Revisiting 'The Three Caballeros', One Of The Strangest Films Classic Disney Animation Ever Produced

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)The early 1940s were a rocky period for Walt Disney Studios. Though the fledgling animation company had proven that a feature film in the hand-drawn medium was viable for both technical and creative reasons, Disney struggled to recapture the sense of success evinced by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Though we now think of follow-up films such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi as some of the most beloved and well-known classics from the Disney canon, they were far from box-office smashes upon their initial releases. Couple that fact with two other dark elements of the year 1941. On a studio level, Disney had to weather a serious, contentious strike among his studio's animators; and on a national level, the country was pulled forcefully into World War II after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. America's entry into World War II led to the government ordering Disney to make propaganda that would help fix international relations with other countries in the world's darkest hours. And one of the results of that order is a cult classic that recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.

The Pitch

Even before the horrible attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government was hot on the heels of the Walt Disney Studios to be involved in the World War II effort. One of the major projects would involve Disney and some of his most trusted animators traveling to Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil, and Mexico to not only learn more about those locations' unique traditions and heritages, but to translate those cultural norms visually in short and feature form. The idea was simple: creating a bridge between America and some close-by countries and continents, as a way to ward off any potential encroachment from the Axis Powers. The timing of the trip, as part of the U.S. Good Neighbor Policy, was pretty fortuitous for Walt Disney. On May 29, 1941, the Walt Disney Studios were rent asunder by a strike. Many of the studio's animators spoke out against unfair wages, poor labor practices, and other untenable elements of their day-to-day jobs. Disney, as it's been written about in texts such as the unauthorized biography of the man by author Neal Gabler, had perceived himself as the makeshift paterfamilias of a surrogate family. As such, he was shocked and hurt to realize that many of the staff members at his company saw themselves as...well, staff members at a company, not part of a big, happy family.The strike only lasted a couple months — and the entry in this column on the truly singular and odd hybrid of live-action and animation, The Reluctant Dragon, touched on the same strike, as the film was released during the acrimony — but the damage was done. The image of Disney essentially escaping his troubles to join his animators on an overseas trip added to a sense of dismissiveness; it's unfortunate since, as has since been pointed out, the trip's scheduling was entirely coincidental. The strike happening at the same time didn't mean Disney chose to leave; he was always going on this trip.The trip to Latin America was a fruitful one, as documented in the essential but no-longer-in-publication J.B. Kaufman book South of the Border with Disney. The brief era in which Disney and his animators were tasked with creating propaganda-style animation has resulted in a lot of content people either may not remember, have never seen, or only know as a weird punchline. (One of the jokes inspired by Disney+ unveiling a long list of titles via Twitter thread in October regarded the Donald Duck short Der Fuehrer's Face from 1945. Yes, it is weird to see Donald Duck as a Nazi. But it's all in keeping with a very firmly anti-Nazi message.) Yet there were a few features borne of this period. One of them is still not yet available on Disney+ — that would be the 1943 hybrid of live action and animation called Victory Through Air Power, in which well-respected aviator and inventor Major Alexander P. De Seversky explains in detail over 70 minutes why air power is the way that the Allied forces could win World War II. (Yes, this is a real movie, and you can bet your ass we'll talk about it in this column as soon as it's available. Hopefully soon.)Perhaps the most famous of all is one of the Disney animated package films of the 1940s, The Three Caballeros. The 1944 film expands on the messages, themes, and style of its immediate predecessor, Saludos Amigos; features some of Disney's most beloved characters; and concludes with a sequence that not only includes the word "surreal" in its title but is actually legitimately surreal enough to earn the categorization. 

