Film Review: The Three Caballeros (1944)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

Almirante – himself

Nestor Amaral – himself

Pinto Colvig – Aracuan bird

Billy Daniel – live-action dancer

Dante DiPaolo – live-action dancer

Joaquin Garay – Panchito

Frank Graham – narrator

Sterling Holloway – narrator

Dora Luz – Mexico girl

Matt Mattox – live-action dancer

Aurora Miranda – the Brazilian girl

Carmen Molina – Mexico girl

Clarence Nash – Donald Duck

José Oliveira – José Carioca

Padua Hills Players – themselves

Alex Romero – live-action dancer

Fred Shields – narrator

Trío Ascensio del Rio – themselves

Trío Calaveras – themselves

Sources of Inspiration – Disney’s 1941 Goodwill Tour around the countries of South America

Release Dates

December 21st, 1944 in Mexico City, Mexico (premiere)

February 3rd, 1945 in New York City, USA (general release)

Run-time – 72 minutes

Directors – Norman Ferguson, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and Harold Young (he did the live-action location parts)

Composers – Edward H. Plumb, Paul J. Smith and Charles Wolcott

Worldwide Gross – For some reason, grosses for the package films are impossible to find

Accolades – 3 nominations including 2 Oscar nominations


1944 in History

San Juan earthquake occurs – Argentina’s worst natural disaster

US troops arrive in the Marshall Islands and Guam

Kurt Gerron is forced to shoot the Nazi propaganda film, Thereseinstadt

Casablanca wins Best Picture at the 16th Academy Awards

Mt Vesuvius’s most recent eruption kills 26 and causes mass evacuation

Battle of Monte Cassino, consisting of four assults, occurs

D-Day; 155,000 Allied troops storm the beaches of Normandy

Iceland gains its independence from Denmark

V-2 rocket MW 18014 crosses the Kármán line and becomes the first man-made object in space

The Warsaw Uprising begins in Poland

Diarist Anne Frank is discovered in hiding with her family in Amsterdam by the Gestapo

The nazis are driven out of Paris, despite Hitler’s orders to destroy it

Births of Diana Ross, John Rhys-Davies, George Lucas, Danny DeVito and Ban Ki-Moon


 

The Three Caballeros was Disney’s second package film, their seventh classic overall and the last animated film which they released during the war. It also happens to be the first package film I ever saw, years and years ago on the old Disney Cinemagic channel (before it was replaced by Sky Disney), and at the time, I loved it. Now, though, I’m not so sure.

Like Saludos Amigos, it was inspired by the trip Disney took in 1941 to promote good relations between North and South America. Whereas that film focused mainly on Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina, this one features Uruguay, Ecuador (the Galápagos Islands) and Mexico – although, naturally, both also heavily feature Brazil. These were Disney’s first films to be set somewhere other than Europe, North America or a fantasy world, and were the last until 1967’s The Jungle Book, so it’s certainly interesting to see them tackling other cultures so far back. The Three Caballeros has a somewhat stronger framing device than its predecessor; the “story” is that it is Donald Duck’s birthday, so he is excitedly opening a selection of gifts from his South American friends, although this structure isn’t maintained consistently throughout the film. This is also the first Disney classic to actually credit its voice cast, which is a nice change! (Hopefully it continues with the next ones).

Apparently, Walt himself didn’t like this one, even commenting in an interview that it suffered from “a severe lack of talent.” Whether or not he was correct in this belief remains to be seen – let’s take a look for ourselves.

 

The Cold-Blooded Penguin

As Donald prepares to open his gifts, the tag is magically translated into English for him as he struggles, telling us his birthday is Friday 13th (never mind the fact that this could lead to him celebrating multiple birthdays in one year). The first present is an old film projector, complete with reels of delicate film which Donald begins running through his fingers with careless abandon. After finally managing to set the rig up, we sit back with him to watch The Cold-Blooded Penguin, narrated in a comically understated fashion by Sterling Holloway (excuse me, I meant “Professor Holloway”).

