Walt & El Grupo
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It was 1941 -- a critical time for the world and for the Walt Disney Studio. When the U.S. Government asked Disney to be a cultural ambassador to South America, the stage was set for Walt's very own real-life adventure. With a group of handpicked artists, later called "El Grupo," Disney's WWII road trip achieved the impossible -- goodwill. And in the process, it paved the way for two classic Disney films, SALUDOS AMIGOS and THE THREE CABALLEROS. Brought to life through rare footage and enriched with unique bonus features, WALT & EL GRUPO is a story of inspiration, joy and hope you won't soon forget.
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As a bonus, you'll find a fold-out printed timeline showing what was occurring during World War II and what was happening at Disney during the same time. Very interesting piece.
Extras also include:
* Audio Commentary -- With director Theodore Thomas and historian J.B. Kaufman.
* Photos in Motion -- A demonstration showing the technical process of how rare photos from the original trip shared in Walt & El Grupo transcended time and literally came to life for a unique viewing
From the Director's Cut:
o Home Movies for the Big Screen-- The 16mm Kodachrome footage shot by El Grupo (the nickname given for Disney's team) was originally intended to be reference material. These "home movies" were eventually incorporated into the film; scenes that weren't shot were actually recreated at the Disney Studio and at the local airport (thus you'll note a difference in quality between some of the scenes in "Saludos Amigos").
o My Father's Generation-- Cecilia Acle, daughter of a Chilean passenger, and Cindy Garcia, daughter of Disney story man Ted Sears, discuss the return voyage from South America on the SS Santa Clara, framing their parents within the context of the times.
o Artists and Politicians--Conductor/music historian Roberto Gnattali takes a walk through the ruins of the waterfront Urca Casino, discussing the golden age of the samba and the Brazilian government at the time. It really makes one yearn for a restoration of what was once the entertainment palace where Carmen Miranda performed.
* SALUDOS AMIGOS -- This is billed as the original 1943 version; however, as another reviewer pointed out, the credit title shows Buena Vista, not RKO. Still, it clearly does show Goofy smoking in a cartoon sequence that had been previously edited out.
* Original Theatrical Trailers for "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros"
As noted, there is some variance in quality of source material, but it definitely does not detract from this very well-made and informative documentary. 106 minutes, 1:78:1, Dolby Digital 5.1 English & Spanish with English and Spanish subtitles.
"Walt & El Grupo, The Untold Adventures", is the story of Walt, Lily (his wife) and "The Group" of 16 hand-picked artists and support personnel, during a relatively unknown trip to South America in 1941. It was the genesis of the two "Good Neighbor" movies, "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros."
1941 was a particularly hard year for Walt. After the successes of Snow White and Pinnochio, he had a semi-failure with Fantasia in 1940,and as work was being completed on Dumbo in 1941, union organizers struck the Disney Company.
At the same time, WWII in Europe was raging, and he lost the financing of many of the European banks he was working with, leaving the studio (and Walt) over 4 million dollars in debt.
Also during the same time, the US Government was worried about the Nazi influence down in South America, especially in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru. They sent a number of "Good Will Ambassadors" to South America, to try and win over the people and away from Nazi Germany. Many weren't successful.
They asked Walt to do a trip, but declined, he didn't want to go down to South America just to shake hands. But then, this *was* the State Department watching a war in Europe, so they offered additional incentives, including taking a number of people to do research for future movies as well as the underwriting of those movies.
Add up those three events, and Walt was on a 10-week adventure below the equator. (Okay, mostly below the equator.) That's what this documentary is about.
The movie is directed (and commented on) by Theodore Thomas, son of Frank Thomas (not the baseball player) and follows Walt's trip through South America in present day. Some portions seem overly tedious, the film probably could have been a few minutes shorter...
It's produced by The Walt Disney Family Foundation Films, so there's a lot of private and archival film footage (including footage from Walt's 16mm movie camera), as well as correspondence from different members of El Grupo to family back home.
This is more in the vein of a talking head documentary, and Thomas takes you to locations in South America as they are today (with some *remarkable* present day to 1941 (and vice-versa) transitions), panning pictures using a multi-plane camera simulation and interviews with surviving people (or the sons or daughters in some cases) who Walt had an influence on.
I think it's the weakest of the three released. It does document Walt's life in the first half of 1941, right before the U.S.'s involvement in WWII. Both events would cause significant changes to the studio, so it's a story I suppose that needs to be told.
It's a must for Disney History and Walt fans.
What makes this disc a must-have, though, is that it includes an UNEDITED version of SALUDOS AMIGOS. Bring on the cigarettes!
