Donald Duck’s second big performance in two years, The Three Caballeros spins directly from Disney’s previous release, Saludos Amigos.
Donald wakes up on his birthday to find a giant box of presents. The presents, it turns out, are a tour of attractive South American cities and an exploration of some of their surface cultural experience. It amounts to an hour of Donald and his friends ogling women and dancing badly to local music.
The film was presented and reviewed by the New York Times early in 1945 that “the juxtaposition of humans and cartoon creatures is a cunning novelty which still leaves one feeling vaguely as though he is watching animated tattoo work.” But they hit the mark in noting that while Walt’s team had pushed the line of cinema by combining dancing humans with dancing cartoons — something that had never been seen before — “his film is flashy and exciting — and no more.”
As all directors who become more preoccupied with technology than story telling can ultimately attest (James Cameron, we’re looking squarely at you on this one), story and characters matter more than any flash and spectacle you can put on the screen. Walt, more concerned with fulfilling the U.S. State Department’s good-will requirements and showing people something new, failed to take into account the need of building a good story.
Even the lyrics to the titular song, horribly outdated by modern standards, even feel poorly developed and flat for the time:
We’re three caballeros
Three gay caballeros
They say we are birds of a feather
We’re happy amigos
And pals though we may be
When some latin baby
Says yes, no, or maybe
Each man is for himself!
Disney is now well known for reusing animation sequences or character designs across his films. This began with The Three Caballeros, too. In one of the opening sequences, a small boy discovers a winged donkey while hunting condors (itself a now-illegal activity). The donkey’s character, movement, wings and flight patterns are a clear draw from Fantasia’s family of pegasuses. The opening sequence, in which a penguin escapes from Antarctica to find a new, warmer, home, would later influence the penguin designs on Mary Poppins.
But The Three Caballeros was the last war time film released by the Walt Disney Company. After this, their propaganda and training films began to scale back and real film artistry began to return to the Disney lot. It would take time for these things to build back up, but having reached their low point, the studio had nowhere to go but up.