Walt & El Grupo
On one date no less than three documentaries concerned with the Walt Disney studios were released. First there was ‘Waking sleeping Beauty’, a look at a decade that redefined the cornerstone of their entertainment empire; the animated film division. Next was ‘The Boys: the Sherman Brothers story’ detailing the estrangement of two brothers who were responsible for the best of the music that made Disney movies so beloved by several generations. To round out consideration of the most successful entertainment corporation in history is a look at the man who started it off; Walt Disney. In the documentary ‘Walt & El Grupo’ the film maker takes the audience back in time to World War II when Mr. Disney took a goodwill trip to Latin America. This was not only a time of pervading turbulence on the world stage but one of increasing corporate problems within the Disney Corporation. This year turned out to be one that proved to be pivotal but Walt Disney and the dream he was bringing to fruition. Not only is film fascinating for the historical perspective it provides but it affords fans a rare glimpse at the early, formative portion of a career that literally altered the entire paradigm of family entertainment. The legacy left by this man extends into the new millennium having grown to encompass nearly every aspect of family entertainment. From humble origins with Mickey Mouse cartoons to innovations like the family theme park Walt Disney was a ground breaker. 1941 was very much a turning point not only for the company but for the man behind it. Disney as a global phenomenon gained a major foothold during the trip chronicled in this entertaining and informative documentary. Rare footage of Walt and the team he brought along are intercut with segments of the films that gained their inspiration from this trip. Some documentaries of this nature may come across as dry and overly didactic but this one will actually be enjoyable for the entire family to experience together.
The film opens with a montage of people hailing from South America; Chile, Brazil, Argentina where in each case on inhabitant reminisces about the visit by American film maker Walt Disney. It is only fitting that this opening scene is immediately followed by a classic Disney style opening credit sequence. This leads into an announcer’s voice introducing our host, Walt Disney; a shot most of my generation saw on a regular basis viewing Sunday evening’s ‘Wonderful world of Disney. Those of us in the Baby Boomer generation grew up watching the gentle demeanor and listening to his calming voice introducing something new and wonderful to us. Disney stands before a desk covered with strange looking objects explain they are from a trip he took to South America accompanied by writers, animators and musicians. This was a road company of Disney ‘Imagineers’, later referred to as ‘El Grupo’. They journeyed south to discover new ideas, themes and characters primarily for the cartoons but succeeded in redirecting much of the future global expansion of the Disney powerhouse. As the scene fades tom grey Disney explained that that year was one of his greatest success as well as great disappointment. On the heels of ‘Snow White, the world’s first animated feature film; Walt Disney had been propelled to being a household name. In many ways he was seen as the boy genius reinventing cinema in much the same way as Steven Spielberg would be hailed several decades later. For most of us looking back Walt Disney was the grandfatherly type difficult to imagine as the young man setting his industry on its head. It’s strange to see images of a young, lean Disney playing softball in a lot.
He was always a thoughtful and powerful business man taking the money he made from ‘Snow White investing it in the construction of his own studio. The first product to come from this studio was two films in one year; ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ released in 1940. Unfortunately the profits from Europe were cut off by the escalating struggle that became World War II. In 1941 Disney began what would become the worse year of his life as his animators began a prolonged strike. A shift in the political scene would provide Disney with a much appreciated opportunity to take leave of this turbulent situation. President Roosevelt was greatly concerned with the growing Nazi influence in South America and asked Disney to tour the countries there as a sort of good will cultural ambassador. Walt jumped at the opportunity. Mrs. Disney and a cadre of sixteen employees got on as plane and head south on an adventure of discovery. Thanks to Disney’s fondness for making a film archive of important events in his corporate life we have much of the footage presented here.
The writer and director here, Theodore Thomas, is part of the Disney family by a direct blood line. He is the son of Frank Thomas, a man who as an animator and directing animator for Disney classic such as ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Lady and the Tramp’. His father also was one of the original animators for ‘Snow White’ so Theodore grew up with an even more intimate relationship to these films than any of us watching. It is only natural that a certain halo effect be found in this film. Not only did Thomas grow up enjoying these movies but in his case they literally put food on his family’s table. There is the look and feel of elaborate home movies here that does add a nice warm feel to the piece. It is also fun to watch favorite from childhood like ‘Saludos Amigos’ and ‘The Three Caballeros’ now with a new found appreciation and greater understanding of their origins and the process behind their construction. Some may question why this film needed to be made, well it didn’t but I’m glad they did. It is a memory of a different time and place and has inherent worth on that account.