Walt & El Grupo

Walt Disney was having a tough year in 1941. He had fumbled badly with 1940's Pinocchio and Fantasia (hard to believe now, but at the time they were financial and critical disasters), and then many of the employees of his studio, demanding better wages and more fair labor practices, went on strike, an act which deeply hurt "Uncle Walt", who had felt like the king of his company.

Demoralized by the strike and losing money quickly, Disney took up President Roosevelt's offer to go down to South America for ten weeks, meeting the locals, doing research, and finally producing a couple of films that showcased the friendship between the two Americas - all financed by the US State Department. (Disney, who became a staunch anti-Communist because of the strike, nevertheless had no problem accepting this government handout.) The goodwill tour was a deliberate political act, for Roosevelt was racing the Nazis for cultural influence over the entire continent.

This back story is, alas, far more interesting than Theodore Thomas's documentary about Walt's tour down south (the "El Grupo" of the title refers to the small group of Disney artists that went with him). Thomas is perhaps too close to his source material: he's the son of Frank Thomas, one of Disney's very top animators, who also accompanied Walt on the journey. He relies too much on the unenlightening letters written home from his father and from some of the other staff members, read on camera by their surviving offspring. There's some compelling color 16mm footage of Walt and the group on location, but Thomas doesn't use enough of it. He also employs a maddening method of introducing each of the dozens of talking heads in the film by placing their name on a black screen as they talk. As a result, it feels like several cumulative minutes of the film are white names over black screens. It gets old fast.

Because of Thomas's familiarity with the subject matter, he doesn't do much to explain who these people are and why they're important. (There's a brief segment on fellow traveler Mary Blair, Walt's incredibly talented artist/designer who deserves her own documentary, but Thomas waits until the end credits to inform you that it was Blair who designed the look of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, not to mention the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland.) I may have gotten a little more out of this film than the casual viewer might, as I had recently finished Neal Gabler's fine, fair-minded biography on Walt Disney. Even so, I was bored. This is a true "home movie" produced by the Disney family and directed by a Disney partisan. Those who are not rabid Disney historians will find little here. You are better off tracking down the charming animated featurette Saludos Amigos, the artistic result of Walt's South American trip, instead.