The two things primarily responsible for the existence of this picture (whether it’s a short or a feature depends on whom you ask) are Walt’s debt and World War II. Going into the ’40s, Walt couldn’t afford to finance another feature. However, Roosevelt had, when he took office, instituted a “Good Neighbor Policy,” wherein he withdrew the US military from various South and Central American countries and just generally pledged to stop screwing up their internal politics. (Not a promise that has been kept long term, alas.) Nelson Rockefeller, the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, asked Walt to go on a goodwill tour that became Walt and a bunch of artists touring South and Central America to explore the culture and get ideas for cartoons.
What started out as just a few shorts is now a bit of a travelogue, discussing the artists’ journey. They spend three days on the journey south from Hollywood (Burbank, really) to Buenos Aires. From there, some of them travel north to Lake Titicaca, where we get a cartoon involving Donald Duck and a llama. The rest go straight to Chile, where we get a cartoon about a mail plane flying between Chile and Argentina. Then we go back to Argentina and the gauchos, leading to Goofy as a gaucho. Then off to Brazil and the introduction of José Carioca (José Oliveira) who introduces Donald to the samba and specifically the song “Aquarela do Brasil.”
This is an extremely controversial film for forty-odd minutes (the shortest film Disney has ever called a feature). Some people consider it a classic; others consider it a tedious travelogue. Some consider it a triumph of celebrating South American culture; others consider it typical American exoticism. And so forth. José Carioca is a popular character, but there’s not much of him here. Pedro the Mail Plane is either a courageous symbol of Chile or else a weak figure who’s barely in the movie and spends half of that in Argentina.
Personally, I think it’s, you know, fine. Light. It’s got some good Mary Blair art—even if you didn’t recognize her style, you’d be hard-pressed not to assume that most of the artists on the trip didn’t have bright red fingernails. Actually, and we’ll probably talk about this more in a few months when I get to Walt and El Grupo for an upcoming Year of the Month, this trip apparently cemented her style into the one we all know today. And she didn’t even work for Walt at the time; she was tagging along with her husband.
I mean, I like this better than a lot of people, in the sense that I remember it exists. Not everyone does, after all. I’m possibly one of the only people in the world who rushed out and bought it when it was released on DVD. And then watched it and The Three Caballeros in one stretch, which admittedly is about as long as just watching an ordinary movie. I don’t know if it did its job of convincing Latin America that we were all good friends now, and if it did, our Cold War shenanigans quickly undid that, but it is worth checking out, especially if the promise that Disney’s streaming service will feature all their movies is true.