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Walt & El Grupo DVD Review

Walt & El Grupo DVD cover art -- click to buy DVD from Amazon.com Walt & El Grupo
Movie & DVD Details

Theatrical Release Date: September 9, 2009 / Running Time: 107 Minutes / Rating: PG

Writer/Director: Theodore Thomas / Producer: Kuniko Okubo / Executive Producer: Walter E. D. Miller

New Interview Subjects (in order of appearance): Juan Carlos González, Mariúza Barroso Salomão, Marcelo Niño, Virgilio Roig, John Canemaker, Blaine Gibson, Diane Disney Miller, Harriett Wolcott, JB Kaufman, Jeannette Thomas, Cindy Garcia, Lydia Reed, Leticia Pinheiro, Sheila Banani, Ankito, Harriet Burns, Maria Elisa Botelho Byington, Marsha Gilpatrick, Maria Cecília Braga de Araujo Góes, Flávio Barroso, Brian Lansburgh, Janet Lansburgh, Juan Carlos Portas, Mali Legarreta, Josefina Molina Chazarreta, Andrés A. Chazarreta Ruiz, Miguel "Tachuela" Gramajo, Hugo Rocha, Guillermo Guerrero, Jorge "Faruk" Palacio, Cecilia Palacio, Elizabeth O'Farrell de Apellaniz, Miguel B. O'Farrell, Kevin Blair, Jorge Délano

Tagline: With the world on the brink of war and Nazi influence growing in South America, the US government sought help from a bunch of artists.

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish; Closed Captioned; Extras Captioned and Subtitled
Release Date: November 30, 2010 / Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9) / Black Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover

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The documentary Walt & El Grupo tells the story of the goodwill trip that Walt Disney and sixteen of his employees made to South America in 1941. It's a story that only serious Disney fans would already know and one that even they don't place too high a value on, with most considering the period between Bambi and Cinderella a break in Disney's two golden ages of animated filmmaking.
Backed by the U.S. government, the group's visit to the A, B, C countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) would directly lead to the creation of the anthology features Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, the sixth and seventh entries to Disney's official studio animation canon chronologically and near the bottom of the currently 50-deep pool by renown.

There are a few different forces in play for Walt & El Grupo writer/director Theodore Thomas, whose father Frank Thomas (one of Walt's famed "Nine Old Men") was the only animator who made the South American trip. The subject matter is virtually unknown and unimportant to all but the most devoted Disney enthusiasts. The people who made the trip have all died (most recently, the elder Mr. Thomas in 2004). That liberates this 2009 documentary but also minimizes its potential audience to a small, passionate niche. Of course, isn't that true of the vast majority of documentaries? Occasionally, one hits upon a subject that uniformly intrigues the general public. Far more often, they come and go, only turning up on the radars of a person's field of work, study, or recreation. That was pretty much the case for Theodore Thomas' previous documentary, Frank and Ollie, on his father's enduring friendship with fellow Old Man Ollie Johnston. That 1995 film is regarded highly by the Disney faithful and unfamiliar to most everyone else.

Walt Disney seems a bit old to be one of the schoolchildren in attendance for the South American premiere of "Fantasia." Director Ted Thomas lines up an El Grupo dance photo with the Alvear Palace Hotel terrace where it was held.

In Walt & El Grupo, the younger Thomas does an admirable job of reconstructing the South American trip. He films the places visited, even lining up locations with trip photos and footage. He gathers the recollections of those connected to the employees making the trip: relatives and, in one case, an elderly significant other. These family members read from the saved letters and journal entries. Along the way, we gather an individual appreciation for some of the passengers, like concept artist Mary Blair and her husband Lee. South Americans, some of whom participated in the interactions and others who recall them or the stories about them, are also interviewed. We also hear from figures of authority, from animation historians John Canemaker and J.B. Kaufman, plain old historians like Maria Elisa Byington, and even a graduate student.

Thomas excels at mining interest in the most ordinary of details. That is critical because by all accounts, nothing truly remarkable seemed to occur on this trip. A dance, a meal, the hotel whose penthouse became the studio's comfortable office... all of these things become objects of fascination, as the locales are toured with reverence and complemented by remarks. The biggest event may be a Fantasia premiere attended by over a thousand schoolchildren, which assumes magnitude and significance in comparison to the other stops.