Pablo the penguin

This is probably my favourite part of the film – it peaks a little early, you might say. The first half of The Three Caballeros feels much like Saludos Amigos in its style, and that’s no bad thing when compared to the confusing zaniness of the later parts. The short concerns the story of a chilly little penguin (whose name is the Spanish version of my own!) dreaming of a warmer life in the tropics. You can’t help wondering why he’s living in an Inuit igloo in the Antarctic, but the short works well and features some genuinely funny moments. The extended gag of his failed attempts to set out on his trip is great fun, especially with the other penguins’ laconic expressions as they watch his efforts getting more and more ridiculous.

Neptune and Pablo

When he finally manages to embark, he sets off up the coast of South America to the tune of the popular Latin American song Sobre las olas (1888), in a sequence involving some more amusing gags. The “Robinson Crusoe” is a clever one, referencing the island of the Juan Fernández group on which sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned for several years, which served as inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s excellent classic. The “blanket of fog” always make me laugh, too, and there’s a reference to naval line-crossing ceremonies (even featuring King Neptune!) as little Pablo sails over (or rather, under) the equator. The best gag is when Pablo turns his rapidly sinking bathtub-boat into a speedboat by jamming the showerhead into the plughole, using this contraption to propel himself the last part of the way to the Galápagos Islands. Once there, however, we see him sweltering under the tropical sun, casting longing looks to a series of photos of – Antarctica! The narrator of the next short cheerfully takes over from Holloway, saying, “Never satisfied! Well, that’s human nature for you – even if you’re a penguin.” Oh, so true!

This marks the only time Disney has visited Antarctica in its films, which is a little surprising – I suppose after Happy Feet (2006) there wasn’t a lot more they could do with a penguin-themed film.

 

The Flying Gauchito

The next segment opens with an introduction to South American birdlife, which is both enjoyable and educational (sort of), at least until the Aracuan bird arrives. This irritating Woody Woodpecker knock-off was the work of animator Eric Larson, and is apparently Epic Mickey designer Warren Spector’s favourite Disney character. Maybe so, but the Aracuan really doesn’t work for me, personally. He’s like the personification of everything that’s wrong with this film – crazy, over-the-top obnoxiousness with no context. He’s just plain annoying!

Luckily, this first appearance is brief (but he’ll be back later; oh dear). The main short, The Flying Gauchito, stars a young Uruguayan cowboy and his friend, a flying “burrito” (or little burro). (Spanish versions of the film often state that the short is set in Argentina, rather than Uruguay). Much like the previous short and many of those from Saludos Amigos, it is the narrator who really makes this one work – here, he peppers his talk with rapid Spanish and gets hilariously confused, making for some great visual gags as the scenery changes to try and fit his muddled recollections. The story is simple but charming enough, with some more interesting dashes of culture displayed during the fiesta scene – you can tell the animators were trying to show off what they’d learned on their travels. There’s not really much to be said about it beyond this, though, except that it ends on a weird and funny note as the animator declares with apparent delight that neither he nor the burrito were ever heard from again as long as they lived!

Gauchito and his burrito

 

Baía

The title of this segment and the name used on the maps in the film are all misspellings – the place being referred to is actually spelled “Bahia,” while the spelling used here is only the Portuguese word for “bay.” This discrepancy aside, Baia is probably the most technically proficient and artistic segment of the film. Indeed, the first part of it features some really wonderful music and imagery, marking a rather drastic change in quality from the first half of the film. The song sung is a version of the 1938 hit Na Baixa do Sapateiro with alternate English lyrics, and makes perfect accompaniment for the lush visuals on display here.

