Tracking a Southern Voyage with Walt & El Grupo

Fantasia II: Walt Disney dances on the rooftop of Buenos Aires' Alvear Palace Hotel in 1941.
Disney
Fantasia II: Walt Disney dances on the rooftop of Buenos Aires' Alvear Palace Hotel in 1941.

In 1941, with financial woes mounting and an animators' strike making his studio anything but the happiest place on earth, Walt Disney took President Franklin D. Roosevelt up on the offer to be a cultural ambassador to Latin America. For the U.S., it was a chance to woo potential allies who were also being courted by the Nazis; for Disney, it was a chance to soak up new artistic inspiration while fleeing the turmoil in his own professional kingdom. As written and directed by Theodore Thomas, the documentary Walt & El Grupo, which tracks the five-country trek embarked upon by Disney and a handpicked team of his employees ("el grupo"), is both a gargantuan, multi-family home movie and a slight, if entertaining, curio that'll be of most interest to hardcore Disney aficionados. Culled from the personal photos, letters, and home films of the expedition's descendants, as well as from behind-the-scenes footage from the Disney vaults, and punctuated with wonderful segments from the 42-minute 1942 film Saludos Amigos that resulted from the trip, Walt is both humorous and moderately revealing about the backstage machinations of the Disney machine. Still, it flutters into the realm of hagiography, painting Disney as a baffled, almost saint-like victim of the ungrateful animators who demanded a larger piece of the pie.

 
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