As documented in Neal Gabler's essential Walt Disney biography Walt Disney: Triumph Of The American Imagination, at a certain point in the '40s, the quixotic quest for perfection that fueled Snow White And The Seven Dwarves was replaced by a pragmatic struggle for survival. No film better represents this new ethos than 1942's Saludos Amigos, a brief, 40-minute feature commissioned by the U.S. government as part of its "Good Neighbor" policy toward its neighbors to the south. Amigos sandwiches four pedestrian animated shorts—two featuring Donald Duck, one featuring a Gaucho Goofy, and the fourth starring a family of anthropomorphic planes—inside agonizingly dull travelogue footage of Disney writers, artists, and musicians on a research trip, exploring all that Latin and South America have to offer. The stale, joy-killing odor of the classroom hangs heavy over Saludos Amigos: it aspires to educate and entertain, but fails on both counts.
Perhaps it's best to think of Saludos Amigos as little more than a test-run for its longer, more ambitious 1944 sequel The Three Caballeros, a giddy animators' showcase about birthday boy Donald Duck running amok in Mexico with feathered friends José Carioca and Panchito. Where the prequel is weighed down with noble intentions, Caballeros boasts a breezy, exhilarating lightness and a refreshing undercurrent of perversity. Donald Duck spends much of the film leering at live-action beauties in ways that would make Tex Avery's Big Bad Wolf blush, Panchito is a sombrero-wearing, pistol-toting maniac, and the film is graced by some of the trippiest, most casually psychedelic animation this side of Fantasia. Freed from having to convey ideas more involved than "Donald Duck goofs around in tropical locales with his new buddies," the animators let their imaginations run wild, plunging into delirious abstraction, kaleidoscopic compositions, and charmingly primitive stabs at integrating animation and live-action. It's a holiday of a movie animated by a sense of fun and frivolity that is blissfully universal. Seldom has Disney's unofficial status as America's foremost goodwill ambassador felt more official or justified.
Key features: A boring short about the Disney gang's research trip, a pair of irreverent, Latin-and-South-America-themed Donald Duck cartoons, and a too-brief excerpt from a CBC interview with Disney about the films' origins.