The Disney Project - Day 7 ("The Three Caballeros")
THE THREE CABALLEROS:
(Premiered February 3, 1945)
Ow. My brain hurts even trying to understand this movie, and I'm still honestly confused as to what exactly I just watched. IMO, this movie is like what would happen if a train carrying Disney shorts collided with a painting studio, a dancing documentary, and a train full of LSD. It's like a giant 71-minute mishmash of random animated shorts, stunningly beautiful pieces of landscape art, a half-hour of random dancing with Donald Duck lusting after every woman he sees, and then one gigantic acid trip. I really don't know how to describe this movie any other way. It's just plain nuts. Unlike “Saludos Amigos,” which was a generally coherent collection of culturally-themed shorts, “The Three Caballeros” just didn't even bother trying to make sense. It was 71 minutes of pure, unadulterated cultural creativity from some of the most unique artists in the world. And although I can't even begin to understand most of it, I am also in complete awe at the pure originality of what they were able to create. This is the kind of animated film that just isn't made anymore. It is pure art.
Without a doubt, I'm picking the beginning of the “Baia” segment. If you have never seen this segment, you have to see it NOW! It is some of the most beautiful background work that Disney ever did, easily rivaling Fantasia's finest. This segment involves Jose Carioca singing a love song to the beautiful shores of the Brazilian city of Baia. And as he sings, we fly through an absolutely beautiful multiplane camera shot of the city's buildings at sunset. The color is just stunning, with its mix of romantic purples and reds and blues. This whole segment is like flying through an impressionist's painting while a gondolier sings a romantic song in the background. Just wow. I could watch this segment over and over. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen on film.
The basic “plot” mold (and once again, I can't put enough quotes around “plot”...) this time is that Donald Duck receives a huge birthday package full of presents from his friends in Latin America. Each of the film's segments corresponds with Donald opening one of these presents. First there are two animated shorts. Then a miniature Jose Carioca shows up and takes Donald on a trip to the Brazilian city of Baia. And then the real bulk of the film begins when the Mexican rooster Panchito Pistoles joins the two, and they together create... gasp, nobody saw this coming... the three caballeros! Pancito then fills up the rest of the movie's running time by taking Jose and Donald on a giant half-hour tour of Mexico, where there is dancing, dancing, and more dancing, eventually culminating in an absolutely insane grand finale.
Overall, this is a VERY disjointed film. It starts out predictable, looking like it's going to be nothing but a vessel for animated shorts like “Saludos Amigos” was (albeit much less cultural,) but then it takes a lengthy breather to introduce us to our three main characters. So we think maybe it is starting to become a buddy movie or something, where Donald bonds with his Latin friends. But then it changes again, and it looks like it is transforming into a tour movie, where for a while it becomes a vessel for visiting and exploring the culture of many different locales around Mexico. And then once you think it will keep going that way, it does yet another complete turnaround, and says “to hell with any semblance of a plot structure,” devolving completely into nothing but one giant explosion of color and music that has nothing at all to do with anything we just witnessed for the prior 60 minutes of film.
So what exactly is the plot? Hell if I know. The animated shorts kind of make sense as presents, but then there is the appearance of Jose. How exactly did he send a miniature version of himself through the mail? Is Baia really all contained within a book? Why does the train that goes to Baia have square wheels? Why does Jose spontaneously split into four Joses like some weird green amoeba? Why does the Aracuan bird keep showing up out of nowhere? And what the hell happens in the end where everything just starts going nuts, including dismembered legs dancing, weird voice distortions, eruptions of multicolored flower patterns, and cacti randomly coming alive and turning into dancing human women? I don't know. Honestly, I think the best way to describe the plot is “Donald Duck gets a package from his Latin friends, and then has an acid trip while he's opening the presents.” There's really no other way to explain it. It's almost like he starts normal, and then he begins hallucinating as he opens the presents, until he's dancing with imaginary friends in a book, lusting after women that aren't really there, and then having a total freak-out as his tripped-out mind tries to connect together the explosive colors and feelings that blend together to create the feelings of love and camaraderie. This is the only connection that I could possibly think of that links up all of this complete madness. But since that's not much of a plot, I'll just give up, tackle the stand-alone animated shorts here, and move on.
