Saturday, January 19, 2008

Disney's New Spectatorship: The Three Caballeros

"My Rio, Rio by the Sea-o,
Flying down to Rio where there's rhythm and rhyme.

Hey feller, twirl that old propeller,

Got to get to Rio and we've got to make time.

You'll love it, soaring high above it,
Looking down on Rio from a heaven of blue..."

If Disney films more or less follow the Institutionalized Mode of Representation - that Monoform I spoke of earlier - then I posit that it's possible to string along all of the Walt-Era output in a line with
Cinderella on one end as the least risk-taking, least challenging film and Three Caballeros as the most. That the two extreme ends in my model were made four year apart is a testament to how quickly Uncle Walt appears to have swooped in and "cleaned up" the animation department's act. No longer would Mary Blair aesthetics temporarily hijack a film and vanish just as quickly: now we'd have her all through or not at all. As the Johnston/Thomas school of character-driven animation asserted its' control following the fallout of Alice in Wonderland, humor driven animators like Ward Kimball retreated into their own projects and were increasingly relegated to minor character animation jobs. Eventually all the crazies over at animation were siphoned off to build Disneyland, so here, at Three Caballeros, is where the real epicenter is. The film looks and feels like it comes from another dimension, or perhaps was animated between visits by Uncle Walt when nobody was looking, it's so unlike Disney.

For one, the film hasn't a story-driven structure. It hasn't the chapter-type overt structure of the Post-Fantasias either, so it really is even more out of place than even the oddball
Melody Time or Make Mine Music. It's often lumped with Saludos Amigos and sometimes The Pelican and the Snipe to form a makeshift "Latin America" cycle, which is more thematically than aesthetically sensible. As I've offered, Saludos Amigos is perhaps a better fit with The Reluctant Dragon and Victory Thru Airpower, leaving Three Caballeros high and dry with The Pelican and the Snipe which was, tellingly, a segment cut from the finished film.

Since we can't assess the film as a narrative piece nor as a chapter-based piece, operating as it does on a more European structure of incident, it may be useful to break the film down into units or "movements" to better aid our understanding of its' accomplishments.

Aves Raras / Pablo the Warm-Blooded Penguin
The Flying Gauchito

"Have You Been to Baia?" / Train Ride
Os Quindes de Yaya

Arrival of Panchito / "Three Caballeros"

Las Posadas
Local Dances / Acapulco Beach
You Belong To My Heart / Jesusita

The Bull Fight


Although in effect the film is a wide reaching and scattershot distillation of topics relating to the latin Americas, in structure and device the film is as carefully and well crafted as one of Disney's traditionalist narrative patterns. Although labeling the films' "acts" as "Movements" may rather over-credit the film as a whole, it is not accidental or lazy in construction. The first segment of the film - the stand-alone Pablo the Penguin short - is often cited as being irrelevant to the film. In reality it is a displaced "prelude" to the film as a whole - the supposed desire of the audience to escape to South America and a warmer climate is transposed to the comic Pablo, who eventually succeeds and traveling along the western coast of South America and sees a lot of imagery that will echo later in the film - especially a train and a city full of gaiety. As Pablo is introduced to the world so are we, and as such the literal escape from the cold climate of the South Pole to the equator is the replacement of our trip in an airplane "Flying Down to Rio".

This is just the start of the film's many echoes and transpositions, and it may be an intelligent but implicitly knowing gesture of the part of the filmmakers to begin the film with the most traditionally Disney and traditionally banal of the film's many movements. This section, where Donald is watching films on a small projection screen, may be the most traditional as a result of its' spectatorship being assigned to Donald - the films' representation of the average Yank - and as a side effect of being traditionally Disney it is simultaneously being traditionally American. The film can thus be said to have its' own pre-show film built in, and one of the characters in the film is our surrogate spectator and guides us through this first section!

Donald the Spectator

The film, like any other film, is a pattern of carefully judged gratifications, but the simpliest yet least overt may be the one promised by the title: The Three Caballeros. Yet twenty minutes will elapse before Donald meets another Caballero, then another twenty after that before all three are united. The occasion is celebrated with the singing of the main theme song, an event we have been prepared for before the film even begins. Before we are even shown the main title, "Donald - Jose - Panchito" are shown and labeled for us as the Three Caballeros. As a result the film is pattern of expectations deferred as we wait, and wait, and wait for the film to make good on the promise of its' title, a tension between content and label rarely achieved in motion picture film.

