“Walt & El Grupo” is the best kind of labor of love. A documentary made with affection and intelligence, it looks at a brief episode in the life of a cultural icon and uses it to illuminate what turns out to be a telling moment in time and in the process shed some light on the man himself.
That man, as the title indicates, was Walt Disney. But this is not the avuncular elder statesman of the later Disneyland years. This was Disney not yet 40, a youthful, vibrant man with black hair and piercing eyes, a man capable of entering a room walking on his hands and saying “Hola, chicos!” by way of greeting.
The reason that greeting was in Spanish is that for nearly 10 weeks in 1941 Disney, his wife, Lillian, and 16 key employees went on a trip to South America that was part goodwill tour and part research for future Disney films.
One of those 16 was animator Frank Thomas, one of the studio’s legendary “Nine Old Men” and the father of “El Grupo’s” writer-director Theodore Thomas, whose previous work includes “Frank and Ollie,” a charming portrait of his father and his longtime friend Ollie Johnston.
Working with his producing partner Kuniko Okubo, Thomas has, in effect, engaged in a kind of cinematic archaeology, retracing the Disney group’s footsteps, interviewing descendants of the travelers and those who remember the trip, and digging into archives to come up with letters, drawings, photographs and even color home movies that, taken together, re-create the excitement of an expedition that turned out to have more significance for the Disney organization than anyone anticipated.
The trip came at a particularly difficult time for Disney and his young company. After revolutionizing the animation marketplace with the success of “Snow White,” Disney got into financial trouble for building a new studio while revenues from a Europe at war and new features, including “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia,” were dropping.
Disney also had a war of his own to contend with, a bitter animators’ strike that was a factor in his calling this time “the toughest period in my life.” Though the film tends to offer the Disney version of the labor troubles, it does provide a good sense of what the strikers’ grievances were.
With this as a backdrop, it proved providential that the U.S. government, worried about potential support for Germany in Latin America, offered to underwrite a Good Neighbor Policy tour. Always a workaholic, Disney also wanted to be doing something on the trip, so he took a team with him to research future animation.
Disney’s South American trip turned out to be the rare goodwill tour that actually created goodwill. It’s fascinating to see and hear, more than half a century later, how excited everyone was to have him visit, especially the schoolchildren in Uruguay who were given a half day off from school.
Disney’s trip not only created time and space to settle the strike, it provided inspiration for such films as “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros.” And it revolutionized the lives of numerous people, including Disney artist Mary Blair, who completely altered her style to great success, and Brazilian composer Ary Barroso, whose career got a huge boost when Disney heard him play and said, “this is the music I want.”
The real revelation of the film, however, is its glimpses of Disney himself, game for seemingly everything, including roping in a gaucho costume and folk dancing with local entertainers. It’s always been hard to connect the virile empire builder of legend with the sight of Disney in his tamer golden years, and this appealing film fills in the gap.
‘Walt & El Grupo’
MPAA rating: PG for historical smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: At AMC Downtown Disney, Anaheim. Expanding on Friday to Regent, Westwood.