Anyway, here's the separate plots of the first the two animated shorts:
“The Cold-Blooded Penguin” - an enjoyable animated short about an Antarctic penguin named Pablo who is always cold, and thus dreams of warmer climates. Most of the short is character-based rather than culture-based, and shows the various shenanigans that Pablo gets into while trying to find a way to get off of Antarctica. The gags are really funny, and the character animation is great, showcasing Pablo in everything from snow shoes to hot water bottles. The whole short is so charming and cute, with clever narration by the great Sterling Holloway, and it even had a point, with the theme “what do you really want?” (He was too cold in Antarctica, but he misses home once he gets what he thought he wanted.) Of all 6 of the animated shorts in these two package films so far, I think this is my favorite.
“The Flying Gauchito” - a young gaucho goes condor hunting, and instead finds a flying donkey. They become friends, and go to a festival where they win a race together, before flying off. The end. My basic complaint with this short is just that it is completely pointless. We never get a sense of why this event is really important. Is the gauchito lonely? Is this a friendship he'll never forget? How did it change him? We never even get clues. So this short fails the “who are these people and why should I care?” test, and all we can do is either enjoy or not enjoy it for what it is. IMO, it's decent and mildly entertaining, but nothing more.
There's something weird going on here. Donald never goes through conflict or changes as a result, and yet something about him being there through the whole film keeps the whole thing anchored. Unlike “Saludos Amigos” where we had no central character, and therefore the whole thing just felt like a showcase of shorts, “The Three Caballeros” actually does feel like a movie. Everything is tied together by the involvement of Donald Duck. So there isn't that sense of detachment where we feel like we as an audience are separated from the action on screen, and are aware that we are sitting back and watching it in a movie theater. Rather, we continually relate to Donald, and feel like we are going on a whole journey along with him. When the first two shorts are playing on-screen, it is because at the same time in the actual movie, Donald is watching the shorts that came in his present. So we feel like we are Donald watching them rather than an audience watching them. And this constant relatability keeps us feeling like we are in the movie rather than in a movie theater, and keeps it from feeling like a package film. And thus this is a huge improvement over “Saludos Amigos.”
There are some real gems in this movie. It is really great to see Jose Carioca back, as he was one of the most fun parts of “Saludos Amigos.” He's just as charming as ever, still smoking the same cigar, and still with just as much of the welcoming happiness and love that I liked about him in the first movie. And apparently he's a darn good swooning singer too, as we find out in the Baia segment. My other favorite character in this movie has to be the Aracuan bird, who shows up at the most ridiculous times possible singing his hyper-fast song, and clowning around and making mischief. He's almost like a classic Warner Brothers cartoon character, in that we like him just because he's so nuts and does such random shenanigans. He is kind of like a cross between Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker. This is kind of the vein this movie is in. It really doesn't have anything more than cartoon characters, but every single one of these character was a lot of fun to watch whenever they were on screen, so the film constantly was entertaining and funny. And this time, unlike the cheap-looking “Saludos Amigos,” there was actually something redeeming going on beneath all of the comedy, in the beautiful background art, the overall creativity, and the playful interaction between cartoons and live-action, so it actually felt like a good film despite the lack of character-based conflict.
This was a noticeable improvement over “Saludos Amigos.” The character designs are much more appealing and less cartoony, and there is actually a lot of character and emotion put into them. While I believe that the animation in “Saludos Amigos” was a little too over-the-top, and in general focused too much on the local clothes and backgrounds and not enough on the characters themselves, here we have characters that all have the defining “quirks” that makes them seem real. Because there is more realistic motion of all the characters rather than focusing on the over-the top comedy, there is much more of a chance to see how they normally behave... how they turn their head to look around while they are walking, or how they react to learning something new, and in general what their reactions are as they interact with the action. This is much more highlighted in this movie, and therefore the animation is much better. (It should also be noted that only four of the Nine Old Men were in the credits of “Saludos Amigos,” while seven of them were listed in “The Three Caballeros.”)
Also, one of the most unique things about this movie is that the animated characters are constantly interacting with real people in live-action hybrid scenes. I won't say it was perfect, as there are many scenes where you can tell that it's just people dancing in front of a rear-projection screen, and the animated characters don't interact with the human characters as much as is necessary to truly blend the two worlds into one, (this animation style wouldn't be perfected until “Song of the South” two years later,) but as a whole the interplay between real people and animated characters was really amusing. There were even some great “how did they do that?” moments, like when two silhouetted men transform into two fighting roosters for a few seconds, when a cactus becomes a dancing woman, and when a group of beach-women in Acapulco throw Donald Duck into the air using a real towel. These scenes are consistently amusing. There is something about seeing the contrast between the cartoony motion of the animated characters and the photorealistic motion of the people interacting together in the same “world” that really makes them amusing to watch. Fun stuff.