GREG: Let's start with the chicken-or-the-egg thing. Was this project ignited by J.B. Kaufman's book, "South of the Border with Disney," or did it originate with Diane Disney Miller and The Walt Disney Family Museum?
TED: Kind of all of the above. Diane was interested in having stories told about her father that would bring his life story back to center stage. J. B. had been working on the idea for a book on the entire "Good Neighbor" film project, which was at least a decade. In the course of that, I came across what I call it "the magical shoe box" of photographs that [Disney animator] Norm Ferguson's daughter had given to J.B.--travel snapshots that were taken throughout the trip. When I was introduced to J.B. and Diane, she said, "You ought to take a look at JB's shoe box," which I did.
Immediately I began to look at each photo and think, "Where was this taken? When was this? Who are they with? What's the story here?" Those, to me, are all things that I turn over in my head when beginning a project and deciding whether or not there is a film to be told.
GREG: Diane surely was pleased that so many of the clips and photos showed Walt having fun and being a "regular guy."
TED: Yes. I am very happy we were able to do that. I think that, outside of the Disney family films, there is more footage of him in this project than any film I know of.
GREG: Would you say that, percentage-wise, that a lot of what we see in "Walt and el Grupo" has never been seen by the general public before?
TED: Oh yes, oh yes. I would definitely say that is the case. Both for the photographs and the sixteen millimeter Kodachrome footage.
GREG: In the DVD audio commentary with you and J.B., it is mentioned that the group actually traveled in two parts for insurance reasons. It is edited to give the impression they are all going on the same flight?
TED: Yes. One of our bonus features covers this. The footage of them boarding the plane in Burbank it is not "verite" documentary footage. It was reconstructed several months later once they realized that they needed shots like that in "Saludos Amigos." There are a few other documentaries that have used this basic idea, but I would like to think that we finessed it a lot more than has ever been done before.
GREG: "Walt and el Grupo" is particularly entertaining because of a special three dimensional process in which the vintage photos are manipulated to create the illusion of depth. Can you explain how this was done?
TED: You start out by finding a photograph that is composed so it has a natural foreground, middle ground and background. If everybody is lined up in the background it doesn't work. But if it is something that already has an inherent depth to it, then you can use Photoshop to splice those three planes apart to create a foreground, middle ground and background. Then, using a program called "after effect," you can create your own version of a multiplane camera.
GREG: Also impressive were the shots of the studio that Walt and the artists set up in a hotel penthouse that were blended with current images of the same room today.
That is one of my favorite shots in the picture actually is when they "vanish." Everybody has left town and is going off different points of the compass. We faded away the studio and then we are left with the room today.
GREG: And then there's that rooftop dance scene, which you recreated for the film with people who had been there in the '40s. For those of us who watched "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros" countless times, and seeing the people doing the traditional dances, it was fascinating to discover who some of the people actually were.
TED: Yeah. And to me, on some level, that makes a difference because now they no longer seem anonymous. They are people with lives, families and histories and a connection.
GREG: On a larger scale, I've always felt that, the South America Walt Disney films accomplished a lot in an era long before diversity was a corporate initiative or a big buzz word.People generally didn't know much about other cultures in those days. Walt Disney, probably more than any other filmmaker, was most instrumental in bringing the artwork and especially the music to America and to this day, we're benefiting from it.
TED: Absolutely! I couldn't have said it better. I agree completely and I think it was indicative of the kind of homework that was done on every single film. That what they observed and what they put through their own prism and made into their films is much more sympathetic to the cultures they came from than any other films that were being made at the time.
GREG: And "Aquarela de Brasil" and "Tico Tico" were not known at all in the U.S. and became standards.
TED: They became international standards, along with "Magic is the Moonlight". And "You Belong to My Heart" ["Solamente una vez"] became big hit. It is an incredible song.
GREG: I loved James Stemple's new musical score. Is there going to be a soundtrack album?
TED: We are still working on that. With the different parties involved there is a lot of sorting out that has to be done. Number one just get approval for that idea and number two convince people that in today's climate people would want it.
GREG: The new score captured the mood of the period yet was very contemporary.
TED: Plus I wanted the music to give audio signposts about where we were geographical. It was a real tough assignment on an independent film to say "Okay, I want to be geographic specific. I want it to feel like we are in Brazil or feel like we are in Chile," but you can't hire a separate musical ensemble for each place.
GREG: You also mentioned in the commentary that there were a lot of, to quote the Sherman Brothers, "happy happenstances" in making the film. Certain things just fell into place -- like finding the handmade dolls that Walt had brought back from South America as gifts for Diane and Sharon.
