THE THREE CABALLEROS
The package film era of Disney at its most playful, of course that must be very playful indeed. Tastes may vary on whether that makes The Three Caballeros actually good or not, but, heck, it's certainly something to see.
1944 Mexico/1945 USA
Directed by Norman Ferguson
Spoiler alert: inapplicable in the extreme
The Three Caballeros is all sorts of crazy things, and also, in a sense, nothing, arguably the closest to a sustained work of experimental animation that the Walt Disney Studio ever produced under the guise of a feature film. There's one segment of Fantasia, "Toccata and Fugue," which outstrips it in non-narrative formlessness, as well as a few independent shorts that I expect could go up against it; there's "Pink Elephants On Parade" in Dumbo; perhaps there's something in the mini-Fantasias yet to come; and I think that's about it for its competition. And the experimental part of The Three Caballeros is probably only a little shorter than all of them put together, even if it's only in certain bits and pieces that it's truly operating at the headlong tilt into abstraction that best justifies its existence. In fact, a great deal of it is just dumbass zany slapstick based on the rediscovered conceit of Walt's 1920s Alice Comedies, that is, cartoons interacting with live-action humans, only now with the added twist that Donald Duck wants to get inside them. I mean, that's as close to a "story" as Three Caballeros ever gets; and the film represents the moment where Disney's anthologized package films of 1943-1949 decided they didn't need anything more than a half-hearted gesture at a comprehensible structure to get by.
Best, then, to start with what role Caballeros was intended to serve: the thing about Disney in the 40s, as I've reiterated every time, because it's never stopped being relevant, is that they were broke. In the first half of the decade, there were only two lonely bright spots: the first was 1941's Dumbo, which was made cheaply and therefore made a profit; the second was 1942's Saludos Amigos, which was backstopped financially by the U.S. State Department as part of President Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy toward the amalgamated mass of Latin American countries south of our border, and which was intended to demonstrate that Norteamericanos actually did know the names of most of the big ones, and had at least a vague (very vague) understanding of their cultural distinctions.
Walt probably noticed, as well, that South America was the one other continent on Earth with a significant film market that wasn't Axis-occupied. And he certainly couldn't help but notice that Amigos was a success on its own terms both in South America and in the United States. Hence a sequel, The Three Caballeros, partly built out of scrapped ideas for Amigos, partly its own creation, and, besides returning to Brazil—clearly Walt and El Grupo's favorite part of South America and the only one that seemed to genuinely inspire them—they would add Mexico, the largest Spanish-speaking country not represented the last time. (And both, perhaps not coincidentally, were the most important Latin American nations to have actively joined the fight in WWII, which Peru, Chile, and Argentina did not.) I'm not entirely sure how richly this return to the well paid off for Walt, at least in an immediate sense; though given its blessing, I don't think the budget was guaranteed by the State Dept. this time. I am certain, however, that it was met with baffled hostility in English-speaking countries, and, frankly, I can't entirely blame them.
Meanwhile, for the animators—which is what one may prefer I mean when I say "Disney," rather than the business entity run by Walt and Roy—it was an opportunity to just do whatever, so long as it was nominally Latin-themed, and I half-wonder if many of them saw it as perhaps the last chance they'd ever have to work so freely with the resources at Disney's command, even the attenuated resources available in 1944. If this is the case, I feel bad for the ones stuck on its first couple of segments, which is where Caballeros is still just burning off abandoned notions from the previous film.
Before that, however, we get our anemic framing narrative centered upon Donald Duck (Clarence Nash), the irascible hero of two Amigos segments. Now a prisoner of the Phantom Zone, or perhaps Dread Dormammu's Dark Dimension, in any event this black empty space is, I guess, supposed to be the mallard's living quarters, this representing the first blush of the cost-saving efforts that, in fairness, sometimes do work in Caballeros' favor as a work of shrieky minimalism. Anyway, Caballeros turns that "package film" moniker into a literal description of its events, and we see a huge gift sitting in this void, which Donald identifies (after recalling his squawky Spanish) as a present from his friends in Latin America. Presumably, this means José Carioca (José Oliveira) the cigar-smoking parrot, this being the only entity Donald met last time you could rightfully call Donald's "friend." We will indeed get to José soon enough, but in the meantime Donald finds a film projector and some canisters, and... "Oh boy! Cartoons!" Bundled as "Aves Raras," this pair of shorts deals with "rare birds," like the penguin, and the donkey. You know. Rare birds.