Adding some intrigue to the journey are the conditions left behind in California. After the tremendous success of the pioneering Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt's studio was having difficulty making ambitious animated features profitable. Furthermore, there was a worker's strike, whose terms are never too clear but whose impact on Disney (both the man and his namesake workplace) are often cited. Video of the union-demanding revolt, complete with demonized Walt effigies, are briefly shown while Walt himself recounts the situation in a radio interview. There is also the whole World War II thing brewing, a tense global climate that inspired President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy of international understanding, out of which the Disney trip was born.

The Uruguayan film magazine Cine Radio Actualidad devoted multiple pages to Walt Disney's 1941 South American visit, far more coverage than they gave Bing Crosby's concurrent golf-minded vacation. Among the relatives interviewed are Walt Disney's daughter Diane Miller, who displays the two dolls her parents brought back for her and her sister.

Regardless, no amount of labor disputes and political context can equip the viewer with the amount of interest in Walt & El Grupo's subject that Thomas clearly holds for it and maintains for a somewhat laborious 107 minutes. The documentary sustains our attention for much of that ample runtime but seems to require some kind of personal, geographic, or genealogical connection to take as much from it as it wants to give.

One of the more arresting parts of the film for me was the section assessing the fruits of this trip. Canemaker drops his authoritative monotone to criticize Disney's South American films for not incorporating more of the flavor absorbed, instead relying on the studio's familiar universal gag-driven storytelling. Some of the South Americans object to their culture's trivialization.
The candid opinions raise the question: why are we spending nearly as much time as Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros combined to celebrate the journey that inspired their unextraordinary creation. The answer may just be to preserve a little-known, pivotal chapter in the histories of the Disney studio and its revered leader.

And that answer is good enough. Practically everything that Walt Disney and his artists touched in their lives remains adored by generations. Though the two South American films don't rank all that much higher in public appreciation than such live-action obscurities as Ten Who Dared and Emil and the Detectives, the circumstances behind their production make these three months as meaningful and worth exploring as probably any brief period in Walt's professional career. Furthermore, this movie is a project of the non-profit Walt Disney Family Foundation, so the effort was more to flesh out the man's legacy than to entertain art house moviegoers.

This illustrated letter from one of the Disney employees is one of several missives read in "Walt & El Grupo." Though his wife Josefina just called "Saludos Amigos" fantastic, Andrés A. Chazarreta Ruiz confesses he's not a fan of "El Gaucho Goofy."

Despite the Family Foundation being independent of the namesake media conglomerate, Walt & El Grupo is a "Walt Disney Studios" release, branding I don't think I've ever seen on a film before. It's also noteworthy for being rated PG entirely "for historical smoking." That kind of seems to undermine the anti-tobacco initiative that the MPAA introduced in 2007.


Walt & El Grupo is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16:9 displays. The aspect ratio of vintage film clips, approximately the long standard of 1.33:1, is preserved with pillarboxing. These are clearly a lot more dated than the new material, but are quite presentable considering their age and origins. The new material is pretty stellar, exhibiting a little more grain than desired but appropriate sharpness and detail. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack comes to life with South American music and presents dialogue without problems. Spanish and Portuguese remarks are translated in yellow player-generated subtitles.

This "Photos in Motion" graphic illustrates how the film generates depth from ordinary old photos by splitting planes. Brazilian music historian Roberto Gnattali returns to the ruins of Rio de Janeiro's Urca Casino to recall its significance in one of three deleted scenes.


The extras begin with an audio commentary by director Theodore Thomas and historian J.B. Kaufman (an interview subject and author of a companion book). Theirs is a good discussion,
lending insight mostly to their historical subject but also touching on the process of making this film. The conversation thins as the film progresses, but many interesting notes still emerge.

"Photos in Motion" (2:45) explains the techniques put to use on the movie to enhance its displaying of old photos, most notably separating planes to lend scenes a subtle but striking sense of depth.

From the Director's Cut holds three discarded sequences: Kaufman explain the group's travel footage that was staged for Saludos Amigos (2:09), two daughters of passengers (one a Disney employee, one not) recall their fathers' experiences on the S.S. Santa Clara (2:17), and we return to the now-dismantled Urca Casino (3:50) for a music historian's reflections on the relationship between Brazil's art and politics (which at least makes more sense of some seemingly random footage included in the film).

