Walt & El Grupo
Cast & Crew
Walter Elias Disney Miller
For ten weeks in 1941, Walt Disney, his wife Lilly, and sixteen colleagues from his studio visited nations in Latin America to gather story material for a series of films with South American themes.
Walter Elias Disney Miller
Bill Bryn Russell
Walt & El Grupo
Disney is so intimately linked with the culture of United States that it's surprising to see his name alongside a Spanish phrase in the title of Walt & El Grupo, a 2008 documentary about a little-known episode in his career. It began with a crisis he faced in 1941, when money problems arose - he'd expanded his operation just as the start of World War I shredded European markets for his 1940 hits Pinocchio and Fantasia - and angry animators launched a strike to back up demands for higher wages and other changes.
Suddenly the magic kingdom didn't seem so magical. Disney had no idea how to resolve the difficulties, but he soon found a convenient way to distance himself until things cooled down. Accepting an invitation by the State Department to undertake a goodwill tour of South America, he boarded a plane with his wife and a select group of colleagues and spent ten busy weeks seeing sights, listening to music, and gathering ideas for Latin-flavored films.
The travelers dubbed themselves El Grupo, and the nickname stuck. Their mission took them to the so-called ABC countries - Argentina, Brazil, Chile - and it was a win-win proposition for all concerned. On the US government side, sending the famous, charismatic Disney south of the border was a highly promising bid to counteract Germany's courtship of South American support as the world went deeper into war. On the Hollywood side, it was a cost-free venture, with the State Department covering expenses and promising to underwrite two Latin-inspired movies when the trip was over. Something for everyone!
Walt & El Grupo reconstructs the expedition from a privileged position, since it was written and directed by Theodore Thomas, the son of Frank Thomas, a member of the entourage. The elder Thomas was one of the so-called Nine Old Men - actually nine young men when Disney gave them that half-joking moniker - who oversaw the animation of key scenes in classics like Cinderella (1950) and Dumbo (1941) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), for which Frank animated all seven of the dwarfs. The younger Thomas builds his documentary with materials of many kinds, from archival photos, letters, and 16mm home movies to audio recordings of Disney, interviews with surviving relatives of El Grupo members, and clips from South of the Border, a half-hour documentary released by the studio in 1942.
Each participant appears to have enjoyed and profited from the trip, but Walt Disney himself is the star of Thomas's film. Hearing about the hard times he endured in 1941 is quite a learning experience. Although the five-week animators' strike was settled while he was away - thanks to intervention by federal mediators, who ended up siding with the strikers on every issue - Disney felt deeply wounded by the dispute, saying in later years that the strike and his mother's accidental death three years earlier were the two bitterest events in his life. Mere months before the strike he'd been flying high with a newly built studio, a slew of box-office hits, and admiration by fans like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller, the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs responsible for stemming Nazi influence in Latin American countries. Now the health of his whole enterprise was in peril.
The trip served nicely as a distraction from these troubles, and the Disney depicted in Walt & El Grupo displays few signs of fretfulness or worry. One of his South American hosts recalls him walking into a room on his hands - a born showman's entrance if ever there was one - and photos show him looking cheerful and content under his floppy hat and behind his ever-present cigarette. And who wouldn't look that way, gliding through swell hotels and lively nightclubs in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires while others wrestled with the business mess back home? In what sounds like an oral-history recording from a later date, he says the strike turned out to have a positive effect, pushing him to clear his mind and start afresh in some respects. He must also have been heartened by the productive outcome of the trip. Two movies it inspired - Saludos Amigos (1942), an animated short, and The Three Caballeros (1944), a mostly animated feature - each received multiple Academy Award nominations, although only the earlier film is excerpted here. A less celebrated short cartoon called Aquarela do Brasil (1942) makes a brief appearance as well.
Theodore Thomas's close connection to the Disney studio lends Walt & El Grupo an air of good-natured affection for the people, places, and incidents it shows. Less happily, his semi-insider status is probably what motivated the movie's superficial treatment of the issues behind the strike - while the strikers clearly had valid complaints, judging from the results of the mediation, we learn less about them than about Disney's hurt feelings - and the turbulent international politics of the period are outlined too hastily for the film to qualify as a history lesson.
It's fun to see the Hollywood mogul dressed up as a gaucho, though, and peppy bits of Brazilian samba and Argentine-Uruguayan tango spice up the soundtrack. It's also amusing to hear authentic Argentines disagree about how well Disney grasped their culture - one saying he didn't get the gauchos right, another saying he got the gauchos right, at least! Walt & El Grupo is a tribute and a travelogue rather than a penetrating look behind the scenes, but Disney aficionados will definitely enjoy the trip.
Director: Theodore Thomas
Producer: Kuniko Okubo
Screenplay: Theodore Thomas
Cinematographer: Shana Hagan
Film Editing: Lisa Palattella
Music: James Wesley Stemple
With: Walt Disney, Lillian Disney, Diane Disney, Frank Thomas, Jeanette Thomas, Flávio Barroso, John Canemaker
by David Sterritt
Walt & El Grupo
Released in United States 2008
Released in United States Fall September 11, 2009
Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival (Documentaries) April 24-May 8, 2008.
Released in United States 2008 (Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival (Documentaries) April 24-May 8, 2008.)
Released in United States Fall September 11, 2009 (Anaheim)