These are strange times. I spent this past weekend at Disney, so I thought it appropriate to bookend my trip with reviews of two of my favorite Disney cartoons of all time. Last week it was The Sword in the Stone (1963). Today it is The Three Caballeros (1944). When cable television first became a widespread thing, one of the first channels to get on-board was the Disney Channel. That was how I was first exposed to this little known classic, and I recall laughing uproariously at Donald Duck’s (voiced by Clarence Nash) antics. Though I have a slightly different take on them as an adult, in homage to that childhood delight I make sure to ride the Gran Fiesta Tour ride in the Mexican pavilion whenever I visit EPCOT. Oddly enough, despite dining at the charming San Angel Inn that overlooks the ride’s waterway, I did not do my pilgrimage this time. These are strange times, indeed.
While The Three Caballeros is not quite a feature length film, and lacks a classic plot, I would argue that it does nonetheless involve Donald Duck learning something new, in this case about some of the cultures of Latin America. He receives a package from his “amigos” in countries in South and Central America containing gifts meant to inform Donald about the people who live in those places. The film starts by discussing various birds from down there, and the first vignette is about a penguin from the South Pole who dreams of living in warmer climates, narrated by Professor Holloway (voiced by Sterling Holloway). The flightless bird eventually sails to a tropical island just off the Pacific Coast of South America, though once there it begins to think that maybe the cooler climes it left behind were not so bad after all. This is followed by an Argentinian legend about a donkey that could fly. The first in-depth overview of a Latin American country is Brazil, and it is from this package that we get the first caballero, José Carioca (voiced by José Oliveira). Together, Donald and José take part in a live-action musical number about the local customs of Baía (Bahia), a state in Brazil rich with unique traditions. The biggest gift, though, is from Mexico, and from it emerges the last caballero, Panchito (voiced by Joaquin Garay). After a whimsical tune introducing him to the group, Panchito takes the trio on a musical tour of our neighbor to the south aboard his magical serape. Much like with Baía, but exploring even more regions of Mexico, we get to see the various fashions, dances, and songs from all over Mexico, utilizing a combination of live-action and cartoons interacting with one another. Donald’s musical education ends with his aggravation over repeated attempts to get his feathers on the numerous beautiful women he sees, and essentially exploding in a head-on collision with a charging, fireworks fueled toy bull.
The Three Caballeros is an interesting film on a variety of levels. Its blending of cartoons and live action, and in color, was ahead of its time. Audiences were wowed by Mary Poppins doing this twenty years later, but here is a film in The Three Caballeros that has more scenes of what was a new technology in 1944. It is also very 1940s in many of its sensibilities. The way some of the Latin American men are drawn, particularly in the Argentinian legend, are essentially “brown-face,” with big teeth and even wider grins. Cartoons do not need to be so stereotypical, even at that time. It is also extremely weird. Some of you may know that perhaps the most famous surreal artist of all time, Salvador Dalí, collaborated with Disney on many projects. Though The Three Caballeros was not one of them, from watching it you have to wonder whether or not the artists behind it had a firm grasp on reality. I suppose one person’s imaginativeness is another person’s reason to be put in a straight jacket and padded room.
Speaking of crazy, in almost every one of the set pieces in The Three Caballeros, Donald cannot keep his composure around pretty females. The worst is when he visits Acapulco Beach in Mexico, a scene that has every woman there running terrified for their lives from a crazed duck. The Bible teaches us to treat women with dignity and as the gifts from God. If you are blessed with the vocation of marriage, you are taught to treasure your spouse. Separation is not easy either, and the commandments are just a reminder as to that which God joins we should not so easily split. None of this seems to be even close to Donald’s mind as he goes full horn-dog mode in nearly every scene. I laughed at this as a child. I purse my lips somewhat as an adult when I see such things. I guess I have grown up in some ways.
Despite its anachronistic approach to some virtues, The Three Caballeros is a fun little way to spend an hour. It can be watched by the whole family, though make sure that your children do not behave as Donald does. Things were different in the 1940s, and since not all of Disney’s artists seemed to have fought in World War II, they apparently took out their frustrations on this film. Hence, take this recommendation with a grain of salt.