forgotten moments in pop culture: when disney used animation to help fight fascism

75 years ago, Disney made a film set in South America to help fight fascism. Perhaps the President needs to see it today.

by Douglas Greenwood
03 March 2017, 10:00am

Walt Disney was no stranger to fantastical beauty. Even in his early days, the famed animator had already delved into the realms of Germanic fables and puppets coming to life, managing to win the hearts of millions by offering them escapism while reality looked bleak. It would make sense, then, that they would eventually take their storytelling towards a colourful, lively continent like South America. But the tale behind 1942's Saludos Amigos, Disney's 'part documentary, part fable' vision of the continent, is a strange, overlooked and overtly political one, carrying a troublingly timely importance 75 years on.

Look back to 1933, when President Roosevelt was in power. That year, he had implemented a 'Good Neighbor Policy': a promise that the US would avoid involving themselves in the actions of South American governments. But eight years later, at the height of a World War that the US were about to jump in on, the impact of fascist regimes were swiftly bleeding across the Atlantic.

Support for far right groups was growing in a number of countries, and Argentina's Juan Bautista Molina, an ultranationalist who had just become the country's military attaché for Germany, was one of a few fervent South American supporters of the Nazi regime. This potentially spelled disaster for their neighbours, who needed to find a way stop the spread of terrifying, far-right movements.

But with so much political conflict going on around them, Roosevelt would have to adopt a more gentle approach to stop that relationship from turning sour. In the eyes of the American government, the possibility of a political uprising could only be quashed by one person: the world's most beloved cartoon animator.

At the time, Walt Disney and his team were frantically searching for guaranteed success in a precarious cultural climate. They might be considered highlights in the Disney roster now, but when they were first released during World War Two, Bambi and Fantasia both struggled to make money thanks to the closure of the European film markets. Then in 1941, the night before the US entered World War Two, Roosevelt made the call. He offered the studio the chance to create a celluloid tapestry that would paint South America in a positive, vibrant light. Post Depression, the whole world had fallen under Disney's spell, and the company was well aware of the excitement that could stem from South American fans seeing the creators of Donald Duck and Goofy appear in their homeland. It was a simple idea: a government funded 'good will' trip involving a team of Disney's finest animators, colourists and composers, as well as the man himself to act as a brilliant ambassador of the all-American, capitalist dream.

With its marrying of a left field, 'docu-fable' structure, inventive visual flares and a flamboyant, Oscar-nominated score, Saludos Amigos is the comely portrait of South America that grew out from the good will trip; one that nobody - perhaps not even Disney themselves - expected to be so beautiful. Rhythmic, simple and acting as a beautiful love letter to the continent, it moves from energetic postcard vistas of Donald Duck dancing through the sands of Copacabana beach, to shapeshifting tropical plants that evolve into striking birds of paradise.

The film is split into four fantastical segments that merge Disney's trademark fantasy with charming anecdotes on the reality of everyday life there. From parables on resilience in the Chilean mountains (that are told through the eyes of a plucky young mail plane trying to deliver some important letters), to charming anecdotes on llamas and tradition in Lake Titicaca, it could risk becoming a series of laboured historical essays in the wrong hands; the kind that are beamed into classroom televisions sending students into a snooze. In reality, Saludos Amigos makes perfect use of Disney's iconic characters and their appreciation of colour, rhythm and movement. The production team spent several months crossing the continent; meeting residents, dancing with them. They were met with love from the crowds that came out to say hello, and that positive attitude permeates the makeup of every smile-inducing scene.

Despite the fact that its bold imagination outweighs its somewhat laborious political backstory, the film has become a lost gem in the studio's collection of treasured pieces. The troupe of cartoons that make an appearance in it may sell the t-shirts in Disney World, but they fail to pull in audiences like the traditional fairytales do. The company's heroes and heroines will always prevail; the ones who fight battles and overcome challenges like Belle or Ariel.

Nowadays, you're unlikely to find the film on any Disney obsessive list of favourites - but that doesn't devalue its artistic genius and quiet cultural impact. Even the Disney-inspired fashion god Bobby Abley channeled the film's cigar-smoking parrot José Carioca in his carnival-inspired autumn/winter 16 collection.

But as a new US President sets out to build an expensive and divisive wall between North and South America, it seems that Roosevelt's 'good neighbor' sentiment has been forgotten about. It's a sign of the testing times ahead when we find ourselves referring to 75-year-old films geared towards children as examples of unity and friendship; creativity and conservation.

With every brick that Trump places between 'his' country and theirs; or every paper he signs that cuts funding to the arts; or every statement that he makes claiming that global warming is a mere myth - that rare sense of appreciation felt by the people of America in both the North and South dies a little. It could be easy to dismiss films like Saludos Amigos as mere Hollywood fodder, but that political subtext now, more than ever, must be recognised and reconsidered for the Trump era. 


Text Douglas Greenwood

Think Pieces