Monday, January 21, 2019

Walt Disney, part VII: Won't you be our neighbor?


A reasonably pleasant diversion for a film made at the behest of the U.S. State Department, Saludos Amigos has some pretty low lows, but its usual tack is genial, colorful, and funny, and if you showed it in a classroom today it's at least possible you might not get mobbed on Twitter, which for a Disney film made in 1942 about people other than Europeans is, frankly, a sterling achievement.

1942 (Brazil)/1943 (USA)
Directed by Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, and Norm Ferguson

Spoiler alert: mild

I know you know this, but it's worth pointing out: the so-called Golden and Silver Ages of Walt Disney Studio were not contiguous.  There was a long and sometimes-forgotten period following the 1942 release of the last Golden Age film, Bambi, that encompassed roughly eight years and, according to Disney's canonical arrangement, fully six animated feature films (plus a couple more if you count the things they don't).  Perhaps the least-appreciated time in Disney history, this stretch is typically described as the Package Film Era, after the mode of its production: features cobbled together out of shorts, sometimes strongly thematically-linked (as in our subject today), sometimes only questionably of a piece, and sometimes barely lashed together at all, by some oddball framing device or other.

I think the term "package film" gained traction, also, because it's a somewhat deflating way to describe any motion picture, with the connotation of it being along the lines of "here's some Goddamn cartoons—enjoy."  Indeed, the other thing the package films are known for is being an enormous step down in quality and ambition from the Golden AgeSometimes they were still great; at least one package film was half of a masterpiece.  But ain't none of 'em exactly Fantasia.

In any event, the success of Dumbo had pointed the way to a cheaper, faster, and more profitable production style—the longer-gestating (and not-profitable) Bambi being a literal holdover—and the reasons for Walt's embrace of more limited horizons are legion.  There was the animators' strike of 1941, which cost Disney some of its talent and meant higher salaries for the rest.  There was the onset of World War II, which entailed the closure of many foreign markets, as well as the loss of even more employees.  Above all, there was Walt's recklessness.  The Disney Studio had started the 1940s with almost more money than its boss knew what to do with.  He figured it out more quickly than anyone would've believed possible, and, by 1942, "package films" were about all Disney could afford to make.

Yet the delineation between the two periods is not a big bright line, as any look at the production history of the first package film, Saludos Amigos, will tell you.  (Or any look at the credits: "Wolfgang Reitherman?  Isn't he out flying a P-40 somewhere?")  Its genesis rested not so much in commercial considerations as patriotic ones, though some personal ones bore on it too: in the midst of the '41 strike, Walt, having decided that potentially having his nose broken by Art Babbitt was a bad idea after all, organized a little trip, with the blessing (that is to say, the financing) of the U.S. State Department, leaving brother Roy to deal with the strikers (which he did, more reasonably).  On a mission headed by Nelson Rockefeller (then coordinator of inter-American affairs at State), Walt and a team of loyalist animators, composers, painters, etc., went on a tour of South America, under the auspices of Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy.  The aim was to eventually make a film that could be shown in the U.S. and in Latin America, and bring all our nations closer together—a vital consideration as the U.S. approached war with Nazi Germany.  Ultimately, four countries were visited (Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, respectively), and many Latin American artists, musicians, and regular folk were consulted, some obviously more than others, whilst the Disney crew generally soaked up the subequatorial vibe.

The result was a cartoon for each country, combined into the shortest of Disney's canonical works, a slim 42 minute "feature" made mostly to reassure South Americans that North Americans liked them, and to showcase to North Americans that South American culture strongly paralleled our own.  Actually, thanks to this splitting of differences, it's kind of unclear exactly who the audience for it is supposed to be: in theory made "for" Latin Americans, it takes the form of a travelogue—live action bumpers document the Disney expedition itself—which means that, in practice, each individual segment is telling its presumed audience about a country they already live in, usually in childish terms, while finding fascination in things that it's not always obvious they would, sometimes to the extent of describing to them how their mail system works like it's surprised they have one.  (It's narrated throughout by Fred Shields, both in the documentary segments and over most of the cartoon shorts; I strongly assume it was narrated by someone else for Latin America, but I sure can't find by whom.  In the Spanish and Portuguese versions, there could be some crucial differences in tone.)  Anyway, I guess I can't argue with the outcome.  Amigos was a hit in South America, premiering in Rio de Janeiro in the August of 1942 just one week after Bambi in New York, and did well in the U.S. the following year.

So: after explaining the basic backstory by way of some fun cartoon maps, Shields welcomes us to our first segment, Peru's "Lake Titicaca," where we find Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) has begun his own South American vacation.  It's what you'd expect: Donald makes his irascible way through a series of gags, typically altitude-based, as he climbs through the Andes and learns about Peruvian indigenes and the famous mountains and lake they call home.  Of course, he faces the placid contempt of a llama as well (an attitude called out in Shields' narration and depicted in the documentary footage, if not really borne out in the animation of the antagonistic llama itself, who's mainly just annoyed).  And, of course, Donald suffers, he gets mad, and he falls from things relatively often.  It's pretty okay, even though it's by far the most othering of any of Amigos' shorts, exoticizing the Quechua people without fail.

