The Great Disney Blogathon: The Three Caballeros (1945)
|July 9, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Music, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about this series either! Those Backstreet Boys and Kryptonians, so distracting.
If you’ll cast your minds back to the days of yore when I talked about Saludos Amigos, you’ll remember that it was the result of a goodwill trip to South America that the US government sent Walt and some of his animators on, part of the Good Neighbor policy. Not only did the trip provide inspiration for two whole (very short) movies’ worth of cartoons, but Saludos Amigos also made a ton of money, especially in Latin America. Naturally, Disney was eager to follow up on that success, and went to town on The Three Caballeros, the guiding principles of which can be summed up as “like Saludos Amigos, but with more José, more pretty Latin American women, and much, much weirder.” Seriously, forget your Alice in Wonderland and your “Elephants on Parade”; The Three Caballeros is the trippiest thing to come out of Disney’s animated features.
Like Saludos Amigos, it’s a series of shorts, but there’s a bit more of a thread connecting them. The movie opens with Donald receiving a huge box of birthday1 presents from his friends in Latin America. The first one he opens is a film projector and a bunch of reels. He puts the first one on and is treated to a film-within-a-film that is also a series of shorts, called “Aves Raras” (Rare Birds). It contains the following:
The Cold-Blooded Penguin: Narrated by Sterling Holloway and dialogue-free, this is the story of a penguin named Pablo, who doesn’t enjoy his chilly life at the South Pole and eventually sets sail for the tropics in a boat made of ice. Many visual puns and general gaggery ensues (bouncing off the equator, which is a literal rubber line around the globe) before he reaches his paradise.
There’s an interval here where the “Aves Raras” narrator tells Donald about a series of tropical birds (toucans, flamingos, etc.). More gaggery ensues. Most notable is the Aracuan Bird, a little red bird in an old-fashioned stripey bathing suit who sings a peeping little song that consists only of his name, like a Pokemon, as he runs up the projector beam and around Donald’s head.2
The Flying Gauchito: The second full short of “Aves Raras” is about an adorable young gaucho from Uruguay who finds a baby flying donkey, befriends it, and enters it in a race. (It’s narrated by the gaucho as an adult, but all the sources I checked just credit both Frank Graham and Fred Shields as “Narrator,” so I’m not sure who narrated this short vs. “Aves Raras” as a whole.)
Brazil Section: As “Aves Raras” ends, another one of Donald’s presents starts playing a samba. He opens it to find a pop-up book titled “Brasil,” and when he flips it open, he finds José Carioca inside. After some tomfoolery with the Aracuan Bird, who steals José’s cigar and runs off the edge of the filmstrip, José sings rapturously of Baía, accompanied by beautiful watercolor-esque animation of the architecture and foliage of the state. When he finds out that Donald has never been, they jump back into the book and board a train to Baía. The animation here is equally striking: brightly-colored chalk drawings on a black background. The Aracuan Bird draws extra chalk tracks, splitting up the train cars willy-nilly, but eventually the train reassembles, and our boys step out of the book into Baía.
Here they meet the live action Aurora Miranda, who plays a cookie seller. She and a chorus of male dancers perform “Os Quindins de Yayá” while Donald and José dance and attempt to flirt with her. Finally she kisses Donald, sending him into a trippy daydream where live action dancing and singing mix with colorful animated effects (for example, two male dancers sparring over Miranda turn into animated roosters and back). Eventually everything is dancing, even the buildings.
Mexico Section: José and Donald squeeze out of the book and José reminds Donald that he still has more presents. They’re tiny from being inside the book; José easily inflates himself to the correct size by blowing on his finger, but Donald has more trouble.3 Eventually they get a present open and it explodes into a colorful soundtrack, like the one in Fantasia but way more flamboyant, playing an instrumental version of the title song. Donald and José dance until Donald is dragged into the soundtrack and blown up like a balloon, which José pops.
