Saturday, May 16, 2009

Disney Marathon: Saludos Amigos

Saludos Amigos (1942, writers Homer Brightman, Ralph White et al.)

As conflict in many regions of the globe became more deadly and pronounced in the wake of WWII, United States President Franklin Roosevelt implemented what was officially known as the Good Neighbor Policy towards the countires of Latin America. The goal was to build and preserve strong diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with their southern hemisphere neighbours. Pan-Americanism, support for local leaders, supported training for local national guards and the strengthening of economic ties. Rather than opt for more draconian, even military strategies, the United States wanted to preserve its influence and what support it had through…let’s call them ‘kindlier means.’ This included cultural penetration. A major moment of this came when, with the help of State Department loan guarantees, Disney and his fellow artists did a goodwill tour down in South America. They enjoyed the cultures they explored and the people they met, which led to the birth of a very South American centric film, Saludos Amigos.

Finding inspiration in what Disney and his crew learned and saw, his crack team of artists constructed a short animation film split into 4 distinct episodes, with the overall theme of a South America visit tying them all together. Interspersed between these animated episodes is recorded video footage of Walt Disney and his team visiting these varioud locations. Interestingly and clearly as part of the Good Neighbor Policy, Saludos Amigos premiered not in the United States, but in Rio De Janeiro in 1942. North Americans would have to wait until 1943 to see the film for the first time.

Is it any good though? In a way, yes it is. The animation, while perhaps not displaying the flair and stunning detail of Bambi, is still very, very competent and works well with all the colourful places and people the crew met down south. The clothing, the nature, the sunny days, the carnival in Rio, all these are wonderful aspects of the continent that lend themselves nicely to a fun Disney cartoon. The mini stories themselves are sprinkled with good doses of comedy throughout, which is mostly fine. I wasn’t expecting Disney Studios to give the viewer an uber realistic depiction of life in South America anyways. I went in expecting some looseness, some frivolity and nice animation.

The first episode has Donald Duck visiting Lake Titicaca in the Andes (Peru/Bolivian border), sight seeing, meeting the locals and suffering through a frustrating experience with the llama he rents. Not a whole lot made much sense. The llama responds to commands not spoken, but played by flute. This leads to a cute, if completely ridiculous scene. I did however enjoy the sequence when Donald and his llama are crossing a shabby little wooden bridge across two mountains. I won’t say what happens, but it’s pretty funny.

The second episode has a Chilean baby plane named Pedro flying across the Andes to pick up mail in Mendoza when Papà plane and Mamà plane cannot make the trip due to technical malfunctions. While not as funny as the first episode, I very much enjoyed the narration. He is an active narrator since he isn’t telling us a story from the past but rather witnessing the action on-hand with the audience. Thus, when things start to go wrong for little Pedro, the narrator gets frightened and starts urging the little plain onwards. I thought it was a nice touch. Along with the final episode, I thought this one had the best animation, mostly due to the few moments when the giant mountain with a face carved in it makes its appearance. For whatever reason, I thought that was pretty neat. The storm that ensues is also incredibly well realized, although after the quality rainfalls we’ve seen in Dumbo and Bambi, that was probably to be expected.

The third and arguably the best episode has an American cowboy played by Goofy transplanted to the pampas in Uruguay to learn how to be a gaucho (essentially the Latin American version of the cowboy). I thought this episode was neat for several reasons. First, Goofy has long been my favourite ‘staple’ Disney character, so if he’s in a story, I’m usually sold. But there were other little details about this one that I enjoyed. When goofy is stripped of his cowboy gear and given the traditional wear of the gaucho, the narrator pronounces the name of every article in Spanish and, in case anyone doesn’t understand it, the screen actually points out in lettering what each article is in Spanish. This isn’t Spanish 101 by any means, but I thought that was a neat touch (I know some Spanish so it was fun to see which articles I was familiar with and not). Whenever a sequence in the episode changed to another, the picture would roll over or slide away. That in of itself is not spectacular, but the filmmakers have the sliding or rolling motion influence Goofy and his horse. If it slides diagonally from down to top, Goofy and the horse are seen tackled by the moving frame of the picture and lifted upwards. I thought that was pretty funny. There is also a replay slow motion sequence that was good for some belly laughs.

The final episode is a bit of an oddity, but still kind of amusing. It has an artist render the episode itself (film within a film kind of technique) with Donald Duck, now in Rio de Janeiro, meeting up with a big fan of his, the parrot José Carioca. José, honoured to be in Donald’s presence, invites him to a night on the town and to learn samba. Like 1SO wrote, there isn’t a whole lot going on in this episode. We don’t really see them have a ‘night on the town’ In fact, most of the episode is spent with the first meeting between the two as the unknown artist is drawing them up. Still, I liked José enough and his pronunciation was nice and clear, so I could pretty much figure out what he was telling Donald (while the latter was standing there searching through his dictionaries. Ha ha!). Not to mention that the episode is accompanied by a stellar soundtrack.

All in all, maybe this one is a little bit forgettable in the grander scheme of things, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t good. There is certainly stuff to like. The quality of the animation, the comedy, the will of the star tourists to explore the region, the attempt of the film to show off some Spanish, etc. I liked it, but it’s not something I’ll be going back to time and time again.

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