January 8, 2011


A handsome and brilliant man wearing a fedora travels to distant lands, fighting Nazis. Sound familiar? Well, this man was Walt Disney, not Indiana Jones, but Walt fought Nazis all the same. Once upon a time way back in 1941, the US Government asked Walt Disney to become a cultural ambassador to South America, to fight the growing Nazi influence in the region.  Walt & El Grupo is a documentary that explores the fascinating story of Disney’s goodwill tour.

Walt brought along several artists handpicked from The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, who were nicknamed “El Grupo,” because South Americans called them “El Grupo Disney,” or “The Disney Group” while they traveled. Captured in this film are the people who remember Walt’s visit, and explain the effect that he had on them, and their countries.  Hit the jump to check out my DVD review.

walt-and-el-grupo-the-untold-adventuresAt the time of the trip, Disney was fighting a serious battle: a labor strike among his employees. The Disney Studio in Burbank was under siege and surrounded by disgruntled employees, fascinatingly documented by shaky but incredible home movies.

Being artists, the strikers did as artists do, creating clever and cruel caricatures of Walt Disney as a dragon, or a giant and angry Mickey Mouse badmouthing Walt atop a picket sign. They even burned a figure of Walt in effigy outside of the Studio gates. Needless to say, things were bad. During the midst of all this Disney was give the opportunity to take some artists and go to the “ABC” countries: Argentina, Brazil and Chile. So, partly to get away from the troubles at the studio, he went.

This documentary contains detailed and touching oral histories and reminiscences from both South Americans and the wives and children of the people who went. It is incredible to see the impact that Disney’s tour really had; people showed up at airports by the hundreds just to catch a glimpse of Walt. The trip really did result in goodwill as Chileans, Brazilians and Argentineans felt very special indeed to be able to share their culture and traditions with Disney and his crew.

The trip resulted in two excellent and Latin-flavored cartoons released by Disney in 1943 and 1944, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, respectively. The trip also forever influenced the art of Mary Blair, one of the artists in the group, explosively and colorfully revolutionizing the style of her watercolors and graphic design. Blair would continue with the Disney studios through the 1960’s, creating astonishingly colorful and ingenious work.


Bonus features include audio commentary with the director of the documentary Theodore Thomas, as well as commentary by historian J.B. Kaufman. Original theatrical trailers from the fruit of Disney’s visit, the cartoons Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1944) are also on the disc. “Photos in Motion” is a fascinating brief featurette that explains the innovative technique that the documentary uses to merge photos taken by El Grupo in South America during their trip with photos of the same locations today.

These charming effects made the old photos come alive, making the “then and now” comparisons both compelling and poignant. Under the heading “From the Director’s Cut” are three featurettes, “Home Movies for the Big Screen,” “My Father’s Generation” and “Artists and Politicians.”  “Home Movies for the Big Screen” briefly explores the 16mm Kodachrome film footage that was shot as reference material during the trip (which, for this doc, proves invaluable) as well as rare footage of Disney and his golden-age staff.


walt-and-el-grupo-the-untold-adventures-movie-poster“My Father’s Generation” shares memories of El Grupo’s return trip aboard the SS Santa Clara, as told by two daughters of the original tourists. “Artists and Politicians” discusses the politics and music of Brazil during the Disney group’s stay, and historian JB Kaufman gives thoughts about the timing of El Grupo’s trip. All in all, the bonus features provide excellent historical underpinning and extras, supplementing the documentary beautifully.

Walt and El Grupo is one of a few in-depth documentaries that have been recently released featuring the incredible and innovative artists of the Walt Disney Studios. The two other excellent documentaries along the same vein, Waking Sleeping Beauty and The Boys: The Story of The Sherman Brothers, delve into the history of the company, with the same fantastic result: viewers and fans may learn about the incredible history of a company that employed literally hundreds of brilliant artists, best of all the great man himself, Walt Disney.

Walt and El Grupo is a fascinating work that will make viewers thank their lucky stars for the invention of home movie cameras in the 1940s, without which this doc would not have been nearly as rich. This unforgettable documentary is a must-have, period.

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