In the early forties the Roosevelt administration was anxious to improve relations with South American governments, and encouraged—indeed, subsidized—famous filmmakers to tour and even undertake projects there. One result was the decision by Orson Welles to make “It’s All True”—which tragically made it impossible for him to push through his own cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” allowing the studio to butcher the picture. (The fragmentary footage he shot south of the border was dutifully assembled in the fine 1993 documentary of that name.) Another was a 1941visit made by Walt Disney and a group of his studio staffers to Brazil, Chile and Argentina.
The trip is lovingly documented in this film from the Disney Foundation, which incorporates archival footage and stills along with recollections from family members (including Disney’s), who often read from letters sent by the party home, as well as reminiscences from locals who either met Walt and his group or whose relatives had. But the tone is almost unfailingly jovial, even reverential, down to the characterization of a strike happening at the time back at the Disney studio, which is treated less like a labor dispute than as a betrayal of the beloved boss. (Actually Disney agreed to the trip partially to escape the dispute.) The picture could have been an incisive and enlightening treatment of Disney’s role in what was a political program; but instead it’s a bland tourist souvenir, the equivalent of an authorized biography rather than an independent one.
To be sure, a somewhat negative thread sneaks its way in through comments that some of the locals make about the films that resulted from the trip, “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros,” from the first of which excerpts are shown in beautifully restored prints. Disney dismissed the idea of taking nothing more than a good-will journey, insisting that it had to be a working trip; and he and his artists did collect ideas and make sketches along the way. But the reactions to the resultant films from a few of the folk who remember Disney’s visit aren’t terribly complimentary. Apart from that, though, the tone is as happy as in any Disney studio production; one gets the feeling that through the entire journey—which Walt is said to have soldiered through despite financial troubles back home (and news of a death in his family), never was heard a discouraging word.
So “Walt & El Grupo” won’t win any awards for hard-hitting journalism, and at nearly two hours it does run on past its prime. But if for some reason you’re fascinated by an event in the life of Walt Disney that Neal Gabler covers in a mere five of the eight hundred-plus pages of his biography of the filmmaker, this mildly pleasant but thoroughly conventional piece is certainly the movie for you.