Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Three Caballeros, The (1944)

Supervising Director: Norman Ferguson
Starring: Clarence Nash

Continuing to in conjuncture with United States government’s Good Neighbor initiative Walt Disney produces his first ever feature film sequel, following 1942’s Saludos Amigos audiences receive 1944’s The Three Caballeros. A package picture of self-contained short subjects loosely bound together under the device of one of Disney’s brightest characters, Donald Duck, this feature is a potpourri of Latin flavor seen through the glasses of Disney artists. For a cash-strapped studio that had produced Mickey Mouse shorts and grand features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs this clearly is yet another product to aid in keeping the bills paid during the financially trying period of World War II.

The Three Caballeros is a musical animated package feature centered on culture and music of Latin American countries shared in a manner of Donald Duck recieving gifts from his friends from south of the boarder, which opens up worlds of stories, music, dance, and artistry. Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) receives a shipment of gifts on his birthday, ironically it is Friday the 13th, which are addressed from friends from Latin America, insinuating his recent excursion from Saludos Amigos. Each gift presents to Donald insight into the enegery, fun, and passion of America’s fellow Western Hemisphere neighbors in the presentation of self-contained shorts.

Included are shorts segments of a penguin who pines to travel to a warmer climate and a little boy from Uruguay who discovers a new friend in a winged donkey. Donald’s Brazilian parrot pal Jose Carioca (Jose Oliveira) returns to share the beauty and romance of his native land. Meanwhile the two are joined by an energetic pistol touting rooster from Mexico named Panchito to form the titular trio as the many cultures of Mexico lead to a jumble of musical and colorful segments featuring support from live action celebrities from Latin America. All the high energy and excited leads to a literal explosion of celebration as the feature comes to an end.

As a whole the feature is a jumble of short segments that is reality is very loosely tied together by star power of Disney’s Donald Duck character. Other than each short either taking place in a Latin country or featuring Latin culture, these segment can and do stand on their own with no need being tied to the rest of the feature. The result is a film that feels more like a kaleidoscope brightly produced cartoons that feel better independently than together as a singular motion picture. The colors are bright, the energy is high, and the special effects that brings live action actors and animated characters together is excitingly different and innovative, but as a whole appears more as a disorderly mess that what one may think of in a Walt Disney feature film.

Coming off the decent box office revenues of Saludos Amigos Walt Disney’s studio was still feeling the pinch of the war-time movie market. To spend the money and man power on the features Disney wanted felt to be too much of a risk as most international markets were closed off by the war, risking near bankruptcy. The studio was predominantly skating by their popular cartoon shorts and producing government instructional films to keep their numbers afloat during this wearisome period.

To keep his best animators sharp and keep his studio’s name relevant Walt Disney knew he had to produce something of a bit higher quality, even if the picture was to just break even. A sequel to his recent Latin American inspired feature would continue the studios good standing with the US government, who also happened to be occupying the Walt Disney Studio lot, and bring in audiences familiar with their recent picture. Furthermore it kept the Disney artists working, exploring new styles, techniques, and special effects, despite the lower budget and quality then their earlier features. Its end product is the picture we see here, but it would not be uncommon for the various short segments to play on their own in future Disney television programs, so much so that some may not even realize they came from a full length motion picture.

At the box office the film was nowhere near the success of its predecessors. Its general Disney-short quality would be scrutinized by critics for being lesser that Snow White or Pinocchio, despite it being better than all other animation studios work at the time. Its mix of live action and animated characters interacting and even dancing together harken to Disney’s earliest works the “Alice Comedies” of the 1920s, producing the most eye-catching scenes of the film. Ultimately critics would give the film mixed reviews and with the passage of time it has not changed too much for stringent critics that stray away from its nostalgic time period.

The appearances of Latin American stars such as Brazilian singer Aurora Miranda (who is sister of the better known Carmen Miranda) and Mexican singer/dancer Carmen Molina would not produce as much draw as intended. Their appearances are overshadowed by the woman-chasing humor of Donald Duck during their scenes. In time this portrayal of Donald as a woman crazy fiend would be a bit of a controversy, seen as far too politically incorrect or as a perverse view of a lust between animal and human. In any case it was all meant in good fun, despite these social critics.

The Three Caballeros, the film and the characters, would somewhat fall into obscurity in time. When the 1950s brought the revival in Disney animation with the likes of Cinderella and Peter Pan the package features, especially the Latin neighbor films would quickly fade into deeply into the back memories of the Disney conscious. The film may be better known in its pieces than as a whole even with edited down sporadic rereleases between 1958 and 1981. Donald Duck continues to be one of the studio’s most recognizable stars, but Jose Carioca and Panchito would become relatively distant memories. Only in celebratory Latina American occasions do we see the characters again in Disney theme parks, but for generations decades removed from the film, they may not know who the two beside Donald are.

The film remains one of the least know pictures of the Disney library due to it being one of the studio’s “package films” of the 1940s and lacked the of charm the common Disney fairytale features the studio would best be known for. The Three Caballeros lives on as a reminder of a world when Americans were less aware of their neighboring countries and how the creativity of Disney artists may have been the first view for many into the cultures South of the boarder.

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