Each of the film's three "movements" corresponds to one of three caballeros, each a representative of a different country, and each country with a distinct color palette - blues and blacks for the American segment, pinks and yellows for the Brazilian segment, and fiery reds and oranges for the riotous (and longest) Mexico segment. Furthermore each movement has its' own material object which enables the action of the segment - Donald Duck is associated with motion pictures and projections. Jose Carioca and Brazil manifest as a pop-up book, and Panchito and Mexico are associated with the magic serape. That Donald ends the film actually wrapped in the serape is one of the film's best and most subtle touches.

Setting up expectations, deferring expectations

Donald's association with Film, Jose with the pop-up book and Panchito with his flying serape.

Other repetitions outside of the three major movements and three major modes occur throughout: there is a special emphasis on shadows and the shadow play as characters move across space, an overt recall of the American segments' use of the motion picture projector (the most complex shadow play yet devised). In the many portions of the film where live action and animation are blended shadows convey much of the effective integration of the two elements, where first the shadows of the Brazilian suitors to Aurora Miranda play across Donald and Jose in Os Quindes de Yaya, then later the shadow of the duck plays across live action spectators in the "Local Dances" passage of the third movement. Shadows loom throughout Quindes, especially where two Brazilian suitors transform into roosters in a shadow play cockfight which then is thrown on a field of red behind the live action / animated spectators in a Cubist-inflected animation style recalling Dick Tracy.

Another key element running through the piece is the integration of South American folk art throughout the film. The American segment "looks" the most "objective" (conservative), with the trademark Disney depth, color, and balance in animation and background. But there's nothing remotely like the explosions of colors around Aurora Miranda in Os Quindes de Yaya in the rest of Disney, an early apparition of the fireworks that will end the film, nor is there any precedent for the rising / setting sun in Jesusita which recalls Mexican folk art blankets flawlessly, subtly and tastefully. Whereas
Saludos Amigos was about gringos in fantasyland, Three Caballeros is much more harmonized with its' subject, and much of its' radiant joy comes from the happy marriage of art and tact.


Three Caballeros progresses, the Donald character is pushed to increasing extremes of behavior, far further than he would ever be pushed by Disney. Compared to the gender neutrality of Mickey and Goofy, Donald is the most masculine, sexual Disney character: even his sexpot girlfriend Daisy at times appears to be such a parody of overboard femininity (destroying her house in fits of orgiastic jitterbugging in Mr. Duck Steps Out, 1940) that their competitive, aggressive relationship occasionally takes on the atmosphere of perversity, especially in the early shorts where she seemed less a girl and more of Donald's clone projection of himself dressed up in panties, eyeliner and pumps!

Three Caballeros features Donald as total libido. In the first movement he is relatively well behaved, but as the Brazil segment goes on he not only is pushed to increasing extremes of rage and desire - acting totally irrationally once he's at Baia - but eventually goes totally off the deep end at Acapulco beach. That segment of the film is its' lowest ebb, a succession of suggestive gags, but the spectacle of Donald cavorting in an erotic craze is something unknown to later, sanitized Disney. It is the last manifestation of the sexual maelstrom of male - female relationships in early Disney, such as Mickey's attempted assault on Minnie in the airplane of Plane Crazy (1928), snapping her panties in The Shindig (1930), and so on. Mickey's early sexual mania was transferred to Donald once the character was too embraced by conservative America to act naughty in his films, and here is both the apex and end of the sexualities of the Disney characters. Outside of an implicit "domestic relationship" between Chip and Dale in Out of Scale (1951), henceforth Disney was "clean".

