The Three Caballeros (1945)

In 1941, Walt Disney found himself dealing with a strike on the studio lot.  Stressed and annoyed with studio politics, he welcomed a call from Uncle Sam, where he was asked to fly to South America on a goodwill tour, in an effort to dissuade Axis influence in the western hemisphere.  Walt only relented so he could bring his artists and scrounge up ideas for new animated features.  By the time he returned, they had enough material to make two new features: Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.  The latter is unquestionably the better known of the two.  While not a top tier classic like Peter Pan, Snow White, or Pinocchio, it has become a iconic image in its own right.

“You boys aren’t gonna unionize, are you?”

Up until Coco (2017), Disney had almost no Hispanic representation in their canon unless you count this, Tito from Oliver & Company, and Zorro (And even he was representative of colonial Spain, and Guy Williams was Italian…but I digress.).  Even to this day, Disney readily pulls these guys out for a quick and easy diversity nod, as well as an homage to an iconic classic image.  These guys have popped up in House of Mouse

The DuckTales reboot…

And they even got their own series!

Say nothing of the ride at Epcot…

Or even their appearance as a water feature at All-Star Music’s Calypso section in the Guitar pool.

But the movie that started all this, how does it hold up after 85 years? Let’s sing and samba for this slew of saucy sensations!

The plot: Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) is celebrating his birthday and receives three huge presents. The first one is a film reel where it plays a short film about the strange birds of South America, including the fourth-wall breaking Aracuan bird. The second film is a short cartoon, The Cold-Blooded Penguin, about a penguin in search for a warmer climate, narrated by My Hero Sterling Holloway, and The Flying Gauchito, a boy from Argentina who finds and befriends a winged donkey.

The second present is a pop-up book from Brazil, where he reunites with his old friend from Saludos Amigos, José Carioca (José Oliveira). José takes Donald to Bahía, where the pair flirt with cookie lady Yayá (Aurora Miranda) and dance alongside her and several opportunistic musicians.

The third present is from Mexico, and Panchito Pistoles (Joaquin Grey) emerges, happy to teach and educate Donald about Piñatas, Las Posadas, Mexican history, and some sights around the country.

How’s the writing?: The framing device is neat: as a literal package film, several disparate elements had to come together with little rhyme or reason, and Donald opening a few presents allows things to be disjointed. The only issue is that each individual segment is not its own neatly-told narrative with standard beginnings, middles, or ends.

Sure, Cold-Blooded Penguin and Flying Gauchito are absolutely self-contained. But the rest of the film rolls through various skits, gags, and sequences that sort of ebb and flow into each other without much rhyme or reason. When Donald finds José, the parrot is two inches tall, and after singing the praises of Bahía, shrinks Donald down. The two scramble aboard a train in what looks like a chalkboard, where the Aracuan splits the rails and subsequently the train cars. The train reconnects, arriving in Bahía, but Donald watches as José turns the page of the book and then they join Miranda in “Os quindins de Yayá”. After they dance with the humans, José suggests Donald open his last present…but they’re still tiny. A bizarre segue follows where José suggests Donald use black magic (Yes, those words exactly) to use his finger to blow himself up like a balloon back to normal size. Donald being Donald, of course, uses the wrong finger and some wacky sight gags happen as he warps in different shapes. Only after José helps him out does the film remember, “Oh yeah, we gotta move to the next section of the movie”, and the pair open the present from Mexico.

There is no greater story at large here. Just a scenario where Donald watches some things, dances in others, and particularly with Panchito, learns some things. It’s a good time waster. That’s why I find it so fascinating in The Legend of the Three Caballeros, they worked so hard at making a greater lore behind the group. Like Who’s Line is it Anyway?, “Where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”

Does it give the feels?: This isn’t a movie to get emotionally invested in. Not that it doesn’t try in spots, but the dividing line between beauty and the anarchic insanity is distinct and often jarring. After the Aracuan disrupts the movie (literally tugging the reel off to the side), José sighs and launches into the song “Bahía” and a slow sequence of still watercolor images representing the city plays. It’s a slow, romantic ballad meant to relax and entice. Immediately after that comes José’s weirdly lively and bizarre dance number “Have You Ever Been to Bahía”. I find myself skipping it because if I’m watching this movie, I’m primed to watch the crazy animation and lively atmosphere and “Bahía” just bores me.

Later, Donald fawns over Dora Luz as she sings “You Belong to My Heart”. It’s a love song, and Luz is completely detached from the duck giving her the hubba-hubba eyes. The song is lovely, but it’s juxtaposed with a cartoon duck giggling and swooning over her. It becomes awkward. Not nearly as awkward as a later segment that I’ll get to, but if you just want to appreciate Luz’s singing, it’s super distracting.