The first is "The Cold-Blooded Penguin," the superior of the two, telling a cute and modestly funny tale of the penguins of Antarctica, not typically considered part of "Latin America," though it stars a penguin named Pablo, so close enough. Most of Pablo's kin treat their polar home as a beach (the best gag in the these first twenty minutes is a waddle of penguins treating the snow as sand and burying themselves and building castles). But Pablo, uniquely, cannot abide the cold, and dreams of a tropical island, and this is the story of his several inept, desperate, amusing, and kind of melacholy attempts to relocate from his ice sheet at the end of the world to his new home in the Pacific. It's terribly normal, and is notable mainly for Sterling "Winnie the Pooh" Holloway's narration (Pablo himself is silent), some fun jokes that take Holloway's words literally, and a nice, bittersweet ending. (6/10) The second short is "The Flying Gauchito," concerning the tale of a juvenile gaucho in Paraguay who tames a winged donkey (hence "a rare bird," though I rather question the cladistics involved), as told by an older self who keeps stumbling over unimportant details, much to his younger self's chagrin, especially as objects pop in and out of existence as he plumbs the depths of his memory. The unreliability of this narrator (Fred Shields, putting on an accent) is intriguing, though honestly not much is done with it. And that's a shame, because the actual content of "The Flying Gauchito" is entirely boring bullshit, and it certainly isn't going to rescue itself. The best thing you can say about "Gauchito" is that it's brief, and mostly painless, and makes a bid for redemption with its closing words, "And neither I nor the donkey were ever seen again for as long as we lived," which is at least silly enough to draw a gentle laugh. (5/10)
The other part of "Gauchito" that damages the whole is that—if you really, really squint—you can see a connection between everything else here, beyond the "it's Spanish or something, right?" major theme, in that "Penguin" reflects the remainder of Caballeros, inasmuch as both take on a yearning to escape the dreary world one knows and suck the marrow out of life in new and exciting ways. It's not unlikely that this meant something to animators stuck doing what amounted to menial labor for the War Department. And it should be noted that in between this penguin and donkey, we do get a few actual rare birds, along with one fictional one, the Aracuan Bird, a fairly blatant nod to Woody Woodpecker. Bound by neither the confines of the film he's in, nor even the film that Donald's in, as the recurring Aracuan takes on the aspect of a trickster god, this is where Caballeros starts to get... strange. It also stops being an anthology film, strictly speaking, but I'm afraid I've already committed to the format. Fortunately, by tradition, the individual segments retain their own particular titles.
Welcoming us to this strangeness is another gift, which turns out to be José Carioca himself, and thus begins "Baía," presumably a corruption of Bahia, a state of Brazil. "Have you ever been to Baía?" José asks Donald in song, somewhere between five and infinity times; Donald replies in the negative each time, and finally just asks if José has ever been to Baía, which he has not. And so, by way of the magic pop-up book José's brought with him, they go to Baía, and this is sort of what I wanted when I said that José's segment of Amigos, and the best segment of Amigos, "Aquarela do Brasil," needed a punchier ending. "Baía" offers some decent multiplane landscapes that underline José's ode to its beauty (personally, I think they tack slightly too hard toward red in their pink-and-purple sunsets, which combined with the flying doves and the lack of any other life whatsoever kind of give it the feeling of a post-apocalypse rather than a paradise). But when Donald and José arrive in Baía, it turns out it's populated by a great many people, by which I mean actual, photographed human beings.
Thus is introduced the other major theme of the film: Donald lusting after a cavalcade of Latina entertainers. He begins here, with Aurora Miranda, who tends to stare in Donald's general direction with a rictus grin that's the live-action portions' most sustained flirtation with the "what the hell am I looking at?" style of acting that's tended to infect live-action/cartoon hybrids pretty much right up until the modern age, where looking at the place a cartoon will later go is now any actor's primary job. There's another song, replete with live-action dancing this time, and "Baía" is plenty kinetic, but not all that compelling; the coolest thing that happens outside of its multiplane introduction (and the Aracuan screwing with them in admittedly very funny ways) is a dance-off between a pair of men, also vying for Miranda's affections, who become satanic, silhouetted gamecocks by way of editing. It perhaps doesn't help that the hybridization itself looks like garbage half the time, particularly the recourse to several rear-projected images of Donald and José that tend to be genuinely quite poorly photographed. On the plus side for our American hero, "Baia" concludes with Donald winning from Miranda the only
orgasm passionate kiss he'll get to have in the whole film. (6/10)
What I hope I'm making clear is that The Three Caballeros is, for the most part, about carnal desire, and suggests that Disney's animators either didn't have enough sex, or had had way too much; and it's also about reducing Latin America to its most enduring stereotypes, as a colorful fuckscape of constant dancing, beautiful women, endless license, and—on a positive note—inexhaustible energy. That last comes through in spades once Donald opens his present from Mexico, and it turns out José is not the only bird to have mailed himself to America: meet Panchito Pistoles the rooster (Jaoquin Garay), who's kind of the definition of inexhaustible energy, and who declares these two strangers to have joined forces with him as "The Three Caballeros," easily the best song in the film (it's based on "¡Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes!" by Manuel Esperón), clever and willing to rhyme a dozen lines in a row in much the same escalating absurdist register that the animation itself has taken on to dramatize the outsized, violently-charimastic personality of Donald and José's new best friend. And somewhere in there is a wacky homage to Fantasia's "Meet the Soundtrack," which couldn't have hurt its chances of me enjoying it. (8/10)
Then, for some reason, apparently a vestigial interest in educating Americans, it downshifts into "Las Posadas," Panchito's apropos-of-very-little description of the Mexican Yuletide tradition, rendered in limited animation, ala Victory Though Airpower, by way of concept artist Mary Blair's leftovers from Amigos. I would prefer to say I like it, because I usually like Blair's simple aesthetic, but I can't tell if their wide-set eyes and open-mawed cutesiness make them adorable... or just eerie. Of course, no matter which option I choose, neither will stop "Las Posadas" from being misplaced and dull. (5/10) That said, Panchito's line, "no posada, no shelter" sticks with me. For good reason: because "Las Posadas" is the last shelter from the insane nonsense that's coming, which is good, because you've possibly noticed I have not been in this film's corner so far.
