Monday, Nov. 29, 2010

Disney in Latin America'

By David Luhrssen
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Nazi agents were working hard to bring the nations of Latin America into their camp during World War II. President Roosevelt’s response? Among other things, he sent Walt Disney and a team of artists from his studio on a good will tour of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Germany might have had the Krupp canon but America had a better weapon in Mickey Mouse.

Walt & El Grupo (out on DVD) documents Disney’s adventure south of the border. The excellent documentary by Theodore Thomas (whose father was part of the expedition) sets Disney’s tour in the context of Hollywood politics. With his studio embroiled in a bitter bid for unionization, Uncle Walt was disappointed in his own employees and saw FDR’s mission as a chance to get away. In the age before cell phones and the Internet, it was much easier to leave bad news behind. By all accounts, Disney was an endearing, likable fellow; his good will tour actually generated a positive response.

Disney was also asked by FDR to make animated movies to further “cultural exchange” between North and South America. Disney’s Latin-American cartoons, “Saludos Amigos” and “Three Caballeros,” drew from Anglo stereotypes and stirred mixed responses from their intended audience. The Brazilian segment of “Saludos,” however, was jaw-dropping, a masterpiece of animation that absorbed the tropical colors and torrid rhythm of its setting.

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