Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Good Neighbors: Walt & El Grupo

1941 was a bad year for Walt Disney and the world in general. The future of his studio was threatened by shaky finances and a prolonged strike. Like most Americans, he was also concerned about the state of the world, which is why he complied with FDR’s request to participate in a good will tour designed to counter the growing Fascist and National Socialist influence in Latin America. Successful both as an informal diplomatic initiative and an expedition to gather inspiring new source material for Disney and his animators, their fruitful tour is now documented in Theodore Thomas’s Walt & El Grupo, (trailer here), which opens this week in L.A. and New York.

In many respects, the tour came at the worst possible time for Disney. Reeling from two box-office flops (for the record, those were Pinocchio and Fantasia), Disney found himself overextended. To make matters worse, a contingent of junior animators, steeped in class-warfare rhetoric, launched a strike against the studio, hoping to make it a union shop. Still, in a way, the tour came at a perfect time, allowing Disney to escape his labor headaches, while serving his country by promoting Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy.

The plan called for Disney and his group of hand-picked studio personnel (“El Grupo”) to tour South America, particularly the “ABC” countries of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, to forge individual connections as artists and gather material for a film to be produced with the backing of the U.S. government. Even though the resulting Saludos Amigos generated mixed reactions, El Grupo’s tour still appears to be that rare government program that worked as intended.

Despite his initial reluctance, Disney in particular seemed to have a natural talent for personal diplomacy. Indeed, Thomas interviewed many local artists (or their surviving family members) who fondly remember their time with Disney. The art, music, and natural beauty of pre-War South America would also inspire for most of El Grupo as well, but perhaps none as much as Mary Blair. Recognized by the company as a “Disney Legend,” the film persuasively suggests Blair’s Grupo influences can clearly be seen in her work as lead creative for “It’s a Small World.”

Writer-director Thomas and producer Kuniko Okubo illustrate their documentary with a treasure trove a newly discovered photos of the tour and convey a good sense of most of Grupo members. They also evoke some of the vitality of the Latin American cultures the group encountered, including an appealing soundtrack that features the likes of Luciana Souza and Mercedes Sosa. However, the interviews with surviving El Grupo family members get a little repetitive (and their memories of separation anxiety seem a bit disproportionate considering WWII would soon take draft-age men from their families for far longer than ten weeks).

While Grupo feels slightly padded as a full length feature, it illuminates a fascinating episode in American cinema history. It also serves as an effective corrective to the malicious rumors and urban legends that have recently circulated regarding Disney. The man who emerges in Grupo is an artist, entrepreneur, and patriot, who willing answered his country’s call during a difficult moment in history. The glaring contrast with contemporary Hollywood hardly needs belaboring. Informative and well-produced, El Grupo opens tomorrow (9/9) at the Disneyland AMC and Friday (9/11) in New York at the Quad (with free mini-poster while supplies last).