In the early 1940s, the United States was concerned that countries in South America with ties to Nazi Germany could become potential security risks. The Department of State contacted the Disney studios and commissioned a “good will” tour, with Walt acting as an ambassador for the country. Disney and about twenty of the studio’s artists traveled through Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru, sketching and eventually producing four animated shorts, which were released together as a “package” film called Saludos Amigos ( “Hello, Friends!” ).
At less than fifty minutes, it seems like a stretch to call Saludos Amigos a feature-length movie, but that’s how it was released back in 1942! Each animated short is tied together with live action footage of Disney and his team traveling through the countries of South America. You see a lot of the drawings the animators made while in South America, and at times this concept art is far more interesting than the final animated productions. (Also, it seems odd that Saludos Amigos is considered a part of Disney’s animated classics canon, but films like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which also feature animation, are not. All of these movies contain a mixture of live action and animation!)
So how are the four short movies?
Lake Titicaca – Donald Duck visits Lake Titicaca and the region around it, taking in the sights and sounds of Peru. When South America was an exotic place to most Americans, Lake Titicaca tries to be educational. Donald Duck attempts to sail a balsa boat, ride a llama, and dress up in native costume. (Note: It would have been much more interesting had the live-action segment right before the cartoon not already narrated much of the anthropological information to the viewer.) It’s an entertaining bit of animation – not great, but a decent Donald Duck short - although the caricatured natives seem offensive to the modern viewer.
Pedro –This little short is about a “little boy” airplane who takes over his father’s mail route, braving the dangers of flying over the Andes. The problem I have with it is essentially the same problem I have with Cars: how do anthropomorphized planes/cars/boats/etc. work? How does a little boy plane grow up into a Papa plane? Where do baby planes come from? And so on. The by-the-numbers story and standardized animation make this a pretty dull seven minutes to watch.
Fun fact: Meant to represent Chile, Pedro so disappointed Chilean cartoonist Pepo that he created Condorito, a comic strip that has been running daily in newspapers for over sixty years!
El Gaucho Goofy - American cowboy Goofy is magically flown to Argentina to learn how to be a gaucho, or Argentine cowboy. It’s a documentary how-to sort of cartoon, which Goofy specialized in at the time. (Other cartoons from the period featuring Goofy include “How to Fish” and “How to Play Golf” and so on.) Of course, being Goofy he doesn’t get anything right. By drawing parallels between the legendary American cowboy and his counterpart down South, I think Disney made a smart choice, because it would have made the gaucho’s work easier for Americans to relate to. But, on the other hand, it’s too bad they didn’t develop an original character and story for the gaucho. That would have been really cool. Still, this is one of the better shorts in the Saludos Amigos collection.
Aquarela do Brasil - This was my favorite of the four shorts for several reasons. To start, the first half is the most creative bit of animation in the entire movie. It starts with an animator’s table, and a paintbrush begins painting in the scenery of Brazil with the song “Brazil” setting a fun, festive atmosphere. The way the “paint” spreads across the paper to form flowers, drips down the page to create the legs of flamingos, and so on – well, it’s just so much fun! It recalls Fantasia with its link between song and sight. The second reason this is such a great short is it introduces Jose Carioca, the fast-talking parrot who gives Donald Duck a tour of Brazil. His thirty seconds of rapid-fire Portuguese was the funniest bit in the movie to me. He makes such a great sidekick for Donald; he’s more laid back and a bit more dapper, but if distill the two birds down to their essences they’re not so very different. Plus, even though he speaks with an accent, Jose is much easier to understand than his American counterpart.
So, overall, how does this movie rate? Well, it was made with a smaller budget than its predecessors -Fantasia and Bambi nearly bankrupted the Disney studio – and it shows. The animation looks like what you’d see on TV shows, not on the big screen. Saludos Amigos hasn’t aged especially well, either. But given that many of Disney’s staff had left to join the war effort, and the men who remained were working with reduced funds, it would be silly to expect the same level of achievement. The animation in Aquarela do Brasil is pretty experimental, while the Donald Duck and Goofy shorts would certainly appeal to kids.
I don’t think I needed to see it, and I certainly won’t watch it again. But I didn’t hate anything about it because it’s so very bland.