The early 1940s were a time of personal strife for the world (with much of the planet already engaged in World War II) and for the Walt Disney Studios (with a group of artists on strike and threatening to unionize against Walt Disney's wishes). The US government was concerned about the Axis powers reaching out to South American nations and asked Walt Disney to embark on a goodwill mission to South America as a counter-influence.
Walt wasn't interested in simply shaking hands and smiling for photographs, but offered that he would go on the trip if he could take a small team of artists with him and also use the trip as research for film projects. The government agreed, going so far as to fund the trip, pay for the film's production, and even financially guarantee it against losses.
In addition to Walt and his wife Lillian, the eighteen-member group (the El Grupo of the movie's title), includes several familiar Disney legends, among them animator Frank Thomas, designers Lee and Mary Blair, artist Herb Ryman, story man Bill Cottrell, and Composer Chuck Wolcott. Over ten weeks, the group traveled to Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Chile. They toured the countries, met with politicians, local artists, and average citizens. The attended premieres and special events held in their honor. The lived it up, but also longed for home, and drew and drew and drew.
The documentary tells this story using some of the footage taken by the group itself during its tour, juxtaposed against footage of how those locations look today. Disney experts and historians narrate the tale, along with relatives of the members of El Grupo who read the letters they sent home during their trip.
While I'm glad the filmmakers opt not to create artificial drama in the story, they seem to go too far in downplaying both the conflicts that led to the trip and the events that followed it. Both the war and, worse, the strife at the studio or only lightly touched upon to kick off the tour and rarely revisited. The outcome of the strike and the makeup of the studio Walt returned to are similarly mentioned in passing.
Additionally, there's much too brief of a mention of Mary Blair having an artistic rebirth on the trip. She leaves a very skilled, but relatively conventional artist, and comes back will a style all her own - a dynamic colorist and bold designer who becomes Walt's favorite artist and world-famous illustrator. What did Mary Blair see or feel that caused this transformation? Did she never write about or speak about the trip and how it inspired her? While we hear letters from several members of El Grupo, Mary Blair's recollections, sadly, never come up.
Instead we get far too many lingering shots of the South American locations Walt and the team visited as they appear today. There's no context for them, really. There's no attempt to tie in current circumstances in any of these locations with the time period of the trip itself. The only serve to pad out a story that, frankly, unfolds a little slowly as it is.
The South American trip succeeds in many ways. Genuine good will is generated between America and the South American nations. Though Walt remains disillusioned by the strike, he returns to the studios prepared to move on. Saludos Amigos is a hit in the U.S. and South America (though the historians agree, it's far from a true Disney classic). The story is inherently interesting, though Walt & El Grupo occasionally loses focus and muddies the tale.
Because of the subject matter, hardcore Disney fans will not want to miss it (but they will wish it was a little shorter and sharper).
I rate Walt & El Grupo 5 out of 6 mice:
If you'd like to buy Walt & El Grupo for yourself: