You'd think the Disney studio would have been riding high in 1941. Snow White and Pinocchio had been huge hits; Dumbo and Bambi were in pre-production. But world affairs were cramping Walt Disney's style — especially a war in Europe that was drying up foreign markets and capital.
Then an animator's strike at the House the Mouse Built left the filmmaker seriously depressed. By the time the Roosevelt administration came calling, urging him to make a goodwill tour of Latin America to help counter the diplomatic inroads Nazi Germany was making there, he was eager to get away.
He wasn't eager to just shake a lot of hands, though, so Disney got the government to send his top animators with him, and made it a working tour. The idea was to research future films by soaking up the sights and sounds of Latin America. And, as the entertainingly hagiographic documentary Walt & El Grupo establishes, soak they did.
Filmmaker Ted Thomas is the son of famed Disney animator Frank Thomas, who made the trip. With the cooperation of the Disney studio, as well as the families of the other animators, he was granted access to a mother lode of documentary material. There were letters these working tourists wrote home, sketchbooks they filled and, more to the documentary's point, photos of them filling them — staring, say, at a live parrot and sketching away in the early stages of creating their cigar-smoking animated parrot, Joe Carioca.
Perhaps more than the colorful foliage and animals they discovered, it was the rhythms captured on this trip that were a revelation to the Disney group — "el Grupo," as they began calling themselves. They went to nightclubs and more formal functions, heard the samba and the tango, watched black dancers at candombe and witnessed how the songs fit with Latin American life.
This was an era when international travel was not yet common, and in 16mm home movies from the trip, you can see the excitement as 1940s cities burst into gaudy state welcomes for the creator of El Raton Mickey.
The state department evidently got it right. More than a decade before Walt Disney became a familiar face on American TV, the crowds that surged to greet him in Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires and other cities suggest that this was one goodwill tour that actually generated goodwill.
Happily, the documentary doesn't settle for showing that. The filmmakers went to the hotels Disney stayed at, visited the same rooms and then mixed new footage with the old, so that the onscreen image can fade from a sketch of Donald Duck sitting on a balcony with a mountain in the background to a shot that is clearly that same balcony, with Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain in the background.
The filmmakers also found some of the folks who performed for Disney, including an ancient, almost toothless dancer who narrates footage of his 20-year-old self stomping and twirling as Disney looked on, all those years ago.
In his later life, Walt Disney would develop a reputation as a control freak with a dark side. But on this trip, he was not yet 40 and still willing to wear a gaucho costume and twirl a lasso, just as Goofy would in a cartoon that emerged from the trip.
The Oscar-nominated movies Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros were the immediate result of the trip — filled with stereotypes, yes, but comparatively friendly ones. The state department was pushing a good-neighbor policy, remember.
And, in return for a guarantee in case the films didn't earn their money back at the box office (which they did), Walt Disney and el Grupo were happy to promote the idea that it's a small world, after all.