Legacy Content

Toon Talk: Disney Documentaries
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by Kirby Holt (archives)
December 3, 2010
Kirby reviews three new documentaries that go behind the scenes of Disney films - Walt & El Grupo, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story and Waking Sleeping Beauty.
Toon Talk: Disney Film and DVD Reviews
by Kirby C. Holt

Disney DVDs

MPAA Ratings: PG

Whats Up Docs

For longtime Disneyphiles, their holiday gifts came early this year with the recent releases of not one, not two, but three new Disney documentaries on DVD. All three of these feature length docs -- Walt & El Grupo, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story and Waking Sleeping Beauty -- were produced by Disney, but dont expect any studio whitewashing of the facts. Offering refreshingly candid accounts of the events they cover, each focuses on a different era of Disney history, revealing some surprising truths and shocking secrets from behind the scenes at the house the mouse built.

We begin our trip through time in 1941 with Walt & El Grupo. With war raging overseas, it was a tumultuous time in the United States, and at the Disney Studio. Not only was the European market for films closed, but a nasty animators strike was threatening to tear the studio apart. It was at this time that the US government fortuitously extended an offer to Walt Disney to serve as a goodwill ambassador to South America, a cultural exchange program intended to help curb Nazi influence in the region.

Wanting to escape the union woes plaguing his studio, Walt agreed to the trip, and brought along with him a group of artists and story men -- who would soon be known as El Grupo -- in hopes of finding material for future cartoons and animated features. Inspired by the native art, music and locations of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, two Disney features were born: 1943s Saludos Amigos and 1945s The Three Caballeros.

As anyone who has seen Saludos Amigos recalls, footage of Walt and company on their trip was used to break up the various animated segments, so at first Walt & El Grupo seems a little superfluous. But writer/director Theodore Thomas (son of Disney Legend Frank Thomas, the only animator who went on the trip) attempts to delve deeper then the quaint travelogue that was Saludos Amigos to explore the reality of the trip, both for the visiting artists and the people they met along their travels.

Retracing the original trip, the documentary offers a unique opportunity to see the same locations today, yet strains to visualize the events, relying heavily on slow pans over artwork and photographs, and liberally using the 3-D effect on still photographs so common now in such productions as this. Most of the major participants have passed away, so the narrative is left to Disney historians (John Canemaker and J.B. Kaufman, author of the book South of the Border with Disney) and surviving relatives, some reading from letters from the time.

Although well made, Walt & El Grupo will be of interest almost solely to hardcore Disney fans, and even then only to those with an interest in the era and/or Saludos Amigos and (to a lesser extent) The Three Caballeros. In fact, chief among the selling points of this DVD is the complete, uncensored original theatrical release of Saludos Amigos, complete with a cigarette smoking Goofy (and the requisite five second disclaimer). Other bonus features include an audio commentary (by Thomas and Kaufman), three deleted scenes (from The Directors Cut) and the original theatrical trailers for Amigos and Caballeros.

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