Faced with the box office flops of Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi, Disney needed to rethink their commercial strategy. All the time and effort they put into the Golden Age films was not paying off, and at some point they needed to start making money again. The solution, it seemed, was to make cheaper films with established characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy, hoping for a surefire commercial hit. The resulting films – Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun And Fancy Free and Melody Time – have largely been forgotten today, reduced to the status of animated curiosities for the dedicated Disney fan. I’ll call this period The Forgotten Forties, because once it ended (and with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad in between), Disney came back at full strength with classics such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. The Forgotten Forties are a blip in the canon, and whilst there are moments of brilliance hidden in the mediocrity, it seems as though there is a reason these films do not have the same status as the period that preceded it.
Saludos Amigos is an inauspicious start to the era, a series of shorts inspired by a group of animators travelling round South America that doesn’t amount to anything. If Fantasia drew inspiration from great music, Saludos Amigos is a tribute to great places. But whilst Fantasia is thematically rich, and beautifully drawn, the only thing unifying the shorts in Saludos Amigos is the setting. Apart from this tenuous connection, it all feels jumbled together, with an irritating voice over man spelling out, in detail, bits of information we don’t care about. The live action scenes that are interspersed with the animated sequences are painfully dull, the soporific drawl of voice over man incessantly relaying what we are seeing on screen. It’s an old school documentary with bits of animation thrown in because it’s Disney, but the tone is bafflingly mixed, unsure of whether it wants to entertain or to inform, and not really succeeding at either.
A skit about Donald Duck exploring Lake Titicaca opens up the film, where he tries (and fails) to blend in with the locals whilst remaining very much a tourist. There’s a couple of nice touches here, as Disney plays with self-aware characters (Donald interacts with the narrator), and there are some sly jabs at tourist culture which are even more relevant today. Yet most of the time it is nothing more than some uninspired slapstick that goes on for far too long and in no particular direction. The following story, about a plucky little mail plane, doesn’t even have the humour of the first sequence and fails to use the compact structure of a short to create any sense of emotional investment or threat. The instructional short about the life of a Gaucho, featuring Goofy, is more comedic but isn’t especially funny save for a nice joke about slow motion. None of these three shorts are memorable in any way, any drama or humour sapped out of them by stilted pacing and that infuriating narrator.
The worst crime of all is that South America – a vibrant, beautiful continent of diverse peoples and landscapes – is animated with a half-hearted approach that never properly captures the land. The shorts are all very bright, but sorely lacking in a sense of scale or detail. The thick lines and bright colours leave you longing for the subtle beauty of something like Bambi. There’s so little happening in the frame that it quickly becomes dull to watch. It’s a remarkably short film anyway, at only forty two minutes, but the really weak animation adds to an overall sensation of an apathetic, uninvolved Disney. In fact, its length, lack of ideas and hybrid between live action and animation makes me question whether this should be in the Disney canon at all.
However, the final section almost redeems the film, as Disney get their Fantasia groove back and go a little more abstract with their ideas. Aquarela de Brasil is a piece of music that the artists try to capture with some jazzy, colourful animation. It’s a tribute to the music and sensations of Rio de Janeiro, bursting with life and energy. At one point they insist on bringing back Donald Duck – surely the Mouse House’s most irritating character – but they also introduce José de Cariaco, a parrot who is a lot more fun (and thankfully returns for the next film The Three Caballeros), and the film ends on something of a high. What’s particularly enjoyable is the way the animator’s paintbrush invades the frame, creating new sights as the two characters walk along the streets of Rio. It’s a scene that showcases how inventive the team can be when they put their minds to it, making it even more frustrating that everything that preceded it was so uninspired.
Saludos Amigos opens with a narrator telling us that a team from Disney have decided to travel to South America on the hunt for ideas. Sadly with Saludos Amigos it appears as though they didn’t find any once there. Instead we get a series of half-baked vignettes that don’t amount to anything, the sophisticated story telling of Disney’s first five films lost in a childish, directionless mess of a film. There are a few redeeming features here, glimpses of the studio’s brilliance, but the film as a whole feels so inconsequential. It’s as though Disney just isn’t trying.