A Study in Disney: ‘Saludos Amigos’ (1942)

| November 24, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Animated Films – Page 3 – Wizard Dojo

With his first five animated features, Walt Disney and his company struggled and suffered, at least financially speaking.  Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi were artistic triumphs that are still hailed as the best work that his studio ever produced, but they were so ridiculously expensive to make that they nearly bankrupt the studio.  In the midst of their struggle, the situation in Europe was getting worse which meant that distribution would be cut off.  With this, many agree, Walt Disney’s reign of greatness was effectively over.  The studio wouldn’t recapture that level of genius until a quarter of a century after his death with The Little Mermaid.

During the war years, Walt and his team got involved in several films that were less art than simple endeavors at cost-cutting.  Hence: the compilation films, a series of six films made up of compiled shorts that were either intended for a Fantasia sequel or for a feature that was far too expensive to produce.  The films themselves aren’t bad, but you can definitely feel the financial handcuffs on Walt’s wrists.

With European distribution cut off and most of his younger artists fighting overseas, Walt got a break from FDR in the form of a healthy government subsidy to make films promoting Latin America as an American ally at a moment when The United States government feared that Central and South America could be used by the Nazis as in-roads to the Western hemisphere.  Walt took the job, first because he needed money, and second because he needed an excuse to get out of the office.  In the midst of war overseas, there was a war at the Disney studios wrought by Walt’s indifference to his employees who felt overworked and underpaid.

What came first from this “Good Neighbor” policy was Saludos Amigos an oddly short animated feature (42 minutes!) that doesn’t really have a story but feels more like a promotional gig for the ABC countries – Argentina, Brazil and Chile.  Actually, for those old enough, it kind of feels like something that would have played on “The Wonderful World of Disney.”  For those young enough, it might have felt like something that would have played between the shows on The Disney Channel.

The shorts aren’t really tied together except by the culture of the country.  A narrator tells us that several artists have arrived in South America by plane to get inspiration for their work.  Then we see some of the magic of their work: there is a landscape and with a dab of paint, a river cuts right down the middle.  We see a stalk of bananas but with a drip of black paint, they become Toucans.  Then the film squares off into four separate segments:

First is Donald himself on a trip through Peru with an ill-tempered that he (naturally) doesn’t get along with.  Second is the cute story of Pedro, a mail plane that has to run the whole “through sleet or snow or dark of night” bit.  The Pedro bit is cute but Tex Avery did the same story much better (and funnier) 12 years later with the short “Little Johnny Jet”.  The third segment features Goofy in a bit of education about the difference between an American cowboy and a Mexican Gaucho.  It is funny, and you learn something.  The last features Donald again, this time with Jose Carioca who shows him around South America and introduces him to the Samba.

As you can see, the story behind this movie is actually more interesting than what happens in the film.  While one can admire the intent you have to wonder about the film’s legacy.  How does it play now to a kid who doesn’t know all the history?  Does it stand well on its own?  Not really.  It is more interesting than it is entertaining and most who seek it out do so for completion’s sake, so they can say they’ve seen all the films on the official canon list of Disney animated features.

To be honest, there isn’t much that you can really say about Saludos Amigos beyond its historical properties.  It is not deep so you can’t do an in-depth study.  It is entertaining enough but it isn’t one that most would choose to spend an evening with.  Frankly, it is not much as far as a feature goes, especially not at a brisk 42 minutes.  It is an interesting bit of cultural history, but it is not something that really lingers in your mind.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.