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Progress City Home Theater: Walt & El Grupo (2009)

Last week saw the release of three prominent Disney-related documentaries. The only of these that I had not seen in theaters was Walt & El Grupo, so I was naturally eager to check out director Ted Thomas’s (Frank and Ollie) recounting of Walt Disney’s 1941 South America trip (Thomas’s father, animator Frank Thomas, was one of the studio personnel on the tour). Taking place during the infamous animation strike of 1941, and ending shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the “El Grupo” trip in many ways marked the end of innocence for Walt Disney Productions; after the trip, the Disney Studio, its films, and its artists would never be the same.

The Film

Produced by Walt Disney Family Foundation Films, Walt & El Grupo was made by people very close to the Disney legacy and it is perhaps best enjoyed by those of us who know these artists and their work well. I noted a great deal of criticism when this film was release that decried its slow pace and decision to not explore certain aspects of the story in detail. I understand those criticisms, and indeed feel that there are a number of other ways this film could have been successfully made, but that’s just not the kind of film that this is.

Instead, I think of this film as the perfect companion to J.B. Kaufman’s truly excellent book South of the Border with Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program 1941-1948. Kaufman’s book really digs into the the nuts and bolts of the trip, how it came to pass, and the artistic output that resulted. Thomas’s film gives a sense of what it was like on the road with El Grupo, revisits a number of their ports of call, and even finds several South American residents whose paths crossed with the Disney party.

Walt Disney cuts a rug (and cuts up) with members of the Andrés Chazarreta folk dancer troupe in the rooftop garden of the Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires. Amazingly, the filmmakers actually found the dancer on the right – Miguel Gramajo – in Argentina and interviewed him for the film.

It is indeed a slow-paced film; for me, the relaxed tone matches the tropical scenery of both the modern day on-location scenes as well as the archival film from 1941. Music plays a key role in the film, with several segments matching various native melodies to snapshots from the Disney trip as well as a variety of sketches and artwork.

This, perhaps, is the film’s greatest strength – the filmmakers’ level of access allowed them to include lots of art from the Disney Animation Research Library, clips of Disney films, and a great deal of rarely-seen film shot by Disney and his artists. A number of children and descendants of the Disney party take part, often reading letters that the artists sent home to loved ones. Even Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt and Lillian Disney, takes part in the proceedings; her on-camera presence is, as always, welcome and she remains an eloquent and appealing spokesperson for her family’s legacy.

Additional on-camera contributions are made by Kaufman and animation historian John Canemaker; both are dependable and authoritative sources about the subject matter. While other voices would have been welcome to discuss various members of El Grupo, it’s hard to fault these choices.

The film takes its time going where it wants to go, and for the most part I was happy to let it do the driving. There are a few threads that seem tangential to the narrative, and which would be perhaps best relegated to the DVD extras; on the other hand there are some points that are left hanging or which seem to trail off, and perhaps more detail could have been spared in these areas. One particularly glaring point is when a local begins to tell a story about three myths that Argentinians believe about Walt Disney, but we only hear of one before the film moves on. More time could be spent on the artists as well, as many of them do not receive their full due. But, as I said originally, when viewed in concert with Kaufman’s book many of these concerns evaporate.

Departing the plane in Rio de Janeiro: Hazel and Bill Cottrell (Hazel was Lillian Disney’s sister), Ted Sears, Lillian and Walt Disney, Norm Ferguson and Frank Thomas. El Grupo split up their travel arrangements because Walt’s life insurance mandated that he could only fly with six of his employees at the same time!

The DVD

Walt & El Grupo comes to DVD with a fairly respectable slate of extras – more than what many of the studio’s releases receive these days. Most notably there’s an entire extra film – the entire, uncensored 1942 release of Saludos Amigos for the first time on DVD.

Video & Audio

The film combines a number of media, so a variety of picture qualities should be expected. After all, when your film incorporates 16mm film shot seventy years ago there are going to be some issues. Still, the archival material has been cleaned up to a remarkable degree and the film shot by El Grupo, as well as other vintage footage of the Disney lot, looks excellent. The older footage is shown windowboxed in the 1.78:1 frame of the film itself.