TED: The dolls were found on the day of shooting! That really is serendipity. Diane had talked about them but hadn't been able to locate them. When we showed up on that day, she arrived and said, "I am so sorry. It would have been really nice if I had found them but I just don't know where they are." Then Michael Labre, the curator, said, "Diane, we have been cataloging this stuff, do you have any idea what these are?" And it was the dolls. It was literally like that.
GREG: And they've held up very well over the years.
TED: Considering. They are in very good condition.
GREG: There was another image that was very striking to me, and I'm sure to those who love these "Good Neighbor" Disney films. At the end of "Saludos Amigos," we see the lighted URCA nightclub/casino sign flashing and never really knew much about it, just figured it was some famous place and that's it. But in "Walt and el Grupo," it becomes part of one of the most touching sequences because of how you combines images of then and now. It's very haunting.
TED: Yeah, I'm glad it touched you because it did me also. When we went on the scouting trip and saw the exterior, from that moment on I wanted to go inside. We worked very hard and very long and got turned down many times before we got permission to go in there. The neat thing about it is that in addition to being able to film inside this "temple of pleasure," as it was called, was the fact that the city government had taken an interest in renovating part of it which since we made the movie has been done. Part of it has been renovated as a design school. That is the seaside, the side that faces the water. The side with the grill room and that stage is still a ruin.
GREG: That must have been gigantic underneath too, because that stage moved and closed and opened.
TED: And dropped. It was. When the stage went down it must have been pretty low overhead, pretty low ceiling, but you could see pullies and different mechanisms left and you could also go back and see where some of the dressing rooms were. Nothing palatial, believe me, but what shows they put on there!
A lot of these encounters took a couple of hours and, with some people, even longer periods of time. But the impression that was left [by the Walt Disney visit] and the stories that were told lasted for generations. It's been sixty years yet people would talk about it as though it happened last week. I found that quite remarkable.
GREG: Since the film has been in limited theatrical release and more people have learned about this moment in cultural history, have you learned about any contemporary Hispanic performers? Have some artists come to realize or were they impacted by the fact that so much music came to this U.S. as a result of these efforts and that it has sort of grown from that?
TED: Well, like many things between the Americas, there is more awareness of that in Latin American than there is here. Like the huge popularity of songs like "Brazil," "Tico Tico" and "Solamente una vez." They're huge worldwide hits, but what might not be known is the fact that it was a Disney film that made it popular around the world.
Maybe you already know this from J.B.'s book, but the fascinating thing was that they did recording sessions in Rio during this trip but the miking of it wasn't satisfactory. So the only one of the tracks recorded in Rio that was usable was a flute improvisation that ends up over the little train that goes to Baia in "The Three Caballeros."
And when Walt's musical director, Charles Wolcott, heard the pan pipes in Lima he then composed a melody for the Donald Duck "Lake Titicaca" section. Of course, he couldn't get the authentic instruments when they recorded it, so he got two soprano recorders, had them tuned slightly differently and had them played in unison so that they had just the right degree of dissonance.
GREG: You also mention in your commentary that you feel your films are as much about politics as they are about art, because the two intertwine. Disney is also releasing "Walt and el Grupo" on DVD at the same time as two other major films about two other pivotal times in Disney history -- and it seems that while Walt and el Grupo is about art and the politics of government, "The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story" is about art and family politics and "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is about art and corporate politics.
TED: That's a great observation. It is a fascinating that politics and art are about the same thing. It is all about interpreting life. Politics is about setting up guidelines and rules that bring order and art is about democracy or starting a conversation or exploration. They both have a really interesting dynamic tension.
GREG: What would you most like viewers to take away with them when they see "Walt and el Grupo," especially young people?
TED: I would love it if they would be inspired to see Walt Disney as a man -- as a human being. The mythology that has grown since his death is all well, but I think that it is very exciting to see him as a creative individual, as an artist, because it reminds us about the role of art in the world and how each of us can to contribute to it.
This special documentary takes us into the story of how Walt, accompanied by his wife Lilly and his group of writers, artists, and composers took a plane for the beautiful Latin countries South of the Border and helped to create two of his best loved films that reflected the cultures and lifestyles of places such as Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile. Included in the film is terrific commentary and historical anecdotes by friends, relatives, and historians of the Disney team. Provided are pictures, conceptual drawings, home movie footage, and films clips.
Much of the film contains wonderful editing and a terrific musical score, with footage of key locations that were of great importance for the Goodwill Tour. Many of the interviewees read over letters that the crew had written about their experiences in those countries. The bonus features are of great importance too, including the entire feature-length film of Saludos Amigos. This is truly a treasure for anyone interested in Walt Disney, Latin America, or history. A wonderful film.