Bahia scenery #1Bahia scenery #2Bahia scenery #3Bahia scenery #4

Ah, José is back! Donald’s friend from Saludos Amigos makes his usual excited entrance to ask Donald if he’s ever been to the titular city, prompting Donald to tell him he hasn’t. Despite this, José continues asking him over and over throughout a short musical number which gets really old really fast. It’s based on Você Já Foi à Bahia? from 1941 and retains much of the original Portuguese from that version, but still, we can all sympathise with Donald when he eventually fires the question back at José in frustration. It turns out that he hasn’t been there either, so the two pals shrink themselves down to hop aboard a picture-book train and go see it.

The train was the work of artist Mary Blair, while the animation of it was done by Les Clark. The sequence also features a second (and mercifully final) appearance from the Aracuan, who thinks it’s funny to mess with the hand-drawn train tracks and send all the carriages careening off at random along his new routes. I’ve never sympathised with a train more than this one, when it struggles in panic to gather up the various carriages in time to get them to Baia. Thank goodness we don’t see this bloody bird again (at least in this film).

Mary Blair's train

Next comes the technical marvels of the Aurora Miranda scenes, featuring her and various performers singing the 1941 song Os quindins de Yayá while Donald and José try to win her attentions and affections. These scenes marked the first time Disney had blended live-action with animation since the Alice Comedies of the 1920s, and were largely the work of legendary special effects artist Ub Iwerks, who had returned to the studio by this time. Achieving this technical marvel was no easy feat: it was all about the timing, with the artists using Photostats of the live actors to match up their drawings, then combining the two separate pieces of footage in an optical printer. At other moments, the animated characters were projected onto a huge screen behind the live actors (these parts have aged less well, looking fuzzy and unconvincing). I enjoy this sequence for the most part, even if it does date the film a bit – Donald is at his funniest in this segment, jealously trying to wallop the live-action guys with an animated mallet (courtesy of José) and failing spectacularly. Some of the musicians are a bit unsettling, though – what’s with the crazy-eyed guy playing what I think is a pencil on his teeth? There’s some cool lighting in this segment as Donald, apparently “drunk” on love after a kiss from Miranda, begins to hallucinate, seeing two male dancers as a pair of fighting birds while a wild percussion beat simulates his pounding heart.

 

Mexico

Between Baia and this segment, we get a strange scene involving Donald and José, who use “black magic” to return to their usual sizes before opening the next gift. This whole skit is a bit random and feels like filler to be honest, but it’s still more fun than the endless scenes of Donald chasing women nearer the end! Once this is achieved, the soundtrack character from Fantasia makes a brief return, even incorporating Donald and his angry quacking in a creatively designed gag, featuring geometric designs inspired by Mexican art. This ends in an explosion out of which Panchito Pistoles emerges, Donald’s friend from Mexico. This trigger-happy rooster joins Donald and José in the film’s best-known musical number, The Three Caballeros, a crazy gag-fest animated by Ward Kimball which rushes along at a furious pace and ends with an impressive twenty-second belted note from Panchito (credit to Joaquin Garay, it’s amazing!), all while Donald and José appear to be trying to kill him! Aside from the obviously unintentional double-entendres in the lyrics, singing about being gay happy chappies who like to stand close together, there are some enjoyable gags as Donald struggles to keep up with his energetic friends; at one point, when the animators give the other two guitars to play, Donald is first offered a sax, then a trumpet, before finally ending up with an enormous double bass, which he valiantly attempts to play in time with the others.

The three caballeros song

The song’s title (and the film’s) translates roughly to “three gentlemen,” which is rather ironic considering their actions in the next few scenes. The opening song of the film also shares this title but is a very different song from the one performed by the madcap trio, using the melody of the 1941 ranchera standard ¡Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes!

After the number ends, Panchito then delivers a surprisingly calm narration of the story of Los Posadas, a Mexican Christmas tradition about the wanderings of the Virgin Mary during her pregnancy. This, along with the following scene showing off Mexican scenery, was done by Mary Blair, and together they make for a much-needed pause in the frenetic madness before the film really loses control. Panchito explains the design of Mexico’s flag and the founding of Mexico City, before leading us into a showcase of various Mexican songs and dances, such as the Lilongo, danced by Carmen Molina and Donald. This is another piece of live-action and animation blending, and I actually find it more impressively done than the more famous Aurora Miranda parts.

