Saturday, February 02, 2008


"Down in Brazil there's a sing-song game they play,
When you hear this tune it haunts you night and day.
Just play it once and I'm sure that you will find,
This quaint melody will linger in your mind."

Buried within the depths of Disney historical obscurity is a hidden gem known as Caxanga. It is one of my very favorite Disney cartoons. But among the likes of The Band Concert, In the Bag, Who Killed Cock Robin or the many others that occupy the very subjective halls of Jeff Pepper-determined fame, Caxanga has one very unique distinction. It was a production that was never completed, and hence, has never graced a movie screen.

Alternately called A Brazilian Symphony, Caxanga was one of many concepts that emerged from the early 1941 Latin American junket by Disney Studio personnel that ultimately gave birth to Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros and a number other similarly themed film sequences and cartoon shorts. The creative roots for Caxanga were documented in the film South of the Border with Disney, released in 1942.

South of the Border with Disney was a thirty minute film released in late 1942, that collected footage Walt Disney, artist Lee Blair and production assistant Larry Lanburgh took with 16mm cameras on that 1941 research trip-goodwill tour of Latin American countries. It predated the releases of any and all efforts it would ultimately inspire, primarily Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. The matchbox game, like other concepts showcased in the film, were then just ideas and notions of the potential entertainment to come.

Footage from the film shows production supervisor Norm Ferguson, story man Bill Cottrell, technical director Jack Cutting and artist Mary Blair demonstrating the matchbox game. An off-screen narrator explains--

"And here's an old Brazilian game called Caxanga. They say the Indians played it centuries ago. It was played with shells originally, but today they use matchboxes. The object is to go through this passing routine without missing. Here again, rhythm plays an important part. First you sing the verse, then hum it, then play to the tempo in silence."

The next scene shows an artist drawing a number of story sketches, suggesting a future cartoon or sequence of Donald Duck playing the game.

Attempts were made to incorporate caxanga into ideas that were being considered. At various points of development, the game had been in story plans for "Aquarela Do Brasil," a sequence ultimately completed for Saludos Amigos; "Carnival Carioca," a unrealized vignette that followed Jose Carioca and Donald Duck visiting the carnival in Rio; and an early concept for "Blame It on the Samba" that was to have featured Carmen Miranda. Storyboards for the proposed sequence featured Jose and Donald visiting Miranda during a nightclub performance of the title song. The two then reminisce of an earlier visit to Rio on the Night of San Juan, where Donald had become infatuated with a Miranda-styled lady parrot. She, Donald and Jose had then played the matchbox game for a few moments. "Blame It on the Samba" later evolved into a segment in Melody Time, in a more abbreviated and distinctly different form, due mainly to the unavailability of Miranda caused by contractual difficulties.
The game later became the centerpiece of two separate proposed cartoon shorts. The first borrowed elements from the aforementioned "Blame It on the Samba." It featured Donald and Jose out for a night on the town in Rio. Donald falls for a cute duck, this time a caricature of Aurora Miranda, who would be showcased in The Three Caballeros. Donald and Jose play a game of caxanga with the stakes being a date with Aurora.

The second concept progressed to the beginnings of pencil animation with some recorded music and dialog. In 1995, a reconstruction of the short was included on the laser disc set Exclusive Archive Collection Three Caballeros-Saludos Amigos. Despite its non-animated, rough draft nature, it is in many ways a wonder, and an entertaining indication of "what might have been." As I said, it is one of my favorite Disney cartoons, despite its unfinished status.

The short opens with Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and interestingly enough, Goofy, seated around a table on a rooftop patio, playing the matchbox game. The setting is Rio as reflected by the view from the nearby balcony; it was no doubt based on a similar panorama of Sugarloaf Mountain enjoyed by Disney artists while staying in Rio de Janeiro. The details of a photo featuring Lee and Mary Blair that appeared in the book The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, bear a clear resemblance to the crude but still distinct scenery and location depicted in the Caxanga storyboard sketches.

Donald is quickly exasperated by both a clever gag involving on-screen subtitles and the furious pace of the tabletop game. The short then quickly transitions more into a clear musical vignette as Donald carries the melody of the aforementioned catchy tune with him into sleep and dreams. As Donald lies in his bed, water faucets, a clock, window shutters, a chandelier and even the lights of the city all begin to sound off in tempo to the melody. The storyboard sketches exhibit a pulsing, wacky dreamscape not far removed from the Pink Elephants sequence in Dumbo, but reflecting visual styles successfully executed in both Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. Sheep of the counting nature transform into matchboxes; Donald's bed becomes one with the game; oversize matchboxes morph into versions of Donald, Jose and Goofy who then substitute Donald for the matchbox in play. In on especially creative sequence, Donald precariously scampers across the tips of igniting matchsticks. Upon attempting to balance on the final one, his form goes into silhouette and then morphs into a crowing rooster, announcing the dawn and a hopeful respite from both the music and its inspired torment.

It's interesting to speculate as to where the creative process might have ultimately taken Caxanga. Based on the reconstruction, its clever and entertaining conceptualizations certainly had the potential to make it a vibrant, imaginative addition to Disney's Latin American canon.

Images and Video © Walt Disney Company


Anonymous said...

Excellent! This, along with "The Laughing Gauchito" will continue to keep the Laserdisc Archive Collection in rotation at my house. Although it looks like the featurette "South of the Border with Disney" will be included on the DVD rerelease of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros on April 29th, 2008.

FixedFoto said...

One can't deny that this tune sounds very similar to the "Rio Del Tiempo" song, which Bruns also composed!

FoxxFur said...

What a very fun and imaginative little film! Perhaps the rather loose structure was never quite resolved... it is a rather limited number of jokes which become funny through variation and repetition, a style Disney never really was much interested in pursuing. The dearth of appearances of Jose Carioca in Disney animation is pretty distressing given his prominence in Disney culture - if he were put on the patch, this short could be produced today and probably go over like gangbusters.

BJWanlund said...

Hey, been looking for the Laserdisc Archive Collection for quite awhile! Been wanting to get it so that I could make DVDs of it (preferrably of the dual-layer variety) for myself. Really looks rather enjoyable. I sincerely hope that the laserdisc is the subject of another new release soon (Walt Disney Treasures, maybe?).

Also, could someone please tell us what the rules for Caxanga are? I saw the South of the Border with Disney featurette on the (heavily butchered I might add) Saludos Amigos DVD and really enjoyed just that little piece of Caxanga that the artists played!! I'd seriously like to show a version of Caxanga as part of learning about other cultures!

Finally, how easy to pick up is Toon Boom Harmony? With that new Goofy cartoon (How to Hook Up Your Home Theater) that looks like a 40s cartoon, I'd think that this might get resuscitated in living color (as well as The Laughing Gauchito), and I'd certainly be a fast study in order to set it up! (of course, I can't draw for cripe anyway, but maybe I can get some drawing lessons from an art major friend...)


BJWanlund said...

Actually, scratch the Toon Boom Harmony. Apparently Toon Boom Studio would allow me to do the same thing.


BJWanlund said...

Also, found this wonderful website related to Caxanga, which the song is called Escravas De Jo (The Slaves of Job).


Ayla said...

I love that Cartoon very much that made me laugh.The song wonderful the characters cute and the deleted short funny