Monday, December 6, 2010

Our Feature Presentation (6/50) -- Saludos Amigos (1942)

Disney films, like the members of Destiny’s Child, are not created equal. History has lauded films like The Little Mermaid, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Beauty and the Beast as timeless classics, and they will continue to have their praises sung for the better part of forever. Others, not so much. Just as some films are preordained to eternally live in the annuls of history, there are just as many that are recalled, er, not so fondly (or at least fitfully so; chances are, you will find more people extolling the virtues of Aladdin than, say, Oliver & Company).

Today’s entry occupies a third, and entirely smaller, category: Disney films that are forgotten about completely. It’s not that they’re bad or anything, more like they’re just unremarkable enough to elicit neither a positive or negative reaction. In other words, they’re just kinda there.

Saludos Amigos is the first in the line of Disney “package films,” films that were produced during the 1940’s in an effort to keep Walt Disney Studios’ head above water. Much of the studios’ time was spent making propaganda cartoons for the U.S. government, and the lack of resources and staff (many in the animation department had been drafted) made the production of lavishly animated films like Bambi or Pinocchio nigh unto impossible. Walt, however, did the next best thing he could: he took pre-existing shorts and ideas that were too slight to make into full films and stapled them together into movies. From this we get titles like Fun and Fancy Free, Make Mine Music, and, yes, Saludos Amigos.

Ta-da! Keeping the Nazis at bay while making a bit of money on the side.

Not so much a film as it is a travelogue, Saludos Amigos is a tour of South America (with the Nazis attempting to establish good relations on this side of the Atlantic, Roosevelt had Disney visit as part of the Good Neighbor policy; the policy was considered a success, as the Axis was never able to establish a port in either Central or South America). The movie follows Walt and a team of animators as they visit different towns, eat exotic foods and listen to exotic music, and make sketches of the locals (in live action, I might add). The movie then segues into one of four different animated shorts, then the animators move on to another region of South America, and the cycle continues.

You may be thinking now how dull this film sounds. In a way, you’re right. Saludos Amigos contains no plot, no conflict, no narrative at all, save for the concept that Walt and the gang are on a tour of South America. As such, it doesn’t make for a riveting night at the movies. However, there’s something about this movie that is slightly appealing to me, and I’ll try to touch on why exactly this is, because, quite frankly, I don’t really understand it myself.

Perhaps I was raised on too many early-Disney Channel programs on travel in the Disney shorts, but I mildly enjoyed this one.

I’ll start with the shorts. As I mentioned earlier, Saludos Amigos is a vehicle for Disney animated shorts, and we get some good ones here. The first is a Donald Duck short on Lake Titicaca, with Donald sailing on the lake, riding a llama across a suspension bridge, and visiting the (hilariously non-PC-but-it’s-the-forties-so-everybody’s-racially-insensitive-drawn) locals. It’s a typical Donald Duck cartoon, and since I rather like the character, I had a good time.

The next is about a family of mail planes (Walt visits a podunk town in the mountains, where mail has to be delivered through a treacherous mountain pass), and centers on the smallest plane, Pedro, making his first major delivery. The journey is a perilous one, with Pedro fighting through weather, poor visibility, and some big fricking demon mountain (whose name I can neither recall, nor pronounce) who makes life hard for him. It’s surprisingly harrowing, and there are a few bits near the end where it legitimately seems like Pedro will not make his journey home in one piece; even at a time when Walt is releasing table scraps instead of movies, his timing and sense of direction in an eight-minute short like this is admirable.

This little guy reminds me of the main character from the Tex Avery cartoon "Little Johnny Jet." But squishier.

The third short is on the South American gaucho, as portrayed by Goofy in a cartoon that is “How To…” in all but name. As with most “How To” shorts, this one has Goofy attempting to follow along with the narrator’s descriptions of the way a gaucho lives (roping a horse, eating by a campfire, bola-ing an ostrich, etc). Like Donald’s cartoon, I enjoyed this one almost out of principle (my love for this series is so great that I convinced my dad to buy tickets to National Treasure: Book of Secrets specifically to watch the “How To Hook Up Your Home Theater” short at the beginning; afterwards, we theater-hopped into Juno, which was the movie we actually went to see).

