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Extended Thoughts on ‘The Three Caballeros’

The Three Caballeros

Directed by Norman Ferguson

Written by Homer Brightmen, Ernest Terrazas, Ted Sears, Bil Peet, Ralph Wright, Elmer Plummer, Roy Williams, William Cottrell, Del Connell, and James Bodrero

Is objectivity possible in analyzing art? Is there a way to define what is and isn’t successful, what is and isn’t good, in a work of creative blood, sweat, and tears? Is there a way to completely divorce yourself from the subjective, from the past, when watching a film, for example? Maybe I’m biting off more than I can chew here, especially since I ask all of these questions in reference to The Three Caballeros, of all things, but after our podcast, I began to consider these ideas anew. While I found the film slight if somewhat charming, I was compelled to ponder the idea of subjectivity versus objectivity thanks to our guest, Jeff Heimbuch, who spoke passionately about nostalgia and rose-colored glasses influencing his opinion of the film, which is his favorite Disney movie.

We live, as I’ve said many times in these articles, in a nostalgic culture. We thrive on nostalgia in all forms, from clothing (though we don’t often discuss the Disney theme parks on the podcast, those parks have had a T-shirt-based renaissance solely focused on retro designs) to television to books to film. What is it about this constant reaffirmation of our past that we need so badly? I do include myself here, because while I don’t often get nostalgic about the movies we cover on the show, I’m not immune to giving myself into past childhood pleasures. I think it’s less about me being or not being nostalgic so much as that I have far more blind spots than people my age.

For clarity, my age here (and we could stretch it to my peers, both a bit younger and older) is 27. I turn 28 in September. (I realize that this will make some readers feel old, while others’ ages will make me feel aged.) And frankly, most of the pop-culture detritus my peers get excited by, either things that already exist or things that may yet come into being, baffle me to no end. Oh, good, a movie based on toys that transform from cars to robots. Yes, finally, a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie! Hey, there’s a new version of The Goonies out on Blu-ray! And so on. You, dear reader, may be excited by any of those stories, or you may feel frustration and bitterness toward Hollywood for potentially ruining characters and stories you kept close as a child. I just feel…nothing. And it’s not that I don’t have nostalgia for movies; it’s that movies Hollywood chooses to dredge up and redo for an older audience have no sway or allure for me.

Being fair, most people would perhaps be a little taken aback at Jeff’s high placement of The Three Caballeros. Even he was able to admit its flaws, while being unable to deny its power over him from a very young age. But it did have that power over him, and it’s clear from hearing him on the show that he still feels this way. I do think The Three Caballeros is just slight; though I agree with Mike that it’s the best of the package films that Walt Disney Pictures created in the 1940s, I feel like that’s fairly faint praise. The ambition on display here is even more impressive than what’s in Saludos Amigos, which is just over 40 minutes long. (That will likely be a fairly short episode of the podcast.) And the animation improves as the film goes on, making me wonder how important each of the early segments was to the whole film’s message. Did they exist beforehand, or were they intentionally created for this film? I imagine the assumption is the latter, but watching as the ambition and skill improve as the film progresses is kind of weird.

Package films, in general, are difficult to engage with, which makes Jeff’s passion for the film that much more surprising for its intensity and sincerity. Even Fantasia and Fantasia 2000—both of which are package films, and anyone saying otherwise is fooling himself or herself—aren’t that easy to get fully enthralled with. Every time you’re hooked into a segment, the filmmakers move onto something else, something else you have to work at getting into. The Three Caballeros is fascinating to consider in the context of the other package films because it doesn’t feel like much of a package. The first half is very segmented, but once the title characters are all together—and it takes far, far too long for that to happen—the story feels more concrete and fluid.

But does any of that matter? My experience with the film this time wasn’t really affected by any childhood memories. My first clear memory of watching the film is actually as an adult, in a film class where I had to watch both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros at the college library. Outside of the music—the lengthy sequence with Aurora Miranda didn’t ring any bells visually, but aurally, it stands out—I don’t remember much of the film from that viewing, just the experience of watching a movie on a tiny screen in a library. So I returned to The Three Caballeros (which I’ve seen a couple of times in between that library screening and watching it for the show) with no serious childhood connections. The closest I can say that this relates to my childhood or any vestiges of that clear-eyed innocence is in Donald Duck (a character I like but don’t love in his screen iterations) or in how the title characters are represented at the Disney theme parks.

Like they do in the film, Donald Duck, Jose Carioca, and Panchito Pistoles appear in the Mexico pavilion at EPCOT Center in Walt Disney World as goodwill ambassadors. (Ignore for a second that only one of those characters is Mexican.) They appear in the Gran Fiesta Tour attraction, a boat tour through Mexico that has a similar structure to the second half of The Three Caballeros, with Jose and Panchito trying to curb Donald’s enthusiasm for all things Mexico. Just like in the movie, Donald is a wild horndog set loose in South America—a Disney-fied horndog, but a horndog nonetheless. And both end with simulated fireworks. Whenever I experience either the film or the attraction, I enjoy the design and can at least get behind the inherently pleasant tone, but that’s it.

In the end, even considering the role that nostalgia plays in the way we view movies, I find The Three Caballeros to be a historical curiosity. You can look at it as a fascinating chapter in the history of the Walt Disney Company, as well as Disney’s personal history. Or, you can look at it as a slightly more honorable part of the company’s weakest decade for feature films. (I could say the 1970s are the worst, but quite frankly, the output is a bit more ambitious. Not a lot more ambitious than the package films of the 1940s, but a bit more.) I mostly look at it as a stepping-stone between features. The eight-year gap (mostly imposed because Disney made a deal with the military and then didn’t have the funds to produce a full-length feature for years after World War II) is a dark period for the company. One of the reasons I was—and still am—so taken aback by Jeff’s admission isn’t that few people hold The Three Caballeros in such high esteem, it’s that the package films in general don’t get paid much attention. There’s enough ambition and a pleasant tone here that I get why people would hold it higher than other package films, but when was the last time you even saw Fun and Fancy Free, as opposed to thinking of it as a standout from Disney?

Something I love in movies—frankly, in any form of art—is consistency. Even if that consistency in tone and style is outrageous, or if it’s low-key, I appreciate it. The Three Caballeros, simply because it’s a package film, isn’t consistent. There’s meant to be an overall, overarching tone, as Donald Duck is presented as America being educated on the cultures in South America. But every time the movie feels like it’s about to get moving, it cuts to a new scene and goes back to square one. I may indeed have a gap in my soul, left by not gaining the nostalgia gene as a child. As such, all I see with The Three Caballeros is something pleasant, not something special.