Monday, December 6, 2010

Walt & El Grupo DVD Review

Not many people are aware of the role that Walt Disney played in furthering relations between the United States and South America.  It’s a little known fact that in 1941, the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs asked Disney if he would consider traveling to South America on a goodwill tour to support its “Good Neighbor” policy.  In exchange, the US Government would finance his next  movie (which would later become Saludos Amigos).

Disney didn’t have to be asked twice as he had just been through what he described as one of the lowest points of his life due to a bitter animators strike.  The animators, despite being the highest paid and the best treated in the industry, felt that Disney had taken advantage of them during the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because they had worked tons of overtime with no pay since they believed that it had been hinted that there would be bonuses if the movie was successful.  The movie was successful and they didn’t get their bonuses which added to their discontent.  That unhappiness was shared across the animation industry as just about every other animation shop had already gone through strikes and new contracts.  In fact, when the Leon Schlesinger’s animators (who created the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons) went on strike, he locked them out of the shop as long as he could before agreeing to their terms.  At that point, he said, “What about Disney?”

The Screen Cartoonists’ Guild agreed with him and now that they had won a few battles, they decided to focus on the biggest animation studio in the world.  They didn’t have to do too much to convince the Disney animators to strike since they had some valid reasons to do so.  In The Disney Version, Richard Schickel writes, “The salary structure remained crazy-quilt, and the only general wage increase Disney granted in those years was self-serving: he brought a number of workers up over the forty-dollar-a-week level, at which point, under the Wagner Labor Relations Act, they ceased being entitled to time-and-a-half for overtime.”

When Disney fired the popular Art Babbitt for being in his opinion, “a trouble-maker”, that was the final straw for the animators who went on strike three days later on May 29, 1941 and lasted five weeks.  An federal mediator stepped in to resolve the strike and found in favor of the Guild on every issue.  Although the Disney studio signed a new contract (and has been a union workshop ever since), the strike deeply hurt Walt but thought at least the strike had at least,”…cleaned house at our studio” and got rid of “the chip-on-the-shoulder boys and the world-owes-me-a-living lads”.  Disney then took a welcome vacation to South America with his wife and a hand-picked crew from Disney to help him record and bring back the various sights, sounds, and experiences back to Los Angeles to use for future productions.

Film  (2 1/2 out of 5 stars)

This documentary covers the South American trip that Walt Disney and crew embarked on and in a inspired way, mirrored the original trip by following the same itinerary from before.  Director Theodore Thomas (Frank & Ollie) obviously is invested in this film as he is the son of one of the original Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas who accompanied Disney on this trip.  After watching  two other superior Disney documentaries, The Boys – The Sherman Brothers’ Story and Waking Sleeping Beauty I had high expectations that frankly this film did not meet.

While I enjoyed getting to hear and see Walt Disney discussing the strike, and his journeys to South America, this felt more like a family travelogue than a documentary, which to be fair, it really is.  Once Walt is in South America, we see that he is treated like royalty and that the people love him but that’s about it.  Walt goes from place to place, and events unfold almost exactly the same every time. The maddening part is once they arrive there we stop learning anything about what’s being accomplished or how this trip is preparing upcoming movies.  The only way we even have a clue of what’s going on is when a letter is read by a relative or a spouse from one of the people from the trip.

I was really hoping for an in depth look into the trip with Walt Disney front and center but this whole movie is made up of electronic press kit material so that was disappointing.  We never learn if the trip was considered a success, or why there are hints of Nazi movements on a map but never addressed, or why the film brings up random topics like whether or not Disney was a spy and then no investigation into those claims at all.  Actually, other than discovering some older people that may have perhaps worked at a club he attended or might have danced in front of him, there really isn’t any investigation into this trip at all.

The movie does offer a lot of good aspects as well.  I really enjoyed how they took old photos and through some computer manipulation (that’s covered in the special features) made them look almost 3D.  I also liked how they would take an old picture and let it dissolve into what that exact same viewpoint looks like today.  The best part of the movie is watching these old locations change before our eyes into the modern age.  I also really enjoyed the brief time spent with Walt Disney who from what I can tell was one of the friendliest genuine men around.  I’ve gotten used to seeing him in footage as an older man, so it was nice to see a 39 year old Walt who loved to dance and play baseball.  It was also interesting to see Mary Blair who I’ve read a lot about but never really knew much about. To see her talk her way into joining the trip and her painting style change over the course of the trip was interesting.  The trip eventually provided enough background to create two movies, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros but the film never tells us much more than that.

Video  (2 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The film has a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and for home movies go, it looks fairly decent. Most of the movie is made up of press footage or home movies so expectations can’t be set too high but the recently filmed interviews look a lot better.  There is a lot of grain and noise in the movie but I’m not sure there’s much they can do about that without an expensive restoration.

Audio (2 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is nothing special but not terrible either.  It is front heavy with dialogue that is for the most part clear and understandable.  There really isn’t much for the satellite speakers to do on a movie like this so don’t get your hopes up.

Special Features (3 out of 5 stars)

These are fairly weak special features but I was glad to see that they offered a short extra on how they brought the pictures to life. The big extra here is the original uncut version of Saludos Amigos.
  • Audio Commentary – Theodore Thomas and Historian J.B. Kaufman discuss the movie and it’s kind of interesting but it’s easily skipped. Kaufman is present because he wrote a book about Disney’s trip to South America called South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948.
  • Photos in Motion – A look at how they separated the elements of a picture and manipulated it to look 3D.  Also a look at the superimposition of pictures over it’s current appearance.  I enjoyed this one.
  • From the Director’s Cut – Basically some deleted footage concerning the trip. There’s really nothing very interesting there.
  • Saludos Amigos – The Original 1943 Release – Now we come to the one extra that will excite some Disney fans…the original version uncut, complete with Goofy smoking.  If you want to see the unedited version, you will need to pick this movie up.
  • Original Theatrical Trailers for Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros

Final Thoughts ( 3 out of 5 stars)

I think hardcore Disney fans will enjoy this movie but for me it wasn’t what I was hoping for.  It may not be fair, but after watching the previous two fantastic Disney documentaries about the Sherman Brothers and a behind the scenes look at Disney animation during their “Disney Renaissance,” my expectations may have been too high for this one.  I’m always happy to listen to the visionary Walt Disney, but this was more of a look back at the places Disney visited than a visit with Disney himself.  I think it’s great that someone has covered this period in Disney’s life, but I wish there had been more of an effort to provide details which would have made this more of a documentary than the travelogue it really is.
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