THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Three Caballeros’

The one that takes a strange detour into surrealism.

The success of Saludos Amigos caught everyone by surprise. Even Walt Disney himself was staggered at just how popular the film proved to be in South America and the fact it managed to turn a small profit. The production was ultimately a favour to the American government and an inexpensive method to keep Disney’s animators busy while they rode out the effects of World War II on the film industry. No one ever truly expected it to succeed.

With the growing popularity of Donald Duck in South America and the strong reaction to Saludos Amigos breakout star José Carioca, Walt decided to produce another Latin American package film featuring the two feathered friends. He also had on hand two unfinished cartoon shorts that didn’t make the final cut of Saludos Amigos. Slap on a framing device to link the shorts together and The Three Caballeros was born.

While the core focus of Saludos Amigos was South America, The Three Cabelleros would concentrate more heavily on Mexico, particularly the introduction of a third avian friend to join Donald and José to create the titular trio. On the Good Neighbor trip of South America, Walt’s animators were heavily inspired by Mexican artwork, particularly its bright colours and unique designs, so it made sense to put that inspiration to good use.

When Walt greenlit The Three Cabelleros, a group of animators returned to Mexico to further study the local culture and audition talent to appear in the film’s live-action segments. Walt had dabbled in blending animation with live-action actors in his 1920s animated shorts, the Alice Comedies, and a brief moment in Fantasia where a silhouetted Mickey Mouse interacted with conductor Leopold Stokowski. But The Three Caballeros would stand as the first feature-length animation film to feature this groundbreaking technology in a significant way.

The Three Cabelleros opens on Donald Duck receiving three presents on his birthday (which, strangely, is only listed as “Friday the 13th”) from his Saludos Amigos pal José Carioca. Within the first present is a film projector, which screens a documentary on South American birds entitled Aves Raras, which roughly translates to “strange birds.” The documentary features two short cartoons; one telling the story of Pablo, a curious penguin who longs to leave the South Pole and head for the warm shores of South America, and the other centring on a young boy from Uruguay who befriends a flying donkey. Yep. Just go with it.

The next gift is a book titled Brasil that José literally bursts forth from, which gives you an indication of how utterly illogical The Three Cabelleros is about to become. The book tells of Baía, one of Brazil’s 26 states, and the two friends shrink down so they can both enter the book’s pages. Yep. Stay with me now. Through a lavish musical production, Donald and José meet several locals and dance the samba before Donald falls head over heels in love with cookie salesgirl Yaya, played by Aurora Miranda (yes, Carmen’s sister).

Despite Donald’s best efforts to nab his target, Yaya prefers the company of a group of human male musicians because, you know, Donald is a cartoon duck. After attempting to eliminate his competition with a large mallet, Donald does eventually obtain a kiss from Yaya, causing the entire sequence to explode into a technicolour acid trip featuring men morphing into animated birds, dancing flutes, gyrating palm trees, and the entire city landscape of Baía literally bopping along to the music before Donald and José are spat out of the book. If this entire sequence sounds utterly insane, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

When the two return from their trip to Baía, Donald realises he is now too small to open his final gift. It’s here José uses his “black magic” (because, evidently, he’s some form of dark wizard) to help the pair return to normal size. In doing so, Donald becomes a dazzling visual manifestation of the film’s soundtrack in what can only be described as one of the most abstract moments in Disney animation history.

When Donald finally morphs into a pulsing pinata, he soon explodes, causing Mexican native rooster Panchito Pistoles to burst onto the screen, begging the question whether he was inside Donald the entire film. With the titular trio now complete, they perform the film’s title track (likely the only song from this film you’ve heard of) before Panchito whisks them off for a tour of Mexico on a flying sarape.

And this is where things become really bizarre. Our trio is so worked up by the live-action sight of the beautiful Mexican women in bathing suits on the Acapulco beach below them, they proceed to dive-bomb down and chase the women all over the beach, causing umbrellas to fly in the air and the women to flee in playful terror. A blindfolded Donald then chases the women all over the beach before confusing José for one of the beachgoers and kissing him all over his face. As they fly away, the women all rush to the shore to lovingly wave them goodbye, despite the awkwardly sexual chaos Donald has just enacted on them. Yep. But we’re still not done.

In the film’s final segment, Panchito introduces Donald and José to the sights of Mexico City where Donald falls in love (he really needs a cold shower) with Mexican songstress Dora Luz, whose floating head (yep) croons “You Belong to My Heart” in the night skies over the city. As Donald imagines kissing Dora (including one bizarre moment where her disembodied head forms the centre of an animated flower), what follows can only be described as a hallucinogenic sugar rush fantasy that makes the “Pink Elephants” segment of Dumbo look tame by comparison.

As outlandishly bizarre as the film’s conclusion may be, it’s a supremely spectacular blend of animation and live-action that’s far more advanced than the rather crude drawings found in its predecessor. With a longer production time and larger budget, The Three Caballeros plays more like the feature films Disney had produced in its first five years. The intent of Saludos Amigos was more educational in nature, whereas The Three Caballeros centred more closely on silly entertainment.

And this film is one of the silliest things Disney has ever produced. The ultimate crux of the “plot” pertains to Donald’s strange attempts to attract the attention of the women of Latin America. Frankly, he comes across rather aggressively, er, horny to the point you have to wonder what Daisy thought of his exploits on his journey through Mexico and Brazil. Yes, she had already been established as his girlfriend three years earlier in the short Mr. Duck Steps Out; a fact Donald and the Disney animators have seemingly forgotten in this film.

The Three Caballeros gave the Disney animation team the freedom to truly experiment and showcase their skills which had mostly been kept subdued for several years. The last act ventures into surrealism like few other Disney films and ultimately laid the foundation for the work to be found in something like Alice in Wonderland. While very little of this film makes a lick of sense, it’s a dazzling fusion of reality and fantasy that rarely receives the kudos it deserves.

In the history of Disney animation, The Three Caballeros can’t compete with its more structured counterparts, but it was never meant to. Once again, Walt saw an inexpensive package film as an avenue to keep the doors of his studio open and to continue functioning as best he could. The film received mixed reviews from critics (though it still nabbed two Academy Award nominations for Best Musical Score and Best Sound Recording) and barely broke even at the box office, but it was enough to keep Disney alive.

Of all the Disney package films of the 1940s (yes, there are sadly more to come), The Three Caballeros is the one which stands tallest by sheer measure of its artistic freedom and the quality of its genuinely striking visuals. It threw off the shackles of reality and showcased what animation could truly achieve when the rulebook was abandoned. The film pulses with the chaotic energy its predecessor lacked, crafting a Latin America package film that entertained far more than it informed.

In Disney’s canon of animated feature films, there really is nothing quite like The Three Caballeros. Make no mistake about it, this is a bafflingly bizarre film, especially when viewed with a 21st-century gaze. But the audacity of the animators to craft something so genuinely surrealist has to be admired. It’s a deft departure from reality and a reminder of how groundbreaking Disney animation could be. What it lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in abstract style.

Is The Three Caballeros a Disney Classic? It’s hard to consider any of the 1940s package films as Disney Classics, but The Three Caballeros is really the only example up for consideration. It’s a hefty helping of abstract ridiculousness and the only memorable film of this era, so let’s give it a pass and decree it a Disney Classic.

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