Walt Disney was in dire straits in 1941. The success of the Mickey Mouse cartoons and Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in the ’30s gave Disney the resources to build a studio and to make the more ambitious features Pinocchio and Fantasia. But both of those movies were box-office disappointments, and just when Disney was planning to enact some economies and save his dream, his animators—some of whom had worked alongside him for more than a decade—went on strike. While all this was going on, the Roosevelt administration asked Disney to participate in the “Good Neighbor” program and travel to South America on a goodwill mission to promote American business and American ideals. The trip proved pivotal in the history of Walt Disney Studios. The head honcho’s absence from Hollywood helped expedite the end of the strike, his favor for Roosevelt led to some lucrative government contracts that helped keep his business solvent, and the experiences that Disney and his “El Grupo” touring party had south of the border helped broaden their horizons as artists and entrepreneurs.
Theodore Thomas’ documentary Walt & El Grupo tells the story of Disney’s South American sojourn from start to finish, aided by interviews with the participants’ offspring, readings from letters, newly shot location footage, and pieces of Disney’s “Good Neighbor” films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. It’s fascinating to look back at a more formal era of world travel, and to recall the unusual place the Disney team occupied, as artists who were also successful professionals. Thomas achieves some haunting effects late in the film, when he places snapshots and home movies of the original trip over shots of the present-day sites, illustrating how memories linger after people and places are gone. But Walt & El Grupo is so doggedly straightforward and exhaustive in its detail that much of its lovely evocation of a time gone by gets lost, buried in the barrage of anecdotes and the pictures of Americans trying on native garb. Hardcore Disney fans will appreciate how serious-minded and intimate this movie is, but for others, Walt & El Grupo might feel like an expensive vacation slide show, assembled by strangers.