Spectator and erotic object blurred:
Donald becomes his girlfriend:

Top; Three Caballeros. Bottom: Little Golden Book
That the brauvera final sections of Three Caballeros are to be seen as Donald's delirium of sexual desire is undoubtable, as he floats around from flower to flower where the bud of the flowers are women's faces and a filthy-minded sounding voice chants "Purty girl, purty girls, purty girls!" The traditional symbolic association between the flower and the female genitalia needn't be elaborated on for the "You Belong To My Heart" sequence, but the symbolism is inverted when the scene switches to "Jesusita" and now he hides from Carmen Molina behind a suggestive row of tall cacti which transform into various shapes, including images of himself.

Sexual metaphor in Three Caballeros

The film is then, in short, male gendered, made by men with the male audience in mind. That the trailer announces the three Latin American starlets appearing in the film much more aggressively than any other thing about it is telling, and most of the segments are about courtship - the symbolic nuzzling of the white doves in movement two's "Baia" transforms into the outright courtship of "Os Quindes de Yaya", and finally into the total orgiastic reverie of Movement Three. There are moments where gender is blurred of course, in the staggering moment where Donald transgenders himself and looks just like the conspicuously absent Daisy Duck, but also in a later, nightmarish image where the Caballeros straddle live action female legs doing a frantic shuffle. The image is made even more disturbing by the squeaky, sped up, repetitive version of the "Three Caballeros" theme on the soundtrack. As Jose and Panchito invade Donald's erotic reverie, the divisions between spectator and object of desire break down completely. That the film ends with three showers of fireworks - one for America and Donald, one for Brazil and Jose, and one for Mexico and Panchito may not be (in effect) as innocent as the films' creators probably intended.


The symbolically loaded uniting of the Three Caballeros at the film's midpoint is an intermezzo of sorts - a deliberate break in the film's forward momentum with a lot of abstract humor (compare it to the unified introduction of Jose, who we of course have seen before in
Saludos Amigos and are apparently familiar with). Panchito's arrival is even heralded by an overture of sorts, again recalling Mexican folk art, which sucks in Donald, transforming him from a silhouette in shadow-play to an mass of abstract lines, recalling the fact that he is himself made up of lines which could be in any shape and happen to be taking on the form of a duck, and eventually into a freakish pinata of himself which explodes, unleashing Panchito, a demigod of animation run amuck.

The sequence which follows is the best three minutes in Walt-era Disney animation. Ward Kimball's animation pushes the possibilities of combining humor with music into new directions, putting so many jokes into shots that it's actually distracting. The interplay between all three caballeros reaches a high ebb, a vaudeville routine complete at last, with Jose the straight man, Panchito the complete unhinged maniac and Donald the inept fool. A running joke in the film has been Donald's inability to perform the magic tricks of Jose and Panchito - he is, after all, coupled with the motion picture projector, a mechanical apparatus which can only bring the film-within-the-film to life but not progress the action - but his inability to do things like manifest instruments is a much richer and, more importantly, better suited to animation kind of humor than that found in the later Disney films.

Most importantly, the impression of this being the most manic scene in the film is primarily carried through Kimball's total disregard for spatial cinematic continuity. Characters will jump from one side of the frame to the next with no regard for the shots bracketing any particular shot, burst through shots, appear from irrational angles, etc. Earlier in the film the Arcuan bird played similar havoc with cinematic convention, actually jumping off the film strip to run around in black space at one point, a moment we have been prepared for by an earlier scene where Donald previews the Pablo cartoon he will watch by looking through the negative and dragging it down one frame at a time, mimicking the claw which drags down each frame of film twenty-four times a second in a film projector. He repeats the motion until he achieves full motion which we see on screen from his point of view: his view becomes ours, and the audience and the duck inhabit the same space momentarily, made aware of the illusion of film motion in the film. It's a strange moment which looks both ways as the in-theater projector
projects its' own secret, in a way, itself. The film is as much about doing everything film can as carrying its' narrative episodes forward.

