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Film Review: Walt and El Grupo

Walt and El Grupo is the new feature length documentary about the two month tour of South America that Walt and his staff (which included Lee and Mary Blair, Frank Thomas and Norm Ferguson) took – by arrangement of the U.S. Government – in 1941. I had a chance to see it last week – and I enjoyed it very much.

Using previously unseen 16mm color home movies, rare newsreel footage and photographs, as well as interviews with relatives, historians (John Canemaker, J.B. Kaufman) and witnesses (several people who interacted with Walt and the group during the trip were located and interviewed!) the filmmakers (Franks son, Theodore with Kuniko Okubo) retrace the entire tour and take us along for the ride.

If you are a fan of the history of Walt Disney, the Disney studio in general, the Latin America themed shorts (and features) – or, if like me, you just like watching candid footage of Walt – you will love this film. In fact, if you fall into those categories, it’s a must-see. This is a whole chapter in the life of Disney we hadn’t seen before, told in depth, bringing us much closer the man behind the mouse.

This was a troubling time for Walt, personally. The animators strike was in full swing at the studio, Fantasia was in the red, and if that wasn’t enough, his father passed away while he was on the trip. This period marked a true turning point in Walt’s career as a filmmaker and producer. But, as this documentary shows, the experience from this tour influenced not just Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros but films and ride attractions in the decades to come.

If I had to nitpick, I’d say Walt and El Grupo doesn’t show enough clips from the cartoons which resulted from the tour. But rest assured, this is no simple DVD “bonus piece” – it’s a well made, well researched film that will add to your knowledge of Disney history. It opens on September 11th in New York and L.A. (with additional cities to follow) and its well worth your time.