Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Disney's New Spectatorship: Saludos Amigos

The prospect of reviewing Saludos Amigos is rather strange, because not only in the context of the focus of this series, but in the context of all of Disney's output it's a rather odd duck. Although the supression of something like Song of the South or So Dear To My Heart is unfortunate, Disney's ambivalence towards releasing this little film is somewhat more understandable - for one, it's hardly a feature film. Clocking in at just 43 minutes, the film is basically just four ten minute shorts glued together. But ah, what glue!

The basic overriding theme is "Latin America", as in The Three Caballeros, and the main reason the film exists is to promote wartime cooperation between the United States and the South Americas. Remember, this is when Americans would regularly venture to Brazil or Mexico for season getaways, this is where the Nazis were expected to escape to, and these countries had modernized in record time. Thus, the film's purpose is as explicit as its' title - Hello Friends, we're gonna need each other someday soon.

The four shorts are "Lake Titicaca", "Pedro", "El Gaucho Goofy" and "Watercolor of Brazil" - featuring the song "Brasil" which was made famous again by Terry Gilliam's dystopian farce Brazil from 1985, and for fans of that film, the intersection here in Saludos Amigos can be rather jarring and exciting. In content, the first three shorts are basically traditional, Stick To The Mob Donald and Goofy shorts from the period. "Pedro" is not dissimilar from similar "one shot" films of Disney's, where a cute character overcomes an obstacle and proves himself. The final segment is really the main reason for the film's existence, and introduces Jose Carioca. The fact that the films are each ten minutes long - the length of the average one reel Disney animated short subject - means that there may not have even been a feature film production unit on Saludos, certainly a brilliantly cost effective measure in 1942, one of the worst years for Disney, the war, and the United States in general. The film has all the earmarks of being a conceptual replay of Buster Keaton's strategy for his first film, The Three Ages - if the feature film bombed, it could easily be carved up into three or four ten minute shorts and distributed that way. In many ways, that accounts for the comparative rarity of the whole package film - Disney made it so easy to show the first three standalone shorts separately, that that's what they did for years until the whole thing was released on DVD in 2000.

The glue that's supposed to hold the whole thing together is footage of Disney animators boarding a jet and looking at various things in Latin America which serve as "inspiration" for the shorts that follow. Although one one hand this could've been cobbled together afterwards to get a new animated "feature" into film cans and out to distributors, these linking segments do lend the film the air of a documentary - not just a travelouge of the Americas, but of the animation process. In 1943 before the general public was aware of all that went into animation, Disney's films were magic tricks, flawless constructions (no matter how little they made at the box office), and the 16mm footage seen in Saludos Amigos must've seemed an exciting bridge between the animated film and the real world - not only were we discovering how Disney made their films, but we were were discovering South America with them.

Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, the documentary footage interspersed, the film has strange tensions between the shorts - they do not exist in harmony. One is not necessarily in content or execution any better than any other one, yet the structuring documentary content, a kind of substitution for the authorial hand, creates distance in the spectator for possibly the first time in Disney animation. Because we are shown the animation field trip, the inspiration, and the product, some of the magic trick has been revealed. We are made aware of the animation process as a process, and the shorts stand out even more as constructs, one after another, made by people we've seen for our viewing pleasure.

This, of course, as artistically interesting as it is, doesn't really help the film's case for itself.

For all the traditional Donald and Goofy hijinx happening elsewhere in the film, and the clever narration ("Yes, a lama can make you feel awfully unimportant"), the film finally comes into its own for a brief moment right at the end, in the "Watercolor of Brazil" segment. For the first time the segment opens with the traditional introductory opening of a book to herald its' arrival, and the exciting flourish of Ary Barroso's score plunges us towards an empty canvas. The authorial hand's arrival is signaled by a looming shadow, and then the the paint brush enters and begins to create. There are a number of clever touches where bananas become the beaks of clusters of musical toucans, and one moment which seems to be a dead ringer for the future singing flowers in the Enchanted Tiki Room. Jose Carioca is, strangely poignantly, created before our eyes, one of the best character introductions in animation.

The homogenity and quality of the sequence is cut short because it just as quickly runs out of ideas and ends, but for a moment there is the seed of a future structure exists, the pairing of Donald with an internationally sauve foil, the tropical surrealism and the documentary "authority" supplanted by the authorial guidance of the watercolorist. Disney animation has been using the gag of the authorial hand, presumably an Ub Iwerks invention, since at least "Alice's Wonderland" of 1923, and one day somebody should write a full length dissertation on its' prominence in Disney, but its' role here lends the 'watercolor' a dreamy elegance unmatched by the rest of the film.

Saludos' main title is encumbered with the awkward announcement "from a 16mm original by Walt Disney", which is not only badly phrased but kind of confusing. Still, the title is truthful in that it speaks of the awkward blend of documentary and fiction the film is perched between. In the 1940's Disney began to aggressively pursue new kinds of presentations of content, and the blend of photographic documentary and mythic animation was something only they could really, wholly do. The Semi-Documentary is in its original and perhaps most fully articulated form here. In the future the cartoon would be relegated to a "preshow' for the main action of the film, or a short live action segment would be the "preshow" to the cartoon. Here both exist reasonably harmoniously.

In many ways what Saludos Amigos begot was not Three Caballeros, the film it's often linked to, but Victory Thru Airpower, an illustrated lecture with an apocalyptic Marc Davis animation climax. It eventually led to the True-Life Adventures, which the 16mm segments play exactly like, from their wry humor to their sharp colors. The film to watch with it isn't Three Caballeros but The Reluctant Dragon, an elaboration of the documentary-cartoon pattern, both featuring behind the scenes of animation content, Walt Disney appearing in character as himself, and a lighthearted narrator.

What Saludos Amigos really presages, with its' cartoon varieties interspersed with whimsical live action introductory segments, is an episode of Disneyland. Although the film may seem irrelevant in content and scope, the traces of its' influence spread through Disney culture as steadily and potently as any Walt Disney-era 'masterpiece'.


Next time: The Three Caballeros