Taking over his father's route, the young Chilean mail plane Pedro gets off to a strong start in the bonus animated film "Saludos Amigos." Goofy is both a carnivorous gaucho and, once again, a smoking cowboy in his newly-uncut portion of "Saludos Amigos."

Next comes perhaps the greatest and most appropriate Disney DVD bonus feature of all time: the complete original uncensored Saludos Amigos (42:00). It may be Disney's shortest and one of their least significant animated classics, but it's an animated classic nonetheless and highly welcome here. The film consists largely of four animated sequences, bridged together with footage of the group traveling and observing culture. Donald Duck learns about the culture of Lake Titicaca. Pedro, a Chilean airplane, fills in for his sick father, delivering mail through the Andes in inclement weather. Goofy plays an American cowboy converted to an Argentine gaucho (his introductory cigarette smoke is the one scene digitally edited on the movie's two prior DVDs). The finale introduces formal parrot Joe Carioca to the then-new, still-familiar sound of "Aquarela do Brasil" and the film's most imaginative visuals.
Saludos Amigos is not a great movie, but it has its charms. And I maintain it is clearly superior to The Three Caballeros. Boasting a presentation that matches the acceptable quality of its billed releases, the DVD preserves the film's Academy aspect ratio and features Dolby 5.1 sound in both English and Spanish.

The downside to this appearance: there is no scene selection menu, nor even chapter stops. If you get interrupted and didn't think to pause or stop, it's fast-forwarding and rewinding to find your place; not as big a deal as on VHS or a longer film, but still more of a hassle than it needed to be. In addition, the film is preceded by a disclaimer that seems to defend Disney's self-censorship and trivialize this original cut. It reads "The original version of Saludos Amigos released in 1943 contained a scene in which Goofy smokes tobacco. Due to public-health concerns, subsequent versions throughout the years have been revised to remove the cigarette from Goofy's hand. For historical purposes related to the main feature on this disc, Walt & El Grupo, we present the original 1943 version as Walt Disney and his animators created it." The "subsequent versions" bit seems a bit vague and blameless for something done just ten years ago for the movie's home video debut. In addition, this presentation is not truly original, since a Buena Vista card appears in front rather than the RKO one that would have preceded the film in its debut.

"The Three Caballeros" is paid less attention than its predecessor and it isn't included here, but this original theatrical trailer for it (inexplicably dropped from the Classic Caballeros Collection) is. A crude computer-animated plane flies over El Grupo's passport photos and other items on the DVD's main menu.

The final inclusions are the original theatrical trailers for Saludos Amigos (1:34) and The Three Caballeros (2:18). It's like the DVD producers read my Classic Caballeros Collection review before putting together this disc. It's very nice to see these here. between them and the uncut Saludos, you can basically pair this with the CCC disc to make a definitive two-disc collection of the two Latin America movies. Do that and there's no reason to hang onto the old Gold Classic Collection versions, in case you are serious enough about trailers to hold onto entire discs just for them.

The DVD loads with a Disney Blu-ray promo, trailers for The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story and Waking Sleeping Beauty, and Disney's Cruella De Vil anti-smoking PSA. From the menu's Sneak Peeks entry come additional previews for African Cats, Fantasia and Fantasia 2000: 2 Movie Collection, Disney's D23 official fan community, Bambi: Diamond Edition, and The Lion King: Diamond Edition.

The main menu moves over maps and artwork with a crude CGI plane, while flavorful score plays.

The DVD includes a cardboard slipcover largely reproducing the artwork below. Inside that standard black keepcase alongside a Disney Movie Rewards code and Blu-ray ad is a fold-out, double-sided timeline comparing the events of World War II to the Disney studio from 1937 to 1942. It's a pretty cool thing that was created by director Ted Thomas and his wife, producer Kuniko Okubo.

Walt and El Grupo board an American Airlines plan to return to California, or else they're simply staging that effect.


I can't imagine a better documentary than Walt & El Grupo being made on its highly specific, somewhat dull subject. Theodore Thomas' film is comprehensive, competent, and moderately compelling, despite the lack of conflict or great revelation. You needn't be a devotee of classic Disney animation to appreciate this, but I doubt you'd give it a chance otherwise.

The DVD's feature presentation and handful of bonus features are satisfactory, especially the inclusion of the uncut Saludos Amigos and its trailers, which add significant value to this package.

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Reviewed December 8, 2010.

2010 Walt Disney Studios, Ted Thomas Productions, and Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.