Who makes it worth it?: I’ve never came to a decision of which Caballero I like best.  Donald is a steadfast favorite, even though his famous bad temper is not really shown here.  He is the surrogate for American audiences who know nothing of Brazil or Mexico.  José is suave and amiable, a real friendly parrot who would be fun to hang out and have a good time with.  By contrast, Panchito is excitable and energized, full of bombastic, raucous, devil-may-care energy.  These three personalities ricochet off each other greatly and it’s no wonder these three are so well remembered, even if the movie itself isn’t. I even like the wacky Deadpool-esque antics of the Aracuan.

There’s nothing to say of the human characters.  The three most prolific are Miranda, Luz, and dancer Carmen Molina.  None of them really talk and only Miranda (By the way, does that last name look familiar?  Yep, her sister was the famous Carmen Miranda!) interacts with the animated stars.  All three are meant to be pretty faces to showcase their singing and dancing, though Miranda only gets higher billing for doing both.

Best quality provided: When I was a kid, I watched the Disney Sing-Along that featured the film’s headlining song, “The Three Caballeros”.  As a Disney hipster, my favorite Disney anythings tend to be the real esoteric stuff.  Sure, we all know of the three Caballeros themselves, but throughout the years, I NEVER found an official recording of the song.  The closest I got was a mostly score track from the 2008 “Four Parks One World” Walt Disney World CD that was of the ride.  I had to resort to downloading a YouTube video just to get it on my iPod.  It’s just that fun and catchy.  It’s by far my favorite part of the movie.

What could have been improved: I like turning on this movie as background noise because there’s a lot of parts that just don’t interest me.  It’s nothing against the movie itself for having some travelogue footage or moments where it’s nothing but dancing.  I even like the educational aspects.  It’s just awfully disjointed in trying to serve all its goals trying to be everything: especially at the end where the movie gives up and just becomes one long, trippy, dance and music sequence.  I’ve often wondered what it’d be like to have a few edibles – now that it’s legal in Arizona – and just zone out during this part.  Anyway, those aren’t problems.  What is, however, is its perspective on the male gaze.

With Miranda, I guess it’s forgivable.  She uses her feminine charm to sell her cookies, but frequently gets drawn into the arms of several men who use their sense of rhythm or musical gifts to woo her.  She does give Donald a big smooch at one point, though.

Later on, Panchito brings his new friends to Acapulco Beach, where Donald is driven nutty over the slew of raven-haired ladies in those sexy, sexy one piece bathing suits from the forties.  There, it becomes a SpikeTV special circa 1945: Donald struts around posing, goofing around, and even giving chase while blindfolded.  All the while, the women titter and smile and play and run.  And of course, there isn’t a single unsightly one, they’re all skinny, no men or children on the beach, and of course they’re single, not swimming, not having better places to be, and…you get the idea.  During the following psychedelic sequence, Donald frequently gets images of pretty women floating around (Like that weird mirror image one where they’re all…I dunno, touching their toes?  Is that a fetish or something?) And at another part, a narrator whispers “Pretty girls.  Pretty girls.  Pretty girls.” And it’s just so…creepy!

Uh…

Look, I grew up on a ton of classic cartoons where lots of anthropomorphized animal characters wolf whistle, manhandle, and otherwise harass a pretty woman to gain her affections.  I grew up on Pegleg Pete, Donkey Kong, and Bluto kidnapping damsels, only for the hero to swoop in to rescue them.  I grew up on Animaniacs, where their most famous catchphrase, “Helloooooo nurse!” was in response to the seductive female healthcare professional whose only role was to be seductive and sexy.  But this isn’t that world anymore.  We’re in a post #Metoo world where – shock of all shocks – women just aren’t into being hounded by horny weirdos.  I’m not a woman, but I can’t imagine how unfunny it must be watching the beloved Donald Fauntleroy Duck ravenously chasing a bevy of giggling models as he cries out “Come here, my little enchilada!”.  Makes me glad in Legend of the Three Caballeros, they introduce the lovely Xandra, a literal human goddess, and the boys don’t fawn over her.  And believe it or not, Donald trying chase after native women was even put into the Epcot ride.

Can I take it not so seriously?  I guess, but in the end, I really have just one burning question:

If Daisy was introduced in 1937, where was she here? And was would she think?

Verdict:  This movie is not for novice Disney fans.  I’m equal parts drawn to it for its creativity, its main characters, that one song, some of the educational parts, and as a classic Disney film.  I’m repelled by its slower moments, the drawn out “dancing for the sake of dancing” sequences, the clumsy intergrating of live action and animation (Where most of the actors seem oblivious to the cartoons’ existence) and of course, its weird predatory perspective on women.  Again, I like to have it on in the background, and sit down during a few parts. Overall, I give this film, for all its influences and creepy implications, a solid six snappy serapes out of ten.

And remember: when some Latin baby says “yes”, “no”, or “maybe”…respect her wishes and stop being a creep.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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