Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Caballeros in the Age of Misinformation

Official: El Rio del Tiempo will be closed for refurbishment Tuesday, January 2, 2007, through Sunday, April 1, reopening Monday, April 2.

Unofficial: The Three Caballeros, featuring Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and Panchito, will be integrated into a new redesign of the attraction.

It’s a potential development that has many Disney purists again lamenting the influx of “characters” into Epcot attractions. It is an interesting debate. Threads on numerous forums around the web have sprung up, with opinions being voiced both pro and con. But what has proven most disturbing in all this is a real lack of knowledge about the history of these characters and the film itself. One particular thread on WDW Magic was filled with statements from people who really didn’t know what they were talking about.

Some examples:

"You aren't missing much with the short, it was a propaganda film made in the early 40's to promote better relations with South America."

"The movie is nothing but a collection of what North America THINKS South America is like. The film was made under wartime while the US was trying to establish close ties with S. America. The Germans had their eye on S. America, and the US wanted to beat them to it. This film, and the short that preceded it are propaganda, plain and simple. Not any kind of real educational tool. I'm almost positive I read that it was comissioned by the US State Department, just like 'Victory Through Air Power'. The film is somewhat entertaining, and I liked it as a kid. But let's see it for what it really is."

Okay, first of all, The Three Caballeros was released in 1945, not in the early 40s. It was not a short. It was feature length, clocking in at 71 minutes. It followed Saludos Amigos which was released in 1943. Saludos Amigos was only 43 minutes long, but it was still considered a feature.

In 1941, the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs at the US State Department approached Walt about making a goodwill tour of South America, to counter a growing pro-Axis feeling in that region. Walt was initially uninterested, by when he considered that he could use the excursion to research a potential series of shorts with south-of-the-border themes, he finally agreed. The government sponsored the trip and made certain financial guarantees, but did not commission the making of any of the films that resulted.

Upon returning, Walt decided to integrate the subsequently produced shorts with 16mm footage he took for personal use. Hence, Saludos Amigos was born. It was not a propaganda film. What would be the point of promoting the merits of South American cultures to American wartime audiences? Or to the very countries it showcased? It was a purely commercial endeavor on the studio’s part. The war had completely cut off Europe, but South America was a still a potential market. Beginning with Saludos Amigos, Walt was able to break into that market and pump it for some much needed revenue. And while the 1943 film Victory Through Air Power was clearly a propaganda film promoting the military theories of Alexander de Seversky, it was not in any way commissioned by the US government.

“I think The Three Caballeros is a fine idea (Although wasn't the movie more about South America, anyway?)”

No, that was in fact Saludos Amigos, as discussed above. The Three Caballeros features very prominently the countries of Brazil and Mexico. Disney decided to continue to exploit the Central and South American markets and take advantage of Donald Duck, who was then at the near peak of his popularity. And The Three Caballeros, while being largely ignored today, was a landmark film for the company. Ub Iwerks’ special effects that integrated animation and live action proved a benchmark achievement that paved the way for future productions like Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and ultimately Mary Poppins. Well known Latin American personalities such as Aurora Miranda, Carmen Molina and Dora Luz participated. The film spawned hit songs--“You Belong to My Heart” and “Baia”, and a version of the title song was recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. To dismiss the movie as an inconsequential propaganda piece, does it, and all those great talents who contributed to it, a great injustice.
"The problem with adding the Three Caballeros isn't just about throwing in a Disney character when he doesn't belong there, there is also the issue that Donald Duck is an American character. Why is he appropriate to tell the story of Mexican culture? It isn't like he's part of Mexican folklore!"

Yes, Donald Duck is an American character, but in The Three Caballeros he meets Panchito, a feisty rooster who is clearly 100% Mexican. Panchito takes Donald and Jose Carioca on a whirlwind tour of Mexico, both culturally and geographically. They are shown Mexican Christmas customs, told the fable of the building of Mexico City, and taken on a magic serape tour of the country, culminating in a music-filled finale in Mexico City. It would seem to me that our three happy chappies in snappy serapes are more than qualified to relate the story of Mexican culture to Epcot visitors. It is what they were essentially doing over fifty years ago.

In an earlier post, I observed how so many hardcore Disney fans were by and large unknowledgeable of much of the company’s early history and lesser known productions, and these recent internet discussions tend to bear that observation out. And these folks do not hesitate to weigh in with misinformation, as these examples demonstrate.

Do I want Epcot attractions overrun with Disney characters? Of course not. But often times, based on history and context, good combinations can be made. This proved true with Goofy About Health in Wonders of Life, which drew on the Goof’s earlier “everyman” shorts to create an entertaining multimedia presentation that rang very true to the pavilion’s overall theme. Donald, Jose and Panchito, based on their earlier adventures, could infuse some much needed energy and spirit into a World Showcase attraction long in need of an upgrade.


Klark Kent 007 said...

It is nice to that someone else has been paying attention.

Most of the people posting about the 3 Caballeros not relating to Mexico have never seen it.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

While I generally agree with your comments about the possible addition of Donald, Jose and Panchito to EPCOT, I must note that Panchito is a Mexican Rooster, not a parrot, that would be Jose.

Jeffrey Pepper said...


Thanks for pointing that out. I'll make the correction.

Anonymous said...

Jeff is dead-on correct about lack of knowledge regarding classic Disney.

I once sold a "Savage Sam" Disney coloring book on eBay and described how it was a sequel of sorts to "Old Yeller" starring several of the same performers.

I had a nasty email from an eBay user who wanted to know if I had created the book on a printer as a forgery because she had NEVER heard that Disney had made such a film and that "Old Yeller" was her favorite film, and had there been a real sequel, SHE would have known it!

I'm not sure if this problem exists because Disney does little to reinforce its history now that the Disney Channel of yesteryear is but a memory or if the nature of the web means that most users tend to be younger, and most folks under 20 can't remember pre-Eisner Disney?

BJWanlund said...

Hey, there's a bit of a typo:

It's Baia, not Baio.


Jeffrey Pepper said...

Thanks for catching that--I've made the correction.

Unknown said...

Thanks Jeff...great article again!

A lot of people complain about updating the parks...I understand...people love the rides and attractions. But every time I have ridden "El Rio", there has never been a wait. This is a good opportunity to update and refresh.

And bring more people to the pavilion.

Anonymous said...

I went on the Gran Fiesta Tour for the first time the day after it opened and I love it.

It definetely was a big improvement over the dated El Rio del Tiempo, yet the GFT keeps Epcot's goal of entertaining, informing and inspiring alive.

One day, maybe those rabid purists will warm up to such changes and pay more attention to the good aspects of such changes rather than spend too much time dwelling on the negatives.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the above posters. The 3 Caballeros and Epcot's Mexico pavilion are most certainly a perfect fit.