Leaping out of the explosion come Panchito Pistoles, voiced by Joaquin Garay, pistols blazing. He introduces himself to Donald and José and leads them in the wonderful title song, then gives Donald his present from Mexico: a piñata. After Panchito explains the tradition of Las Posadas in a beautiful sequence in which art supervisor Mary Blair’s influence shines through (a sequence of gouache paintings of small children against a lightly sketched background in which the only thing that moves is the flames of their candles), Donald breaks the piñata.
From here on out the movie kicks into high gear and never lets up. A shower of toys fall out, along with another book. Panchito uses it to tell them about the founding of Mexico City, and we see watercolor images of the city to the song “Mexico,” sung by Carlos Ramírez. The caballeros hop on “the magic serape” and fly over several Mexican locales, stopping to dance the “Lilongo” with a group of female dancers led by Carmen Molina. The boys yank him away and fly to Acapulco, where Donald chases a bevvy of giggling, swimsuit-clad girls around. Panchito drags him off to check out the Mexico City “nightlife,” which consists of Dora Luz’s face in a star-filled sky singing “You Belong to My Heart.” Donald is smitten for the millionth time (Donald, think of Daisy!), and when Dora Luz’s, um, disembodied animated lips kiss him, the movie explodes into a high-octane, earsplitting psychedelic dream sequence. Embedded in this is one more musical number: “Jesusita en Chihuahua,” a Mexican Revolution song performed with foot-stomping glee by a cowgirled-up Carmen Molina, Donald, and a line of dancing cacti. José and Panchito return to take us out, with Panchito playing bullfighter and Donald in a bull costume laced with fireworks. José sets them off, and the movie ends in a riot of color and sound.
The description I just gave you was fairly longwinded, and yet it can’t possibly convey the madness – or the beauty – of this movie. here’s a clip from the end of “You Belong to My Heart” through the finale, which might give you an idea (or heck, watch the whole thing here). Unsurprisingly, critics at the time were not terribly fond of it (though it was a financial success), but audiences in the 60s and 70s rediscovered it and loved it. I know what those audiences were doing!
Seriously, though, I freaking love this movie.4 I’m not that into psychedelic animation – the wacky shifting sequences of Alice in Wonderland do nothing for me. But I love Donald, and I love José, and I love Panchito, and it’s their interactions (even though José and Panchito are kind of dicks to Donald) that draw me in.5 Panchito is as much of a delightful revelation as José was in Saludos Amigos – at least, if you don’t mind noise, because he’s an extremely loud character. He’s wonderfully voiced and still has some adorable chicken-like mannerisms to go with his (actually also very rooster-like) swagger, and his explosive cheerfulness makes a perfect contrast to José’s urbanity and Donald’s earnest buttmonkeytude and temper. (Actually, Panchito and José border on cruelty in the way they treat Donald, but they also seem to genuinely like and admire him, so they’re easy to forgive. It’s better than Mickey’s passive-aggressive manipulation, at least.)
And despite my general “meh” attitude towards psychedelic bombast, The Three Caballeros is visually stunning. All of the quiet sequences like “Baia” and “Los Posadas” are absolutely lovely. The final sequences are a frenetic explosion of unfettered imagination. And the marriage of live action and animation was something Disney hadn’t done much with since the old Alice shorts, but thanks to Ub Iwerks, Walt’s genius tech guy, they were able to pull off some really fantastic moments. Sure, it looks dated compared to, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and it’s pretty clear that much of the “Os Quindins de Yayá” sequence was simply Aurora Miranda dancing in front of a screen with the already-animated Donald and José, but such is the skill of the animators (and the live action performers) that it’s all perfectly synced and everyone’s reacting where they should. After a while, all you see is the interplay, not the smoke and mirrors. And to be honest, there are plenty of places where I have no idea how they did what they did; during the beach scene, for example, the girls toss Donald in a live action blanket that dips as if there’s a real weight there every time he lands in it. How? Only Ub knows for sure!