Last is a short called “Aquarela do Brasil,” which has parrot Jose Carioca (the green parrot with the cigar) showing Donald Duck around Brazil. The whole thing is set to a samba, and was, for my money, a bit boring—nothing comic or interesting happens, apart from… no, it’s basically devoid of the things I usually like in a Donald Duck cartoon. The beginning of the short is pretty interesting from an animation perspective, though; it starts with an off-screen artist painting the backgrounds “Duck Amuck”-style, and there are some pretty cool moments where the paint drips into other drawings and creates new drawings. Of the other three, though, this is the one I liked the least.

After the interesting and colorful opener, your enjoyment of this short will rest solely on your predilection for samba and rapid-fire Portuguese.

Between these shorts are live-action shots of Walt and El Grupo visiting different towns, trying out different cultural practices (dances, food,etc), and drawing things. The shots are bright, vibrant, and look pretty good, with lots of greens and browns. The sketches the artists make also act as lead-ins for the shorts (we see early drawings of the villagers, and in the case of Pedro the plane, the narrator explicitly talks out the thought process of how the character was invented), making for a nice contrast between the concept and the finished product.

As far as films that are educational go, I rather appreciate this movie’s approach to presenting South America. You see, Saludos Amigos was created before the notion of pandering to kid demographics had entered studio heads (this probably also wasn’t a “kid’s film” when it came out either), so it doesn’t try to talk down to the audience to encourage understanding. I know that “it’s presented like seventh grade Social Studies” is a bit of a weird complement, but the movie doesn’t have a jaunty, “learning is fun!” sort of attitude, and I like the Saludos better for it. Besides, the cartoons demonstrate literally everything that was talked about during the live-action parts, so there’s really no harm in spacing out between the cartoons, if that’s your thing.

There are a few moments where we watch an animator sketch an object or person, which is pretty sweet.

This won’t be a film that I dig out when I need cheering-up, but I still thought it was good, in a modest sort of way. Granted, the straight-forward, slightly dry approach to the material will definitely be off-putting to some, but as something pedestrian and undemanding (which is the best way to enjoy this film), it works—the movie is what it is, and there are some interesting tidbits about 1940’s American perceptions of South America sprinkled in between the cartoons.

Top Three Songs:

  1. “Saludos Amigos”
  2. "Tico Tico No Fubá"
  3. "Aquarela do Brasil"

Favorite Character:

  • Donald Duck (does he count? Who cares?)

Favorite scene:

  • The “Lake Titicaca” short

The Jar Jar:

  • Jose Carioca (this character has literally zero appeal to me, other than that he is a fine shade of green)

How I Watched It:

I was in Helena this weekend, and during some downtime, I watched this on my friend Jordyn of Popped Density’s VHS copy. Yes, that’s right, VHS. There is a DVD copy floating around on Amazon (packaged with its follow-up, The Three Caballeros), but I watched the VHS version, so I’m going to talk about the VHS version, doggonnit!

The film begins, as all tapes do, with previews (seriously, they’re part of the tape-watching experience)! The ads are for Disney Gold Collection (the edition that this particular copy of Saludos was released on), The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, The Tigger Movie, Discover Spot, and (“Where magic lives online!”). Nothing super epic like the entire “Colors of the Wind” sequence from The Lion King’s VHS, but at least they’re not for anything super dated like “Lizzie MacGuire” or “Even Stevens” (though the one is pretty hilarious). There’s also the presence of a certain catchphrase you may have heard of.

This was viewed on some Sony 25” (model number withheld because it’s not really worth it), and the colors, picture quality, and viewing experience in general are about as serviceable as watching a tape on an SDTV can be. Here’s one thing that home theater-philes and Best Buy employees would rather you forget: VHS look exceptionally similar (and in some cases, damn near identical) to DVDs when viewed on a regular TV. Of course, in this day and age of Sony Bravia and Xbox 360, it’s easy to get caught up in the gadgets and forget the virtues of tapes (heck, I made a big to-do about Bolt on Blu-ray a few posts ago, remember?), but they don’t quite deserve all of the demonization they’ve gotten from gadget snobs.

As with several latter-day VHS releases, Saludos Amigos has a “stay tuned after movie for bonus content” extra: “South of the Border with Disney,” which is a look at Walt’s trip down to South America, and acts as a quasi-behind the scenes documentary. You’ll have to hear about it from someone else, though; I didn’t watch it for this review. However, considering that Walt and El Grupo is finally out on DVD, you’re probably better off Netflix-ing that, rather than watching this featurette.

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