Disney Film History: The Three Caballeros

The Three Caballeros poster

World War II was a crazy time for the Walt Disney company as they had their hands full in propaganda shorts and several films that were being used to lead the United States to victory over Japan and Germany. We talked about Walt Disney’s 1941 Goodwill Tour of South America with the 1943 release of Saludos Amigos. (Which you can read about HERE!) Saludos Amigos was a success for the company. It was cheap to make and brought in revenue for the studio. So the studio went back to the drawing board and started on a second film about Latin America. The end result is the much more popular and memorable film, The Three Caballeros.

The Three Caballeros, “The Three Friends” in English, is set once again in South America but instead of focusing on Walt Disney and his group of artists, the film revolves around the main plot of Donald opening gifts from his friends from Latin America. The plot here seems much more put together despite the film obviously being chopped into segments. (This film is also considered the second of the “Package films” of the 1940s because of it’s segmentation.) Several segments combine music, comedy, and live action film to make this film an overall joy to watch from beginning to end. Where some people might find Fantasia as tedious or Saludos Amigos as too choppy, this film flows well from scene to scene and shows off the brilliant styles of the artists involved. In fact, this film and it’s back story is less about Walt Disney and more about one of the his artists on the South American tour, Mary Blair.

Mary Blair, who had worked in animation at Ub Iwerks studio, joined the Disney company in 1940, along with her husband Lee. Mary was one of many animators on the lot during a time period in which Disney had hundreds of people working for him. She didn’t know Walt Disney personally nor had much interaction with him, but when the Good Will tour came about and Lee Blair was asked to join the crew of artists going down to South America, Mary marched into Walt’s office and asked if she could join them on their 3 month journey. Walt agreed to her joining and within that trip, Walt and Mary became good friends. Mary also became Walt’s favorite artist at the studio and allowed her to move up the ladder upon returning to the studio. She first started out as an art supervisor for Saludos Amigos and had done concept art for the film while on the tour. Her breakout point, and the really noticeable distinction in her art, comes to focus in The Three Caballeros.

Mary Blair art

While in South America, Mary Blair found her own style of art and her concept drawings led to several scenes in The Three Caballeros including one scene of Jose and Donald taking a train across Brazil. Yes, that’s right Jose, as in Jose Carioca, the lovable, suave parrot from Rio. He returns to the film in several segments, taking a more prominent role in the film than in Saludos Amigos.

Speaking of segments, this film provides a better understanding of Latin American culture while providing memorable characters and lots of laughs through it’s many segments. Take “The Little Gauchito” for example. The narrator, speaking for the protagonist, a younger version of himself, gives us all kinds of cultural terms that fit the Uraguay and Gaucho lifestyles. Unlike the Gaucho segment of Saludos Amigos which stars Goofy and provides lots of laughs but little substance, this charming story is much more memorable and taught me things about a culture I didn’t already know. “Las Posada” is the story of Christmas traditions in Mexico as told by our new Disney friend, Panchito Pistoles.

Panchito is one of several animated characters that stand out in the film. Of course I mentioned the suave Brazilian bird, Jose Carioca. Along with Jose and Panchito, there are two other birds that make this film great: Pablo the Penguin and the Aracuan Bird. Pablo is a cartoon penguin looking to move somewhere warm and he takes over the first segment of the film, giving a nice comical, warm hearted segment to the film before delving into more cultural information and abstract animation. The Aracuan Bird, probably a cult favorite character of many, is a humorous bird that not only disrupts the other birds within his segment but also appears throughout the rest of the film disturbing the characters. He pulls apart a train by adding multiple tracks in a segment heavily influenced in Mary Blair’s artwork. He also finds ways to poke fun at Donald, Jose, and Panchito. I’d almost consider him the fourth caballero if there were such a thing.

Caballeros 1

The film had it’s premiere in Mexico on December 21st, 1944 and was given a mixed response by critics. Many saw Donald lusting over women as crude and unusual for a duck that was in love with Daisy. Why would Donald be going after Aurora Miranda and why are these girls flirting back with him? It doesn’t really make sense and critics felt it was in poor taste. More notably, most critics felt it was an upgrade from Saludos Amigos but it was more about technical animation than giving a true in depth experience for the audience. While that may be true, this wouldn’t be the last of the segmented “Package Films”. Like Saludos Amigos, it made money for the Walt Disney company and was cheap to produce. That doesn’t make this a bad film though. Could if have helped in winning the war for the United States? Maybe. Did it change the Disney company as a whole? Not really. However, it’s cultural references, beautiful art development, thanks to one Mary Blair, and it’s cast of truly unforgettable characters have made The Three Caballeros a cult favorite among Disney fans and might be one of, if not the best film of the “Package” era.

Josh Taylor
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Posted on May 22, 2013, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

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