To some extent, this is even acknowledged.  "Titicaca" is, on some level, a droll satire of the American tourist, walking around like he owns the place, yet befuddled by everything he finds.  But it does somewhat present its subjects like weird exhibits anyway (nobody but Donald is a character, not even the llama), replete with cornball jokes about the behavior of these people who live in the windy mountains, and while it's never mean or malicious, it's also the one where you can sort of see the intended North American and South American audiences being aligned, since the average crowd of Spanish-descended Peruvians in Lima in 1942 would probably be just as happy gawking at Andean natives as anybody else. (6/10)

Then again, at least it has Peruvians at all.  The next segment takes us south to Chile and to "Pedro," which is the nadir of the film by any metric: aesthetic, comedic, representational, whatever.  It's about mail planes, though it actually took me two viewings to grasp that this was the foundational pun of the segment, since it was too dumb to register the first time: it's about a baby mail plane, Pedro, son of a big male plane (get it?), and a medium-sized female plane.  I'll admit, recognizing the joke makes me like "Pedro" very slightly more, but this is all basically unacceptable anyway, partly because of its gender stereotypes, but mostly because it really wants us to think about things we usually wouldn't with anthropomorphized machines, from how they could possibly grow to "adulthood" to how they bear young to how they even copulated in the first place.  (Dr. Strangelove style?)  It's all wrapped up in a deeply unpleasant anthropomorphic package, no more successful than it would be decades later in Cars and its Planes spin-offs.  The connection there is one extremely straight line, with the planes' cockpit windows turned into unnervingly gigantic eyes, and it's gross.  Naturally, their animation involves a lot more squash-and-stretch than one may consider desirable in a rigid aluminum aircraft, too.  And the lips on the control tower?  That's straight-up horrifying.

(And, man, how did I forget about that fucking hat?)

Well, we find that our papa and mama plane are too ill to fly the strenuous route from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina; that means it's up to Pedro.  However, it's an open question whether he's up to the task of making it around the dreaded Aconcagua, a tall Andean peak with its own anthropomorphized, vengeful expression.  Serving as Pedro's antagonist, the mountain is the only time I'm aware of that a Disney villain was played exclusively by a background painting.

"Pedro" is notable for being the one segment of Amigos that actually pissed anybody off in its day, with some Chileans annoyed to be represented by a small, wimpy, barely-capable aircraft.  I don't imagine Disney meant to say anything negative about Chile.  I mean, the closest they get to saying anything about Chile whatsoever is that the country rests on the edge of a tectonic plate and they have mail service.  "Pedro" is not just Amigos' least-interesting segment, then; it's its least-interested.  It doesn't even achieve its limited goals as a boilerplate gag cartoon.  It manages a single decent punchline at the end (Pedro does get the mail through, which turns out to be a lousy postcard; "well, it could have been important").  Before that, it has scarcely offered a single satisfactory one.  In other words, "Pedro" sucks whether you're Chilean or not.  (3/10)

Things get better with "El Gaucho Goofy," in the style of the Goofy "How To" shorts that began with "How To Ride a Horse" in 1941's proto-package film, The Reluctant Dragon.  This one engages with Argentina rather more than "Pedro" did with Chile, giving credit to Florencio Molina Campos for inspiring the animators with his semi-kitsch paintings of cowboys (that is, "gauchos") out on the Argentinian pampas.  The idea is to take Goofy (Pinto Colvig), in his guise as a Texan cowpoke, and wonder aloud in animation what he'd be like as an Argentinian gaucho (the answer: mostly the same, and still highly incompetent, but he wears different clothes), and it's all fine stuff.  The basis of the humor remains the ironic juxtaposition of a narrator proudly waxing lyrical about the silly action we're seeing; but, you know, it always works.  (7/10)

The final segment saves the best for last, though it's also perhaps the most unsatisfying.  This is "Aquarela do Brasil," or "Watercolor of Brazil"—and that title's to be taken literally.  The "plot" is that we're catching up with Donald as he arrives on the last leg of his vacation, which has brought him to Rio de Janeiro (quite obviously the Disney group's favorite destination on this trip).  Here, Donald meets José Carioca (José Oliveira), a parrot based (according to Fields) on the protagonist of many Brazilian jokes, and he's cool, exhorting Donald to "samba!"  He'd become a recurring Disney character, and remains instantly identifiable in his homeland.

But what "Aquarela" is "about" is something different, and, if anything, the instant that Donald and José show up is the instant it gets worse.  What it's about is creating its setting with literal splashes of color, as if applied by an artist-god in the process of imagining it, who also happens to be a samba fan.  "Aquarela" is exceedingly beautiful, its protean paint flowing here and there, becoming whatever it pleases, and it's a very cute little meditation on reducing ideas to form.  Then its heroes appear, ex nihilo, and they're fun, but more concrete and therefore less interesting, dampening the aesthetic in turn.  But the real problem lies in the promise the short and the rising soundtrack make—that we'll get a phantasmagoric impression of Brazil's nightlife through the lens of two wacky cartoon birds, and this ends the very moment it begins. (7/10)

Altogether, Saludos Amigos may be an utter trifle, but hardly one you regret spending time with.  (How much time could you spend with it, anyway?)  Outside of "Pedro," which is an immense drag, it's entirely likeable even when it's faintly problematic, and it probably did teach somebody something.  Meanwhile, it was enough of a success in its target market that it got a sequel in the form of The Three Caballeros.  So it is good—even if the declining standards it represents weren't.

Score: 6/10

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