The Three Caballeros (1944)
Directed by Norman Ferguson (supervisor)
Donald Duck receives a bunch of wrapped presents for his birthday. The first contains a film projector, which shows him three Latin American-themed shorts. Upon opening the second, he finds a pop-up book of Brazil, containing a miniaturized Jose Carioca. Carioca shrinks Donald, and they explore the pop-up book together. Then they open the third package, introducing the rooster Panchito, and things really get weird.
This film, the second of Disney’s package period, was also produced as part of the U.S. government’s goodwill project in South America. As I mentioned last time, Disney was pretty much broke throughout most of the mid-40s, suffering work stoppages, box office failures, and the closing of its European and Asian markets. Saludos Amigos was just about the only project of theirs to have turned a profit in several years, so they set out to make a sequel with some unused ideas from the first movie. They also decided to try blending in the live-action sequences with the animation this time, both because it was cheaper than animation, and because they thought that some technical innovation might get butts in the seats.
Of the six Disney package films, this is the one that I’m most familiar with. It’s the only one we had on VHS while I was growing up, and I probably watched it dozens of times before I was 10 years old. This is my first time seeing it in over two decades, however, and I forgot one major thing about it in the intervening years.
This movie is WEIRD, y’all.
I mean, seriously weird. Like Walt Disney was pumping LSD into the air vents in his studio space weird. Watching The Three Caballeros feels like watching a feature-length version of the “Pink Elephants” sequence from Dumbo, only with birds.
Now, it doesn’t start off that way. The first two and a half segments, delivered as actual movies that Donald is watching via a film projector, are fairly straightforward and normal. One is about a penguin who hates the cold and tries to move to the equator, with multiple false starts and misadventures along the way. This was a fairly enjoyable cartoon, though I found myself distracted by the fact that it’s narrated by Sterling Holloway, a.k.a. the voice of Winnie the Pooh, using the exact Pooh voice. The second is an amusing short about a young boy attempting to use a flying donkey to win money by cheating at a horse race. It has a narrator who keeps forgetting the details of the story, resulting in the props and backgrounds changing constantly around the main character, much to his visible consternation. It’s probably my favorite of the straight-up cartoons so far through the package films.
The third and final of Donald’s home movies, a nature documentary about unusual South American birds, is where the movie’s logic begins to go off the rails. It starts with the introduction of the Aracuan Bird, a short, noisy bird character that randomly teleports around the screen to scream at the audience, and steps out of the movie to shake Donald’s hand. It’s an agent of pure chaos who reminded me strongly of the Fireys from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
Immediately following this, one of Donald’s other packages begins to dance, opening up to reveal a pop-up book of Brazil and a miniaturized Jose Carioca from the previous film. He shrinks Donald down to size and, despite the attempts of the Aracuan Bird to literally derail their train (by drawing new tracks, Wile E. Coyote-style), they manage to explore a pop-up version of the Brazilian state of Bahia. During this segment, Donald attempts to romance a street vendor (played by Carmen Miranda’s sister) who is euphemistically selling “cookies” that obviously pair well with Kelis’s milkshakes.
It’s the first instance of Donald’s lusting after human women in the movie, something that only gets more prevalent (and more disturbing) as the movie goes on. Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to have Donald dive-bomb sunbathing female beachgoers while riding a magic carpet, muttering about “bathing beauties”, in a kid’s film?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Once they return from their adventure, after some pretty surreal and amusing business involving Donald’s attempt to re-enlarge himself and only being partially successful, the final package is opened, introducing the third caballero of the title, the Mexican rooster Panchito Pistoles. He’s significantly more stereotypical than Jose, dressing like a Hollywood bandito in a sombrero and double pistol belts. Despite this initial impression, however, the movie doesn’t really have time to descend into any further stereotyping, as the filmmakers step on the gas pedal and zoom straight into WTFdom.
First off is the aforementioned sightseeing/girl-ogling tour of the beaches of Acapulco on a flying sarape, a scene that gives me bad Howard the Duck flashbacks. Then comes the “Love is a Drug” sequence, involving Donald dancing with a Mexican singer in the sky. I think I know the sort of drug they mean, as the musical sequence becomes increasingly surreal, with the singer’s head popping out of neon flowers, Jose and Panchito rowdily interrupting the song, and dancers turning into cacti. A final flurry of frantic action with a piñata and a rocket-powered bull ends the movie on a crescendo of bizarreness, leaving me fairly stunned in a “did anyone get the number of that truck?” fashion.
I honestly have absolutely no idea what happened in the final twenty or so minutes of this movie, and I’m not sure the animators did either. It’s all technically brilliant, but seems to be a lot of flash without any real substance behind it. However, I actually kinda liked it anyway. At least it’s not in any way boring, unlike the first of the package films. Maybe that’s why I remember parts of The Three Caballeros so strongly from when I was a kid, while I’ve forgotten so much of the rest of this period of Disney’s output. And maybe my repeated watching of it at an impressionable age explains a bit about me now.
This is an aggressively bizarre movie, with some sequences rivaling Alice in Wonderland for their surrealism. As such, this is probably one of the biggest “your mileage may vary” movies in the entire Disney canon. I’ll admit that I enjoyed a good portion of the movie, though I have some reservations about the sequences that involve live-action. It’s definitely worth a watch, though it might go better with some pharmacological enhancement (I wish I’d gotten this review out on 4/20, it would have been perfect).
Animation: A- (There’s a lot of inventive, colorful stuff here, and bonus points for the combination of animation and live action two decades before Mary Poppins)
Main Characters: B (Donald’s always been the most interesting of the core Disney trio, but he struggles a little to carry the first half of the movie on his own)
Supporting Characters: B- (I still really like Jose, but Panchito doesn’t get much development and is visually a walking stereotype)
Villains: C+ (I guess the Aracuan bird counts? Though he’s only in about five minutes of the movie)
Songs: C- (other than the title song, I can’t really remember any of the music from the film)