This episodic structure can be confounding at first, confounding as it does our expectations entering the film, but on close examination the segments essentially break down into three kinds of episodes:
+ Limited Animation (Baia, Mexico, etc)
+ Trick Shots (Os Quindes de Yaya, etc)
+ Overt Surrealism (You Belong to My Heart especially)


Limited Animation
Limited animation, something that we are told Disney did not do, is actually prevalent throughout Disney - it's simply traditionally used as a transitional device between scenes, for example establishing shots, etc. One of Disney's most brilliant techniques of limited animation was the Multi-Plane camera. Labor costs were the same as in full character animation, but only those paintings / drawings for the illusion of depth were made. This is primarily the mode of limited animation in Disney, as it was in the early Warner Brothers animated "
Spooney Melodies", where lazy-eyed organist Milton Charles crooned popular melodies at the camera and art deco style illustrations flew over/around him using simple tricks like a camera pan to send a Grecian ship sailing through the sky.

Disney dabbled in such effects at the time, including the
Melody Time segment "Trees", which used primarily fades, pans and zooms to create motion. This is the original limited animation, recalling the early days of the Fleisher studio where drawings would be torn in half to remove a limb which was to be animated in the next frame. That it evolved to the style we associate with the UPA studio, late Chuck Jones and the Pink Panther / MGM shorts would be a much later devlopment. If we watch "Baia" with an eye towards looking at what is actually being animated in the frame, we find surprisingly little - but many beautiful matte-paintings, tracking shots, zooms and fades. There is one segment where water is animated using a superimposed special effect. The effect of this type of animation is lyric rather than manic, and "Baia" is the highlight of the film's many passages of pastorale gentleness. In this context Three Caballeros may be Disney's best paced film: the leisurely passages contrast, metrically as well as stylistically, the manic, surreal passages, and the push and pull of these two styles accumulates within the film until the finales' explosion of pyrotechnics.

The final two key limited animation segments are closer to a slide show than the dreamlike elegy of "Baia" - "Mexico", "Baia"'s companion number, seeks to achieve the same effect without pans or the multiplane, using instead fades and the familiar ripple-dissolve effect achieved with a pan of mercury seen to many Hollywood films of the era, especially and most famously the main titles of
Gunga Din. "Las Posadas" is even simpler, panning across various beautiful Mary Blair pieces of artwork. There is, however, a subtle touch of movement in the flames of the candles held by the children, practically invisible but artfully done.

"Baia", however, achieves its' effect, the passage that even those who denigrate the quality of the Latin America Disney films bring up, and yet it is achieved with next to no animation in a
supposedly animated film. It is a triumph of cinematic language in a pantheon of films with a dearth of truly aesthetically interesting formal technique.

Trick Shots
The "trick shot" passages of
Three Caballeros, where animation and live action are overlaid, are generally speaking less successful than those in the next years' Song of the South, because they are achieved with much simpler means. Ub Iwerks' special effect shots are, however, brilliant, mostly achieved in the "Os Quindes" segment through judicious use of rear projection which can be, unless you know exactly what you're looking at, rather baffling. But the fingerprints of the man who built the first multiplane camera on the flatbed of a truck are not to be found in the act of projecting an image on a screen, but the details which sell the illusion.

In the early parts of the segment the blocking of Miranda and her suitors is very complex and Donald and Jose mostly stay on the sidelines, but as the action heats up, especially a segment where Donald is trying to knock a fruit peddlar on the head with a giant mallet, the timing is so precise and so funny that the illusion is totally forgotten. We only once, for example, see a mismatch between the foreground live action and animated background - a brief shot of Miranda's dancing feet while Donald looks on - which this author had been viewing for years without noticing. The climatic kiss is so carefully and intelligently judged that one actually feels rather bad for Miranda and how many times the take had to be done, but the effect is nearly subliminal. In later live action-animation films like
Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Space Jam the moment where a cartoon character passes a live action character an object or touches them always looks a little dodgy, but here Miranda grabs Donald and kisses him full-on, and it's totally convincing until one begins to think about that screen behind her. It's a triumph achieved with blocking.

There are a number of other touches throughout "Quindes" which immeasurably help it. In an early shot a cardboard palm tree is wheeled between Miranda and the camera and the speed, so easy to mess up on such a trick shot, is perfectly synced to the moving background so that a real sense of movement is conveyed almost immediately in a short where the illusion is crucial. Other special effects artists would try too hard to have such effects throughout the scene, but Iwerks' deft, single gesture is not only more cinematic, but more professional. Similarly, Miranda's cookie tray is painted with a thick black line around it, creating a convincing illusion of being very well animated.

