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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.

  • Boy I can’t wait for this one. Nothing fires me up like animation history!

  • This is an awesome film. One that every serious Disney fan can’t afford to miss.

    I’ve been pouring over still photographs of the South American trip at the studio. Seeing this material come to life on motion picture film is a must see.

    Run, don’t walk, to the nearest theater showing this motion picture.

  • Andreas Deja

    Watching this film feels like you are traveling with Walt and his team
    through South America.
    One of the best films ever done on Disney.

  • The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos are one the bests. They bear the soul of South America.

  • Raul Aguiar

    I hope this film tells about the Walt and J. Carlos meeting, and how he “inspired” Disney to create Zé Carioca…

  • The quality of the home movie footage is amazing. It looks as though it were shot on IB Tech. I couldn’t get enough of it. A beautiful and thoroughly engaging documentary.

  • alberto

    that sounds very interesting! The Aracuan and Jose Carioca are my favorite Disney characters so i would definitly be up to see how they were conceptualized.

  • Raul Aguiar

    I don’t know if it’s the true story, but some people here in Brazil say that Walt tried to employ J. Carlos, but he didn’t want to leave Brazil.
    So Disney took some ideas of a character created by J. Carlos and used to create Zé Carioca.
    J. Carlos was one of the greatest brazilian illustrators. His drawings were pure animation, and Disney saw that.
    In my opinion , if he worked in animation, he would be the equivalent to Mary Blair, although with a different approach.

  • One of the more striking aspects of this excellent film is the incredibly unique way Thomas presents many of the black & white still images.

    Not only are the stills enhanced with dimensional multi-plane layers
    in a truly advanced way, but the images often flow back and forth
    between 1941 and the same location today. It’s a surprising and
    engaging technique that gives the history real perspective
    and makes the film come alive.

  • I have found a bunch of photos taken by LIFE magazine photographer Hart Preston of the Disney folks on their South America trip.

    Go the the Google’s LIFE archive:

    Searching for “hart preston disney” turns up 94 photos, most in color. Most do not have captions, but Lee and Mary Blair are identified.

    This trove of photos may be old hat to you– but I point it out just in case.

    (I’m now reading THE ANIMATED MOVIE GUIDE, finding it terrific, and that led me to your site.)