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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.