Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Walt and El Grupo (2008) at USC

Tonight I had the wonderful opportunity to see the documentary WALT AND EL GRUPO on the big screen at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.

I've been looking forward to seeing this film for some time, and thus I was very happy to have the opportunity to see it in USC's Ray Stark Family Theatre.

The screening was followed by a question and answer session with writer-director Theodore "Ted" Thomas and his wife, producer Kuniko Okubo.

School of Cinematic Arts founder Douglas Fairbanks Sr. greets us in the Academy Courtyard:

WALT AND EL GRUPO documents a unique slice of cinematic and World War II history, telling the story of the 1941 goodwill tour undertaken by Walt Disney and a large group of Disney studio artists at the request of the U.S. government. The tour was part of our "Good Neighbor Policy," intended to help improve relations in the Western Hemisphere at a time when the influence of Nazis was on the rise in South America.

One of the things which makes this film special is the amount of color film footage that was shot of the trip. It's fascinating to see Disney, Mary Blair, Frank Thomas, and the rest of "El Grupo" in South America in color. (Some of this footage was previously seen in a short documentary on a DVD release of SALUDOS AMIGOS.) It was also quite interesting to see a relatively young Walt Disney on film, at the age of 39, rather than the more avuncular Walt familiar from his TV show of the '50s and '60s.

The documentary made effective use of the film, photographs (including some which were converted to a three-dimensional look), letters, and dissolves from current photos to photos taken on the trip to give the story a sense of "you are there" immediacy.

It's rather remarkable how many letters regarding the trip had been preserved by the participants' families. It was delightful hearing children and even a grandchild read aloud from the letters, as well as a journal, which contributed to the sense of understanding the tour through the eyes of participants as events were actively occurring.

I also felt that the film was quite good at capturing how the various aspects of South America seen in both the movie footage and photos translated into artwork and later animation footage. This peek at the artistic process was fascinating. As animation historian John Canemaker describes in the film, as well as in his book THE ART AND FLAIR OF MARY BLAIR, the trip had a particular impact on Blair's style and use of color.

Ted Thomas noted after the movie that, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor just weeks after the end of the tour, most of the group dispersed due to the war and other reasons, and so work on SALUDOS AMIGOS (1942) was largely completed by artists who hadn't been on the tour; while parts of the final film are wonderful, something may have been "lost in translation," so to speak.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and felt I learned a great deal. I do think the editing could have been tightened up and the movie shortened by several minutes; I would have started by trimming some of the "talking head" comments by various South Americans which wander quite far afield of the Disney visit. The filmmakers were obviously trying to provide some context, but the result was that the film briefly loses focus from time to time.

The movie runs 106 minutes. It is rated PG, believe it or not, for smoking.

WALT AND EL GRUPO is available on DVD. It can also be seen on Netflix Instant streaming.

The DVD was reviewed by Imaginerding and Dave Kehr.

The story of the tour has also been chronicled by J.B. Kaufman in SOUTH OF THE BORDER WITH DISNEY. Kaufman was a consultant for WALT AND EL GRUPO, along with John Canemaker.


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