What a HUGE improvement! While “Saludos Amigos” was very basic in design, and looked like the usual low-budget standard Disney watercolors, “The Three Caballeros” takes us back to the oil-painting style. And thus most of the backgrounds are absolutely stunning. Their romantic uses of color is what really makes them pop... beautiful reds and purples make up the “Baia” segment, and shimmering dusty water reflections really add some moments that are stunning to behold. The overall style in the best segments looks like you are flying through an impressionist's painting. However, there are only a couple of segments that use this style... “Baia” and “Ares Raras.” The two cartoon shorts still have the same basic-looking backgrounds as always, and most of the segments with Donald are either single-color or live-action backgrounds, and neither of the above uses the multiplane camera. But the few that did use this painting style and the multiplane camera, they are a true joy to behold, and more than make up for the bare-bones ones.
Then there is the final scene, the one that I called Donald's “acid trip” scene. As much as I make fun of it for being completely off-the-wall insane, it really deserves some serious praise. This is the most dynamic creation that I have seen in a Disney film thus far, where almost everything is constantly in motion. Dancing stars, a huge grand finale of exploding fireworks, flower patterns erupting, everything turning into neon lights... and all animated completely by hand. This whole scene is just amazing! It's like a collision of “Fantasia” meets “Pink Elephants on Parade.”
Two great songs... “The Three Caballeros” and “You Belong to My Heart.” I've had both of them completely stuck in my head ever since I watched this movie. They both did a great job of combining Disney's traditional catchy melodies with ethnic Mexican sounds.
The samba music in “Saludos Amigos” was insanely catchy, but sadly confined to one ten-minute segment of the film. But here, we have what basically feels like an entire movie-full of it. This is what made all of the dancing segments interesting. The music is so darned catchy, and made me feel like dancing along with everyone on screen. Rarely in any Disney film have I gotten background music stuck in my head, but here I have both background songs from the “Baia” segment there. Fun stuff, and a great exploration of ethnic sounds. This definitely deserved its nomination for Best Original Score, as it was one of the elements that turned this otherwise-pointless movie into a true work of art.
This pretty much has the same kind of underlying themes, or lack therof, as “Saludos Amigos.” It doesn't really teach us anything about Latin culture, but is more like a celebration of them that says “hey, friends down south, we here in America care about you.” (this film was part 2 of Disney's government-funded goodwill package, so it's to be expected.) Although this time the actual celebrating is actually visually-stunning, so the lack of thematic depth didn't bother me one bit. I was too busy being in awe to care.
There was one repeated theme that really bothered me, though. Donald Duck spent the whole movie lusting after almost every single woman he sees. I didn't make a big deal out of it in “Pinocchio” because it was just a passing background element involving Jiminy Cricket, but here it is often the only thing happening on screen. Kids imitate. And this movie would likely highly reinforce the mindset that men are supposed to gawk and lust after women, and that women are just pretty things to be looked at. And it's not just Donald that does this gawking, it's almost all of the men in this movie. So unlike the normal squeaky-clean morality ratings I have given thus far, this one does come attached with a yellow flag in the negative-influence department.
Overall, What Made This Film Great?:
The great background animation, the insanely-catchy music, and the overall creativity. But overall, I'd say it was the animation. If this movie wasn't as visually stunning as it was, it would have been a dreadful bore. But the dynamic animation kept it constantly mesmerizing.
What Could it Have Done Better?:
This was a creatively-patchy affair. When they went all-out on the backgrounds in Baia and the final segment, it was absolutely stunning. But the segments that were a bit more basic, namely the two short films and the near half-hour of nonstop dancing, just seemed to drag a bit and seemed kind of pointless. So overall, I'd say that this package film needed less of the “package” elements and more of the “film” elements.
THE OFFICIAL DISNEY HEIRARCHY:
This movie was a huge improvement over “Saludos Amigos,” and is likely to stay near the top of my package films list, but I don't think it comes anywhere near the same level as “Snow White” or the others. With the classics, we get both beautiful artwork and music as well as a great plot, while this was just great artwork and music. So this is a very easy decision.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The Three Caballeros
Final-er Thought: I challenge anyone to watch this clip of the final 9 minutes of this film and not wonder what the Disney animators were smoking.
Next Film: "Make Mine Music”