In 1941, Disney was asked to make a goodwill tour of South America by Nelson Rockefeller, Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs: the government hoped the popularity of the Disney characters could counter pro-Axis sentiment there. Walt was reluctant. He was not a particularly outgoing man, and he was facing what he would later describe as his worst time: A third of his employees had walked out in a bitterly fought strike, the War had cut off his revenues from Europe, and he owed the Bank of America $3.4 million. The government agreed to underwrite the tour expenses, so Disney left Los Angeles in August, 1941, with an entourage of 16 artists dubbed “El Grupo” for Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Director Theodore Thomas, whose father, the celebrated animator Frank Thomas, was a member of the group has drawn on letters, photographs, new footage of places the artists visited, and interviews with people who welcomed Disney and their descendants for the documentary Walt & El Grupo. Thomas uncovered a treasure trove of 16mm footage from the tour. It shows not the genial, avuncular Walt who hosted Disneyland and The Wonderful World of Color, but the energetic artist of 39 who had built a small studio into the most celebrated in the world and transformed the art of animation. When Walt poses in local costumes or clowns for the camera, the viewer can almost hear his mind whirring as he takes in everything around him. At 106 minutes, Walt & El Grupo feels a little long and it rambles in a few places, but it presents an intriguing vision of a largely forgotten chapter in the history of animation and inter-American relations. (Rated PG, suitable for ages 10 and older: tobacco and alcohol use).

Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Year: 2008
Release Date: November 30, 2010
Run time: 106 minutes
Rating: PG

Audio: DTS-HD MA lossless 5.1 mix
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Disc Spec: 1 BD50 / 1 DVD
Region: A

“Walt & El Grupo, The Untold Adventures”, is the story of Walt, Lily (his wife) and “The Group” of 16 hand-picked artists and support personnel, during a relatively unknown trip to South America in 1941. It was the genesis of the two “Good Neighbor” movies, “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros.”

1941 was a particularly hard year for Walt. After the successes of Snow White and Pinnochio, he had a semi-failure with Fantasia in 1940,and as work was being completed on Dumbo in 1941, union organizers struck the Disney Company.

At the same time, WWII in Europe was raging, and he lost the financing of many of the European banks he was working with, leaving the studio (and Walt) over 4 million dollars in debt.

Also during the same time, the US Government was worried about the Nazi influence down in South America, especially in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru. They sent a number of “Good Will Ambassadors” to South America, to try and win over the people and away from Nazi Germany. Many weren’t successful.

They asked Walt to do a trip, but declined, he didn’t want to go down to South America just to shake hands. But then, this *was* the State Department watching a war in Europe, so they offered additional incentives, including taking a number of people to do research for future movies as well as the underwriting of those movies.

Add up those three events, and Walt was on a 10-week adventure below the equator. (Okay, mostly below the equator.) That’s what this documentary is about.

The movie is directed (and commented on) by Theodore Thomas, son of Frank Thomas (not the baseball player) and follows Walt’s trip through South America in present day. Some portions seem overly tedious, the film probably could have been a few minutes shorter…

It’s produced by The Walt Disney Family Foundation Films, so there’s a lot of private and archival film footage (including footage from Walt’s 16mm movie camera), as well as correspondence from different members of El Grupo to family back home.

This is more in the vein of a talking head documentary, and Thomas takes you to locations in South America as they are today (with some *remarkable* present day to 1941 (and vice-versa) transitions), panning pictures using a multi-plane camera simulation and interviews with surviving people (or the sons or daughters in some cases) who Walt had an influence on.
Movie Content: 9/10

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary – Director Theodore Thomas and Historian J.B. Kaufman
  • Photos In Motion – How the photos literally came to life
  • From The Director’s Cut – 3 different segments taking you deeper into the story
  • Saludos Amigos – Original theatrical version
  • Original Theatrical Trailers: Saludos Amigos (1942); The Three Caballeros (1944)

Special Features: 7/10

Final Thoughts

Overall a well put together documentary, but you may want to rent it first before deciding to buy it. Having seen most of this before was my disappointment.
Overall Rating: 8/10