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Walt & El Grupo
Time Out New York Project: Issue #728, September 10-16, 2009
Dir. Theodore Thomas. 2008. PG. 106mins. Documentary.
This Disney-sanctioned documentary on Papa Walt and company’s 1941 visit to South America is a dull, dry bit of mythmaking. At the request of President Roosevelt, and in the midst of a damaging animator’s strike, Disney and 16 members of his staff traveled to the so-called A-B-C countries (Argentina, Brazil and Chile) on a sort of honorary ambassadorship. It was all part of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy; these well-known populist entertainers, so the thinking went, could work abroad to counteract the spread of Nazi and fascist ideology.
Yet as the film shows—though rarely comments on—Disney’s visit was more a distraction from the encroaching Axis powers than an antidote to them. Newspapers pushed aside war and human-interest stories to trumpet the South American premiere of Fantasia; the animator’s arrival in each city was followed with an often crowd-crushing level of fervor. And all the studio had to show for it were two problematic films—Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros—that adhered to stereotypes as much as they offered olive branches.
It’s telling when one of the doc’s talking heads stops midrecollection and asks if she’s being too political. There’s a marked sense of retreat in this tale that’s never explored—everyone goes out of the way to remember the past through rose-colored specs.—Keith Uhlich