So there's the pinata sketch, in which Panchito and José punk Donald, and then comes the imaginatively-named "Mexico: Pátzcuaro, Veracruz and Acapulco," a travelogue of Mexico that is, essentially, just more of "Baía," but more fun, perhaps because it leans into its sleaziness even harder and comes out the other side into batshit craziness, or perhaps because the live-action/animation hybrid is pulled off in less-ambitious-but-technically-superior ways, or perhaps because I simply like the Technicolor reproduction of the dancers' pastel costumes. But it culminates in a flight on Panchito's magic serape across a ladies-only Acapulco beach, and Donald goes haywire again, and it directly equates Donald's lascivious gaze with a WWII strafing run. Now Donald embraces his nature as a duck and chases the women of Acapulco from surf to turf—God knows what would happen if he caught one—but the models earning their paychecks for the day's shooting all seem in on the joke, and, miraculously, they mostly react as if a crude duck a quarter their size really was trying to molest them, only, y'know, in a fun way. (6/10)
That leaves a horny and unsatisfied Donald (the only person he successfully assaulted was José, who took it well), and as he flies with his friends over Mexico City, the bottom drops out. The city lights trigger Donald's psychosexual mescaline trip, "You Belong To My Heart/Donald's Surreal Reverie," in which a Latin love goddess in the stars (Dora Luz) croons at him and what little physicality Caballeros possessed falls away entirely, reinventing itself as moving abstract imagery—color designed by Blair and inspired, I think, by the sharp geometries and overwhelming color of calaveras art—all while José and Panchito routinely interrupt Donald's metaphorical coitus (I'm not even kidding) with astringent bars of "The Three Caballeros" in duet.
This is where the movie truly earns its keep, because it keeps going like this, into outright psychedelic territory, and into some of the most beautiful individual moments of Disney animation of the 1940s. Ultimately, Donald is captured instead by Carmen Molina, previously seen in Panchito's travelogue. She appears first in a sensuous blue daydream, and then as the leader of a rather suggestive march of giant cacti, in a new, militaristic charro costume and directing her cactus dancers with a horsewhip used as a baton. For a movie this transparently "about sex," it's only in the final push that it actually ever manages sexy: Molina's exquisite in her form-fitting green cowgirl's suit and adds a cool, confident feminine sexuality to balance out the reckless, hopeless lechery we've seen up till now. "Surreal Reverie" offers a depiction of the psychological state of sexual desperation, and it's hard not to find this vastly more interesting than watching a cel-animated animal attempt to mate with human women. But the most wondrous thing about it is the kaleidoscopic complexity of its bizarre and varied imagery, especially the way that, as Molina and her cactus slaves move up and down the depth of a visible stage, the sky and land become barely distinct as rainbow blocks of shimmering, iridescent color. Then a bull makes Donald explode or something, and the movie ends in fireworks; in a nice closing touch, it does so in all three of its leads' languages, Spanish, Portuguese, and English alike. But I cannot say for sure if Donald Duck survived his confrontation with his own id. (9/10)
The Three Caballeros is a fucking mess, obviously: it's twenty minutes of the most utterly square Disney animation imaginable, followed by thirty-five minutes of inconsistent and careless "travelogue" material that was clearly being made up by the storymen as it went along, and only in its final stretch does it have any thought in its head beyond duck rape, misspelled place names, and zany cartoon gags. But a lot of that zaniness, in its defense, does land; and that final stretch feels like it coheres this package film into a whole, even if it's really just crap strung together to make seven reels. It's vibrant and boundlessly, assaultively high-energy; sometimes wearyingly so. But when it works, what can I say? It works.