From this point on, the film dissolves into a nearly incomprehensible hodgepodge of almost psychedelic imagery, as Donald’s lust (and probably drunkenness) escalates. After breaking open a piñata in one of his gifts, he is showered with a load of Mexican delights, which Panchito takes him and José off to explore on a “magic serape.” Soon though, these flights of fancy devolve into a sort of debased hunt for women. There’s more than a touch of sexism in comments like “toots” and “hot stuff” to refer to the ladies onscreen, and it starts to feel less and less like a Disney film the more you watch. Critic John Grant noted of Donald that “There is one trait which he displays in this movie which is not noticeable in his others: eager lechery!” It was a characteristic which was not to be seen in him again, so perhaps it was just the result of his wild night in Mexico? One has to wonder if Daisy Duck ever saw this film!

Donald hallucination #1

Donald hallucination #2
“Go home Donald, you’re drunk!”

After Donald & Co. finish prowling the beaches of Acapulco for scantily clad human girls, we get several bizarre scenes of Donald mooning over Dora Luz’s face enshrined within the petals of a flower, as she sweetly sings You Belong To My Heart, a very dated ballad (it was later covered by Bing Crosby). The original 1941 version was titled Solamente una vez – I wonder why so many of the songs in the film are from that year in particular? We also see more of Carmen Molina, dancing to La Sandunga, a traditional native Mexican waltz from 1853, and then to Jesusita en Chihuahua, a military-themed polka from 1916, while Donald looks on, drooling. I suppose at least women play a bigger role in this film than in Saludos Amigos, where there were no named females at all (just Mama Plane and artist Mary Blair), but considering their sexualised roles here, it’s hardly an improvement!

Eventually, the film’s weirdness peaks, as Donald starts hearing Panchito’s words coming back to him in freaky echoes – “Some fun ey kid!” – with a super creepy voice whispering something that sounds like “booty girls” a few times at one point! (Perhaps it’s “Beauty girls?” “Pretty girls?”) The gift-opening structure has been completely abandoned by this point, and the film ends in a mad ball of fireworks, noise and colour, much to the relief of the exhausted audience.

 

Final Verdict

This one was not as well-received as Saludos Amigos, and it’s easy to see why. Although it starts out promisingly enough, there was a lot of criticism directed at the film’s second half, particularly at the overly sexual imagery (for Disney, at least) and the sadistic violence exhibited by Donald and his friends towards each other. It also lost the Oscar for Best Score to Anchors Aweigh (1945), although that’s understandable, since that film featured music by Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

Despite the underwhelming reception, the film managed to garner rereleases in 1958, 1966, 1973, 1977 (in severely edited form) and 1981 – Saludos only had one, and none of the other four package films were rereleased in theatres at all, being broken up and shown as individual shorts instead. Donald’s friends José and the Aracuan bird have made several appearances in later media, including the package film Melody Time (1948), but Panchito didn’t fare so well; his most notable legacy was being painted on the nose of a B-25J plane, the 44-30734 Panchito, which is housed in the Delaware Aviation Museum and sometimes makes appearances in air shows.

This definitely isn’t one of my favourites. Despite the technical achievements, it’s too messy and inconsistent to really hold up as a strong film; I prefer its shorter companion, Saludos. Still, it’ll always hold a special place for me amongst the package films as my first, and I still enjoy the early parts of the Baia sequence as much as I did all those years ago.

It’ll be interesting to compare this to Pixar’s Coco, which is due out later this year!

My Rating – 3/5

 

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21038007  – credit for poster

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Caballeros  – wiki article

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038166/ – IMDB profile

 

Also, although I haven’t seen it myself, I would recommend checking out the documentary Walt & El Grupo (2008), about the making of this film and Saludos Amigos, if you’d like to know more.

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