreen joyously crooning some infectious tune and Donald will stare at her, his mouth agape, drool dripping from his beak. The duck lusts after every single woman he sees, first Aurora Miranda, then a beach full of bathing beauties, and finally Dora Luz, who appears in the stars above Mexico and sings a ballad called "You Belong to My Heart". 

The latter sequence is the strongest in the film's back-end. The song is lilting and lulling, accompanied by gentle twilit visuals as Donald, sitting on a crescent moon pines for the floating Dora's head. Eventually he receives the kiss he's been hunting for the whole film. Instantly Donald goes certifiably insane as his whole body turns crimson and he shoots through the stars, sniffing neon flowers and relishing the reverie of love reciprocated before José and Panchito jarringly burst out of nowhere, throwing the scene into schizophrenic chaos. The sequence jumps erratically between Donald's hallucinogenic misremembrances of events earlier in the film, returns to the calm "You Belong to My Heart", and another explosion from his Caballero brothers who among other things tommy-gun daisies at the screen. The five minute sequence - which suitably ends with creepy male voices whispering "pretty girls, pretty girls" - is the most energetic and stunning sequence in an otherwise listless film. 

In watching these two Good Neighbor programs back to back, it is evident that Saludos' greatest asset is its brevity. Even though the film's scenes rarely attain the magnificence of the best Silly Symphonies, the Saludos shorts retain the pace and rhythm of their cinematic ancestors. They never overstay their welcome. Once Caballeros turns from shorts package to musical travelogue it becomes increasingly tedious. Scenes drag on and become faceless and interchangeable. While some bright moments pop out amongst the monotony, their presence is fleeting. The Three Caballeros was to be followed by a third Latin America feature, tentatively titled Cuban Caravan, but was scrapped when Caballeros bombed at the box office. Disney would return to the concept of the package film several times in the ensuing years but the travelogue experiment was never again attempted. 

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