Extended Thoughts on ‘Saludos Amigos’
Directed by Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, William Roberts
Written by Homer Brightman, Bill Cottrell, Dick Huemer, Joe Grant, Harold Reeves, Ted Sears, Webb Smith, Roy Williams, Ralph Wright
Considering Saludos Amigos in comparison with its follow-up, The Three Caballeros, is akin to analyzing the pregame to the Super Bowl. (Our guest, Jeff Heimbuch, may disagree but will surely appreciate comparing these two movies to such a titanic worldwide event.) I’m often very vocal about not enjoying Disney’s release strategy for some of their lesser animated films—or, if you like, films they consider to be lesser even if the fans of those films are legion—specifically how they combine films in a Blu-ray combo pack. If you like Pocahontas and want it on Blu-ray, great! You’re cool if the film is packaged with its direct-to-DVD sequel, yeah? Well, you don’t have a choice, so the answer’s yes, no matter what. However, I get it with regards to Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, which can be rented in conjunction on one DVD via Netflix or your local library. Here, at least, it makes creative and financial sense.
Watching the two movies together might almost be like a South American version of Fantasia, if a bit more juvenile, or simply the starting point for many of the attractions in the World Showcase section of what was formerly known as EPCOT Center. By itself, Saludos Amigos is slight if as well-intentioned as the film it would precede. The four shorts in the film range from moderately ambitious to mildly forgettable. I’ve attempted to push us toward this point on the show each time, but I always end up being the only one to consider many of the films Walt Disney was involved in during the 1940s to be historical curios. These are artifacts of an era when the company was being slammed on all sides to the point where their quality had to take a step down because they couldn’t put all of their resources into more expansive feature films. The period between Bambi and Cinderella is worth analyzing, less for the quality and more for historical context.
What I find most fascinating this time is the intentions of the film, just as I find the good intentions behind Song of the South fascinating. There is a long-held belief that Walt Disney was racist, one I think is incorrect if not entirely outrageous to assume. Some of the films he was directly involved in included material that, looking back on it now, is construed as offensive, thus inspiring the Walt Disney Company to censor itself. (Here, I think more of Fantasia, where the Pastoral Symphony sequence has been truncated to remove the depiction of a racially coded and subservient centaur.) I think, though, that any detailed reading of the history of these films or the scenes the company has chosen to sweep under the carpet will prove that Disney didn’t have malice aforethought in such flights of fancy. The 1940s was a turbulent decade for the man, as he battled his own employees, who went on strike to get a fairer wage, and battled public perception of his image. The films he made had good intentions behind them—wasn’t that enough?
Now, don’t get me wrong: Saludos Amigos is not a film that will make you as uncomfortable as Song of the South purportedly does. Being fair, this isn’t a film I found particularly offensive or awkward in its representation of people or characters who aren’t white. I was intrigued, though, in reading that a well-known cartoonist started up his own comic-book character and magazine as a kind of rebuke to the Chilean sequence, an aggressively juvenile scene about a plane named Pedro. We discussed this a bit on the show, and I suppose I’m still uneasy about the subject, as well as how definitively we can or can’t say how racially insensitive this film or segment might be. On the surface, it’s for a simple reason: Gabe, Mike, Jeff, and myself are all white guys. Sure, with enough information, we can pass judgment on whether or not something could be deemed offensive to a man or woman of another race. However, I recoil from making definitive statements or presuming that because we didn’t find the material racist—and though I didn’t say so on the show in as proclamatory a tone, I agree that the Pedro sequence doesn’t seem particularly offensive—if only because my background and experience allows me only so much awareness and knowledge. How do I know for sure that someone of Latin American heritage doesn’t find this sequence so simplistic that it feels like a slight to their culture?
This is, perhaps, the true struggle at the heart of films like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, both of which were made with the best possible intentions, in a way introducing Latin America to those of us in the States who weren’t as familiar with their traditions or way of life. Considering we were in the middle of World War II and Latin America was seen as a potential harbor for Nazis, culling favor was important. The films were seen as successful, and did very strong business in Latin America, thus fueling the idea that these achieved their goals. And perhaps this duo did engender positivity among Americans towards their neighbors to the South. But was it based on a legitimate reading of Latin American culture or something more childish and reductive?
I’m honestly not sure. I feel like I’ve come to a point of self-awareness here that may be unhealthy: I know that coming at this movie as a white man means I can only know so much about the culture on display. (And frankly, the way that Disney has always skewed foreign cultures, both through their films and their theme parks, is pleasant if very sanitized and, thus, not a wholly accurate interpretation.) I know that I find Saludos Amigos very slight, yet mildly entertaining. Mike was (for Mike, at least) exceptionally put off by the narration, of which there’s an excessive amount. And yet, because so many Disney films and shorts of the era are defined by the deadpan narration, here provided by Fred Shields, I was not taken aback by it. In the “El Gaucho Goofy” short, for example, I think it works excellently and teases us to the future shorts where Goofy would be put through the wringer trying to show us how to exercise, ride a horse, etc. The film feels like the first act to better things, to more ambitious storytelling through music and animation. There is a faint hint of the immense goals the animators tried to achieve in Fantasia here, stronger still in The Three Caballeros, even if that’s not a personal favorite of mine.
The issue of race in Disney is a subject that deserves a lengthy book, not a single column. (Oh, do I dare dream?) I can acknowledge fully that I didn’t perceive serious issues within the content here, not as I may have done with even So Dear to My Heart. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that my specific opinion does not allow me a level of confidence to deem this movie or any movie racist or not. Nor does the fact that Mike, Gabe, and Jeff would all agree that the film didn’t seem egregious in its representation of a culture that, at the time when this film was released, was unfamiliar to a predominantly white audience. I think it’s important to consider these issues, to realize that our experiences do not grant us an omnipotence to declare something as one thing or the other, as approved or not. It’s difficult for me to grapple with these issues, I’ll admit: is this hand-wringing going to do any good? Such introspection is necessary, at least, because it may be something the Disney filmmakers and Disney himself weren’t doing back in the 1940s, simply making what they could to please the US government and to create a happy image of the world around us. Saludos Amigos is a compelling historical artifact, if not one of Disney’s best films. It’s important for us to explore why the history is so compelling, though, even if for negative reasons, something we’re loathe to do when it comes to the House of Mouse.