The Movie

The Three Caballeros is about as close as you're going to get in the Walt Disney Animation Studios feature canon to an experimental film. (This is not to say that it's actually experimental or avant garde. It's just...well, it's experimental for Disney.) The eponymous trio are Donald Duck, Jose Carioca of Brazil and Panchito Pistoles of Mexico. Panchito, for one, doesn't appear in the first half of this not-terribly-long film. And Jose only shows up after 20 minutes. What's more, the premise of the film is that Donald Duck is celebrating his birthday and has received a number of birthday presents,, the results of which make up the ensuing 72 minutes. By the end of the film, Donald is about as horny as you'll ever see him — The Three Caballeros is an extremely horny movie — and its ending is splashy, colorful, and not at all conclusive.What The Three Caballeros may lack in full-on coherency, it boasts in some truly striking (and now HD-remastered, thanks to Disney+ and a recent Blu-ray release) visuals, a few standout sequences, daring blends of live-action and animation, and a few earworm songs that are surprisingly hard to forget. Like Saludos Amigos, it takes a little while to get going. The good news is that Caballeros is roughly a half-hour longer than the 1942 feature (Saludos Amigos is 42 minutes long, making it just barely long enough to qualify as a feature film at all), and gets wilder and weirder as it goes along.In fact, though, it takes until Jose Carioca appears for The Three Caballeros to kick into high gear. The first two segments are short films that Donald literally watches, as they're home movies he's received as gifts. (Because when you think of exciting birthday presents, you think "home movies".) After those segments, the first following a penguin who wants to live in warmer climates and the second following a Uruguayan boy and his flying donkey, Jose all but jumps out of Donald's presents and into the world of the film. It's once Jose drags Donald into the movie instead of just letting him watch the proceedings become exciting.Where The Three Caballeros begins to get truly intriguing is with its extended "Baia" sequence, first with a slow, seductive ballad sung by Jose and then with a big production number in which Jose and Donald interact with some human performers, including singer Aurora Miranda (Carmen Miranda's sister). The Three Caballeros, in its second half especially, becomes nothing less than the weirdest Disney animated feature, and also the horniest. Yes, you read that right: as this film was released in the days when Daisy Duck was only being used sporadically as a character, we get to see Donald unleashed in his constant attempts to hook up with Latin American women. You may think this is hyperbole, but every time a live woman shows up here, Donald and his avian pals turn into some real hornducks–er, horndogs. (I apologize for nothing. Nothing.)Leaving aside its horniness, The Three Caballeros is a repository for dazzling, unforgettably odd, striking images. When Panchito Pistoles is first introduced, it's after Donald and Jose dance around with a visual representation of a soundtrack behind them, creating a colorful display of the music we're hearing. This sequence culminates with Donald being sucked into the soundtrack and turning into a pinata-like figure, another layer of our hero being sucked into the film instead of being a passive viewer. The final segment, known as "Donald's Surreal Reverie", features him as the center of a flower, one of a handful of dancing ducks, and even a snorting bull. It's as wild as Disney gets.

The Legacy

The package films that Walt Disney Studios released in the 1940s have largely become ignored by most audiences. They were, at best, moderate successes upon their initial release, and the segmented nature of each story makes it so some of the sections got included in VHS compilations of the 1980s and 1990s without being as known for the films they were initially part of. Some of these films have a cult fanbase now, but just that. Of those fanbases, the one for The Three Caballeros is arguably the largest. Disney-animation superfans know the film for its wild digressions. And theme-park lovers know the film for being the inspiration of a redesigned attraction. At Epcot's World Showcase, you can see Donald, Jose, and Panchito in the Mexico pavilion's centerpiece attraction, the Gran Fiesta Tour boat ride. The attraction existed before it became populated with recognizable characters, but they're now the main focus of the calm and soothing ride. Now, of course, with Disney+, you can watch this movie for yourself. If there's any true benefit to the films of the Disney package era, it's that they're now readily accessible to people all around the world. You may not know The Three Caballeros yet, but you can search for it with a few keystrokes and discover it for yourself, 75 years after its initial release. Like the other package films, this one's not perfect. But I promise you: you have never seen anything quite like The Three Caballeros from the Walt Disney Company.