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A Good Neighbor visit that was good

Walt & El Grupo evokes the magic and strife of a lost era.

Daniella Thompson

29 April 2008

The Walt Disney team arrives in Rio de Janeiro. Frank Thomas is on the extreme right. (courtesy of Theodore Thomas Productions)

In August 1941, Walt Disney embarked on a ten-week Good Neighbor visit to South America. The trip was financed by the U.S. State Department and came at a time when the Disney studios were mired in debt, their European markets decimated by World War II, and a crippling five-week strike having raised tensions and lowered morale at the company.

Walt took along a group of artists, animators, writers, and musicians to gather material for a possible series of 12 Latin-themed shorts that would be underwritten by the U.S. government. The ultimate products that emerged were the full-length Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944), plus the segment “Blame It on the Samba” in Melody Time.

A detailed account of this trip with its antecedents and aftermaths is the subject of an upcoming book by Disney historian J.B. Kaufman. Kaufman also appears as commentator in the new feature-length documentary Walt & El Grupo, which is receiving its world première at the San Francisco International Film Festival this week.

Both the book and the film are coming out under the auspices of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, whose museum in San Francisco’s Presidio is due to open next year.

Walt & El Grupo’s director, Ted Thomas, is the son of legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas (1912–2004). The idea for the film emerged after Ted and his producer wife, Kuniko Okubo, found a box of photographs that had belonged to his father, documenting the South American trip.

The photographs, some of which are artfully animated, form the basis of the documentary along with unreleased 16-mm footage that Walt and his group shot during the trip, original documents (including letters sent home), sketches made by the group’s artists of local figures and scenes, animated characters, and live interviews with spouses and descendants of the protagonists and people met in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. The filmmakers also found rare survivors who had taken part in those long-ago events, still so fresh in their minds.

Ronaldo do Bandolim and composer Jim Stemple
(courtesy of Theodore Thomas Productions)

The group’s first and longest stop was in Rio de Janeiro, and everyone interested in Disney or in Brazilian music already knows that this visit was responsible for the emergence of “Aquarela do Brasil” as a worldwide hit and for the development of the papagaio character known as Zé Carioca. Naturally, music plays an important part in Walt & El Grupo. We hear Carmen Miranda singing “Disseram Que Voltei Americanizada” (Vicente Paiva/Luiz Peixoto, 1940) while the Gringo group picnics in Paquetá and “Aquarela do Brasil,” sung by Aloysio de Oliveira, over the gorgeously animated sequence from Saludos Amigos.

Most of the score, though, is the creation of composer Jim Stemple, who demonstrates an uncanny ability to synthesize (without electronics, natch) authentic-sounding music, be it period Big Band, samba, tango, or Andean melodies. He composed a choro for one Rio sequence and a jazz samba for another—the former featuring Ronaldo do Bandolim and Rogério Souza, the latter a vocalese by Luciana Souza (listen to clips). The closing titles are set to an earthy rendition of “Aquarela” by Mart’nália.

Mart’nália recording “Aquarela do Brasil”
(courtesy of Theodore Thomas Productions)

Lovers of Rio antigo will be rewarded with shots of the Hotel Glória and the Cassino da Urca in their glory days. While the Glória is still operating, the casino is a ruin awaiting restoration. It is an apt metaphor for the film’s central theme, a gentle reflection pitting the transitory aspects of life against the more enduring ones. The conclusions are not as obvious as one might expect.

Musicians (Rio de Janeiro)
Luiz Flavio Alcofra, 6-string guitar
Rogério Souza, 7-string guitar
Jayme Vignoli, cavaquinho
Ronaldo do Bandolim, bandolim
Sérgio Brandão, electric bass
Scott Feiner, percussion
Pretinho, percussion

Luciana Souza, track 4: “Watercolors”
Mart’nália, track 21: “Aquarela do Brasil”


Copyright © 2008 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.