1941 was not a pleasant year for Walt Disney. World War II had closed European markets to Disney films leading to significant lose of revenue. And the family-like dynamic of the Walt Disney Studio changed as the animators went on strike and unionized. The Walt Disney Studio truly became a business. These events were very stressful for Walt Disney. Luckily for him, he was asked to complete a good will tour of South America on behalf of the United States Department of State to support the Good Neighbor policy, showing the U.S.’s Latin American neighbors that the United States was a friendly regional ally in the face of a global war. Walt Disney agreed to go on this South American adventure; leading a group of 18 animators, writers, composers and wife Lillian Disney. Disney agreed to use the trip to gather story material for future Disney films, films which the U.S. government would underwrite guaranteeing that Disney could keep key staff employed while not facing a financial loss for the projects. The films inspired by this trip included Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
The documentary Walt & El Grupo tells the story of Walt Disney’s South American adventure. The story is told through film taken by members of El Grupo and those they interacted with, letters sent by the travelers to family members, and interviews with colleagues. The film shows not only the Disney team experience, but also interviews South American citizens who spent time with the Disney party. Walt & El Grupo gives us a window into a difficult period for the Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney and a world enflamed by global war.
· The documentary includes portions of interviews with legendary Imagineers such as Harriet Burns and Blaine Gibson who worked with members of El Grupo and their reminiscences are delights as they recount the events of 1941.
· There are a number of Disney legends who were part of El Grupo that will catch the attention of Disney fans. For example the art work of Mary Blair is well known to even to the youngest of Disney fans thanks to it’s a small world. However the documentary’s profile of Blair provides us a glimpse of Blair the artist, woman and dynamic force. Likewise, Herb Ryman is well known to many for drawing the original Disneyland concept map and this documentary lets fans see Ryman over a decade before Disney’s theme park project.
The World is Watching
· Thanks to the interviews with those that met Disney and his band we get a glimpse of how Disney impacted the peoples he visited, leaving lasting memories that many individuals and even groups cherish to this day. It is really enlightening to see how the visit to South America impacted the children of those Disney met, some of those interviewed were not even born at the time of Disney’s visit. You are given the impression that compared to other celebrities the fact that Disney attempted to meet individuals and learn about foreign cultures is respected to this day.
· The documentary also shows us also how cultures outside of North America view Walt Disney today. And like some Americans you may interact with it is still often the myths of Walt Disney and not the realities of the man that continue to spread throughout culture.
· This was a very difficult time in the life of Walt Disney, yet much of the film taken for this trip is a happy, smiling, laughing Walt Disney. We see a picture of a man who loved life and loved to explore the new. As he learns a new dance, you see the joy in his eyes as he learns something completely new.
· Additionally, part of the Disney’s frustration during this time was the loss of a sense of family at the studio. When he returned the strike would be settled by the atmosphere would never be the same again. Yet in the film recorded in this trip it becomes clear that Disney and his associates did have a close relationship, and the letters sent to family members make it clear that many in the group did not wish to return to a very different Walt Disney Studios. The fun of making animated movies was dying for Walt Disney and his staff.
Walt & El Grupo takes us back to 1941, before Walt Disney built theme parks and had not even made a live action movie. It also shows a transition in both Disney’s company as the studio became less of a club and more of a company. And it shows a transition in Disney’s preferences as he began to lose interest in animated features due to that changing environment. The documentary has a delightful soundtrack, a good balance between original black and white film clips and color segments recorded years after. And the documentary has a star, Walt Disney himself! Personally, I do not find it as engaging as Waking Sleeping Beauty, but it is well worth the watch for a die hard Disney fan.
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