Sunday, December 12, 2010

Walt & El Grupo

This is an excellent documentary chronicling the three month tour of South America by Walt Disney and assorted artists at the request of the U.S. State Department. With World War II already underway in Europe in 1941, the State Department was concerned that South America might align itself with the Axis powers, giving the Axis military bases on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Their response, when the U.S. was still officially a neutral country, was to send cultural celebrities such as Disney (and, separately, Orson Welles) to South America to promote ties between North and South America.

This documentary, now on DVD, is written and directed by Ted Thomas, the son of Disney animator Frank Thomas who was one of the artists on the trip. Other participants included Lee and Mary Blair, Jim Bodrero, Herb Ryman, Ted Sears and Norm Ferguson. As all of the participants have passed away, the documentary relies on the memories of spouses, children and grandchildren who have often saved letters from the trip and read from them. Animation historians John Canemaker and J.B. Kaufman add their perspectives.

I have to say that I prefer this documentary to Waking Sleeping Beauty. The time period of Walt & El Grupo was a complex one, affected by both world and studio politics. In addition to the threat of war, the trip coincided with the famous strike at Disney and one incentive for Disney's participation was to get away from the studio so that less emotionally involved parties might work out a settlement. Beyond politics, the film is also good at focusing on the artists. We learn of their backgrounds and their contributions to the expedition while seeing examples of the art created during the trip. In this regard, the film is better balanced than Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Ted Thomas traveled to the places visited by the group, interviewing surviving participants or their descendants, showing newspaper clippings and movie footage of the time. The trip was well documented, both by the participants and by the local media, so Thomas has a wealth of material to work with.

The documentary does reveal that certain live action scenes of the trip used in Saludos Amigos were taken back in Burbank when the editors needed bridging material. (And if my eye doesn't deceive me, they were shot in 35mm where the actual footage was shot in 16mm.) The original release of Saludos Amigos is included as an extra. It's "original" in that it includes footage of Goofy smoking cigarettes, something deleted from later releases in order to protect children.

The film has a very large cast and if I have any criticism it's that I wish people were repeatedly identified. Seeing so many adult children of the group, it is easy to forget who they are relatives of. I also wish that more of the artwork produced on the trip was identified by artist where possible.

Walt & El Grupo does a good job of capturing a time and place in both world and Disney history. It's a pleasure to spend time with the artists and to see the magnitude of Walt Disney's popularity at the time.


Daniel said...

I was fortunate enough to attend the Canadian premiere of this and chat with Ted afterward. It's a fantastic film, and he's currently at work on another documentary. It is better than Waking Sleeping Beauty, but only if you're not a complete fanboy.

Steven Hartley said...

Ah yes, the propaganda years!

Luis María Benítez said...

I would love to know the anecdotes when they stayed in Argentina because it's not well covered here. Also, very interesting the relationship created with local artist Molina Campos.

Eric Noble said...

I can't wait to see this one!!!

Michael Sporn said...

It's an excellent documentary, as you say. However, the book by J.B. Kaufman, South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948, is significantly more informative and interesting (as one might expect from a book and the fine author.)

David B. Levy said...

I thought this film was fine, but my perspective is balanced by the fact I saw the movie in the theatre with two non-animation people who, without having particular interest in the subject, had a restless experience sitting through the film. I suspect that wouldn't happen with Waking Sleeping Beauty because of the sheer drama on the screen.

I found a lot missing in "Walt & El Grupo," in that as a document of a politically motivated trip, it largely ignored the impact of Walt's visit in fighting Nazi influence in South America. Maybe that can't be calculated, but the film didn't even try.

Awesome that the film focused on the artists and their art, showing lots of great artwork, but, the artists didn't have an arc to follow in this story. No drama, except for being along on a trip. The ultimate feeling for me was like spending hours having tea with one of these artist's children and looking at their scrap book as they read their parents letters aloud. Does that make for a compelling film experience?

I'm still glad I saw it, and as per Michael's advice, I'd like to check out the book.

Mark Mayerson said...

I found the drama of Waking Sleeping Beauty to be bogus. A group of highly paid, powerful executives were fighting to take credit for work that none of them actually did. It's the drama of spoiled children fighting over a toy.

Walt & El Grupo may have less drama and no discernible arc, but it shows artists actively engaging with fellow artists, their audience and different cultures. It strikes me as far more admirable, if less dramatic.

David B. Levy said...

The fact that their actions had implications for our industry and the thousands of artists they employed makes it interesting drama... for me, at least.

Thad said...

It's an obscure branch of Disney history centered around films largely forgotten by the general public. Who would even bother trying to entertain the masses with such a subject? And how many 'compelling' experiences do you have when you go to see a documentary at an indie film center or art house any way? I saw it in Buffalo last year (with J.B. in attendance) and those I talked to afterwards (non-cartoon buffs) thoroughly enjoyed it. That's certainly more than I can say about the "Three Caballeros" screening.

I actually agree with David that I'd have liked to see more about the fighting of Nazi influence, but within the context of the artists' experiences, one of the main points of the film, the trip really wasn't about denouncing Hitler to them, so it's understandable.

The fact that their actions had implications for our industry and the thousands of artists they employed makes it interesting drama... for me, at least.

Cramming more about the strike to instill 'drama' into "El Grupo" (I think that's what you're alluding to here) would be depriving the issue of the respect it deserves. It needs a film all by itself to do it justice. Actually, a film on the strike, and the effect it had on the industry, sounds like a great project for you, David - you'd probably be one of the best candidates for the job.