The dialectical relationship between live action and animation becomes less complex as the film goes on, now with Donald laid over live action with minor practical tricks to convey the sense of his interaction with the filmed segments. This does provoke, however, a key transformation in this film full of transformations: as the Caballeros prepare to head for Acapulco Beach, Panchito transforms the two-dimensional image in the scrapbook of Mexico (which structures the Mexican) sequences into a live action, filmed image which they may then enter. While Donald may not be able to work the magic tricks of his Latin American breatheren, his association with the camera in movement one is revealed to have its' privilege, as opposed to Panchito and Jose's pop up books and serapes.

If Surrealism often seems the dominant mode of
Three Caballeros it is more due to the final movement and Finale's back-end loading of bizzare imagery and less to do with the Limited Animation and Travelouge portions of the film which constitute the bulwark of movements one and two, but the surrealistic segments are the most complex segments in Disney and thus cast a long shadow. These segments, in addition to the sexual / symbolic acts they represent, are primarily characterized through their repeated use of breaking the film frame. This happens in the first part of the film and is associated with the Aracuan, but at the opposite end of the film anybody can explode out of the screen.

One key influence of these moments at the end of the film appears to be Busby Berkley, who experimented with non-diagetic film forms long before anybody else in Hollywood. The aggressive, mathematical geometry of Berkley is purely cinematic in the same way animation is purely cinematic, and several moments in
Three Caballeros, aside from the film's treatment of women as basically gendered dolls, directly recall Berkley, especially 42nd Street and Dames.

Top: Three Caballeros (1946) / Bottom: Dames (1934)

In this way Caballeros is emblematic of all of Disney's 40's era films, which are marked by radical experiments in content and form from which Disney would retreat hastily into the stifling sameness of the 50's era films. In some ways Disney was growing up, settling down from the wild and wooly barnstorming days of Steamboat Willie and Trolley Troubles, marked by strong technical innovations, into the comfortable patterns of something like Peter Pan. Peter Pan is comfort food. Three Caballeros, Melody Time, Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and their ilk are chef's surprise, masterful but uneven. In their constant reorganizations of narrative, violations of continuity, aggressive pursual of audience distanciation and joyful pursuit of all that makes animation unique, they are the true artistic heart of Disney, it's finest moments rather than its' weakest.

Disney controls our perception of her by elevating the traditional narrative features, propagating the myth of story, downplaying the subversive aspects of their films and limiting our access to films such as
Caballeros which seem truly anarchic. The public has responded in kind and accepted this traditionalist view of the traditionalist features, much in the way Hollywood has shrunk the public's tolerance for other films and other modes into the narrowest possible margin. All films must fit into a narrow category, and even the strange and subversive Alice in Wonderland, a film Disney himself hated, has been relegated to a "Hot Topic" interest group. Such limitations stifle the films and their art, and our perception of the films has been similarly stifled. Disney's fourties era films construct a spectatorship which is permissive, a spectatorship which challenges, opens up possibilities, rather than shuts them down and punishes us for transgressions, as Pinnochio is relentlessly punished for leaving home in both the Collodi book and Disney film.

They are, in short, neglected masterpieces in desperate need of acknowledgment by their curators, enthusiasts and film scholars in general.


Further reading on Three Caballeros:
Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin, Plume Press, 1987, 497 pages
Pato Donald's Gender Ducking, Jose Piedra, 1994, online essay
Latin Baby, Recca Pheonix, current, online web blog
Projections: Three Caballeros, 2005, online web blog
Walt Disney's Three Caballeros, David Netto, 2007, online web blog
The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City, Jean Franco, Havard University Press, 2002, 352 pages


That this article has been many weeks and, by extension, years in the works should be evident, as should its' unfinished nature. Rather than move on to Ichabod & Mr. Toad, I've decided to stop this series here, my interest in doing some writing on film at least momentarily sated. This essay is, despite its' appearance, far from comprehensive on matters relating to Disney's finest film. Great films force us to see challenging things in new ways, which I hope to have conveyed here. If you have anything to add, please do not hesitate to do so.