The rest of the film looks good, with a number of neat effects used to incorporate vintage photographs with modern-day scenes of South American cities. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in both English and Spanish.

Bonus Materials

As stated, the film contains some worthwhile extras. There’s an audio commentary by director Ted Thomas and author J.B. Kaufman that helps flesh out the details behind the film’s story, and the two maintain the very affable mood that pervades the film itself. There are three deleted scenes, a featurette about the film’s use of vintage photos, and, of course, Saludos Amigos.

Features

  • Audio Commentary – With director Theodore Thomas and historian J.B. Kaufman.
  • Photos in Motion – A demonstration showing the technical process of how photos from the original trip came to life for a unique viewing experience.
  • From the Director’s Cut – Three deleted scenes from the film.
  • SALUDOS AMIGOS – The original release from 1942 is one of the films inspired by Walt & El Grupo’s trip.
  • Original Theatrical Trailers – For Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

In Summary…

Walt & El Grupo is a thoroughly pleasant documentary tracing the steps of one of the most fascinating adventures in the Disney Studio’s history. The wealth of archival film and artwork presented makes this a natural for any fan, and provides an excellent companion to Kaufman’s book on the same topic. The number of participants that Thomas managed to unearth in the various South American cities visited by El Grupo is remarkable, and also is a testament to the impact that this single, short trip had. While certainly not an unobjective assessment or rigorous analysis of the Disney Studio in the prewar era, it doesn’t seem meant to be. It’s part triptych and part time machine, and a very enjoyable one at that.

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5 comments to Progress City Home Theater: Walt & El Grupo (2009)

  • RO93461

    I saw it in the theater and was most impressed by the “after effects” type work on the still images to give them a panning depth, and the compositing of historic events with the same location today. It did seem long to me given the content, despite the fact that I could watch Walt in color all day long. Truly a labor of love, the time spent in making this film must have been enormous.

    I’m not sure that this “trip” justified this much attention, other than to say it beautifully chronicled a footnote in time. Did I enjoy it? You bet. To see the crumbling ruins of the dance pavilion come back to life was worth it!

  • They really did do a great job in using media to bring those old locations to life. One of the extended scenes on the DVD discusses the abandoned nightclub and I’m still amazed that it’s just sitting there after all these years, open to the elements. I’m also amazed at the people they were able to unearth in Brazil and Argentina; finding these folks after 70 years just seems incredible.

    This era is of endless fascination to me, so there’s really no level of attention that I would find too excessive. I love the culture of the 30s and 40s in general, as well as the “exotic” flavor of South America in that time. And obviously it’s a really interesting time for Disney animation, since it was at the pre-war peak that, arguably, it would never reach again. The scope of artistic talent that was working that the studio before the strike and before the war-related downsizing is striking.

    One of the things, I think, that really appeals to me about the El Grupo trip is that it’s Walt on (working) vacation, but with people from his studio in tow. It was the last gasp of Walt being “one of the guys” before he came back and became “the boss” forever. And it’s so well documented – all that footage of Walt horsing around is just golden. It’s also great to see the people that went along – the Blairs, Herb Ryman, Frank Thomas, etc etc – letting their hair down and exploring. You can’t beat the artwork, either!

    But in the end one of the things that grabs me the most is that this was the last time when anything seemed possible for Disney animation – so many things were planned that never came to be once the war started, and there’s so much more that could have been done with the rich material that El Grupo collected.

    Again, I would ask everyone to check out JB Kaufman’s book – it’s so good!

  • RO93461

    All good points for sure. Herb Ryman used to talk about that trip from time to time with a fondness for the “hookey” the guys all played away from the boss in the evenings. I got the feeling I was not hearing the whole story, but enough to write the ending.

  • Hehe now I imagine that would be an entirely different film! I really hate all these guys aren’t around any more to talk to.

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