But…let’s talk about that beach scene.6 Um. You guys, it is all kinds of screwed up. The boys arrive by divebombing the bathing beauties, pointing finger guns at them and making machine gun noises, while the girls run away and their beach umbrellas are blown out of the sand (because flying serapes are super windy, I guess?). Donald then changes into a hilarious old-timey bathing suit and leaps off the serape to join the girls in a rousing game of Blind Man’s Bluff, in which he chases them indiscriminately, trying frantically to grab any girl he can reach while yelling things like “Come here, you little devil!” Yes, the women are laughing and playing along and don’t seem all that threatened by a three-foot cartoon duck, but the aggressive pursuit it…it’s weird. It’s jarring. Donald’s been a lover – and a fiesty one – since 1937’s “Don Donald,” but this kind of violence courtship seems more at home in a Tex Avery wolf cartoon than with the Duck, and I don’t just say that because Donald and Daisy are my all-time favorite Disney couple. The guns and the clutching and the salivating just strike me as extremely distasteful.7
And hey, while we’re talking about that beach scene…considering that it was obviously shot on the Disney lot, I think we can safely assume that most of the women in the scene are actually white. (Or, considering it’s Southern California, potentially Latina and passing to make it in Hollywood. I’m not very familiar with the ethnic demographics of 1940s Hollywood, though.) And…well, there’s a twofold problem here. In Saludos Amigos, despite some problematic elements, Latin America was at least represented in a multifaceted way: small villages, rural plains, bustling modern cities; cowboys and fishermen and partying cityfolk; many unique countries with unique traditions. Here, with the exception of José and Pancho, Latin America is represented overwhelming by one thing: hot ladies. Light-skinned hot ladies. Aurora Miranda, Carmen Molinda, and Dora Luz are all very talented, but the fact that Donald falls in love with all of them makes it very clear that we’re supposed to see them as exotic eye candy first and foremost, and the fact that all of the beautiful women in the movie are light-skinned – and all except the ones I’ve named might very well not be Brazilian or Mexican at all – makes it equally clear that colorism and whitewashing were alive and well in 1945. (Which we all already knew, but still.) As great as the dancing and singing is, as much as this entire movie practically dances off the screen and leaves you humming the music when it’s over, the representation of an entire continent-plus as nothing but sultry coquettes is not only insulting to two modern, diverse countries, it reinforces the stereotype of Latinas – and minority women in general – as hypersexed.
The Three Caballeros is not a perfect movie, and it’s not surprising that it hasn’t gone down in history as a beloved classic. But it’s a must-see oddball of a flick with fantastic music, wonderful characters, and the Disney animators at their most imaginative, innovative, and bizarre. Put it in your Netflix queue today!
- Friday the 13th, of course. ↩
- He would return to bedevil Donald in the “Blame It On the Samba” short from Melody Time and the standalone short “Clown of the Jungle.” ↩
- This was years before Alice in Wonderland, but Walt always had a thing for that book; see also his early Alice comedies and the Mickey Mouse short “Thru the Mirror.” ↩
- Although to be honest, I think of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros as one not-even-that-long movie, since I discovered them at the same time and they’re on the same DVD. ↩
- I cannot recommend Don Rosa’s comics based on these films, “The Magnificent Seven (Minus Four)” and “The Three Caballeros Ride Again,” highly enough. Rosa is great at doing off-the-wall action stories grounded in real-world history and geography, but for me his greatest strength will always be…well, emotional porn. You want stories about the depth of Donald’s friendship with José and Panchito or how much he loves his nephews or the emotional roller coaster that is Scrooge’s beautiful, tragic life? Rosa’s your boy! ↩
- In one of the less impressive bits of razzle dazzle in this movie, it’s clearly just a bunch of sand on a soundstage dumped in front of an unappealingly brown backdrop. Because it’s not like there were any beaches near Hollywood they could’ve used. Or, you know, blue paint. ↩
- Hilarious side note: some critics were super grossed out by all the Donald/human ladies action, with one calling out the cactus dance in particular for phallic imagery. I’d love to see what they thought of Roger Rabbit. ↩