In this ostensibly superficial, altogether dazzling production about three birds in Central and South America, Disney’s near-commercial implosion arises like an avian on fire in arguably the company’s most surrealistic insurrection. Trapped in the perdition of nonexistent budgets, Disney Animation went vagabond and took a trip to, and a cue or two from, the superstars at Termite Terrace (read: Looney Tunes) with a deliberately unfussy, anarchic production for which out-of-control effusions of rhapsodic color was the only reasonable aesthetic partner. Pointless though it seems, The Three Caballeros is in fact a vanguard of the company’s continued artistic experimentation and their hunger for something a little more allegro.
An astride goodwill gesture from America to their friends south of the border meant to pump up support for WWII in Latin American countries, The Three Caballeros is a tour through Latin culture (“culture” in the most nebulous, superficial sense of the word) that is noticeably untroubled and heedless. Textured loosely around Donald Duck receiving a parade of presents which include his old buddy, a cigar-chomping parrot named Jose Carioca, and a new friend in the pistol-packing lanky red rooster Panchito, a Mexican cowboy, the actual flow of the film subscribes less to narrative edicts than the tottering, cascading river of the moment.
Indeed, the spasmodic edifice wastes no time dropping the pseudo-narrative like a bad habit of Hollywood realism. Right from the beginning, it stops to bask in parsimonious bundles of goodwill – literally presents in the film’s diegesis – “The Cold-Blooded Penguin” and “The Flying Gauchito”, two proto-Fractured Fairytales shorts, endearingly caricatured rocketships draped in liberated colors. More or less the cartoons that come before the feature, they are nominally disconnected from the three titular characters’ exploits in Latin America but they also synergistically preamble a film of similarly carefree constant-energy and scatterbrained quick-footedness.
The film’s mantra, the acme of its energy-incarnate, is the surrealistic title song, animated liberatingly by Ward Kimball, the most blissfully disinterested in realism among Disney’s Nine Old Men. A nonsense song where each line segues energetically, but not logically, into the next one, Kimball’s youthful touch was to animate each line in a semi-literal fashion (to animate what each line depicts) only to evaporate the animation in time to spontaneously visualize the next line, furnishing a spastic cocaine-high more than a song. Strung along like a hang-out picture, The Three Caballeros is liberated from the stale, arid edutainment intentions of Saludos Amigos and left to run amok with a stammering, compositionally uninhibited mettle that would appease even Chuck Jones. The tone, deliriously surrealistic, even nosedives into naughty frivolity with a perverse underwire that unmistakably suggests Donald’s sexual urges and more or less slathers them over the screen in insouciant blasts of psychedelic, kaleidoscopic imagery, all of it giddy and secreting joy out of every orifice.
Although the rhapsodic Fantasia and the impressionistic Bambi from a handful of years earlier – when the money was flowing with less inhibition – are in their own ways more obvious disjunctions from the white and black, minimally motile tableaux of Walt Disney’s earlier productions starring Mickey Mouse and friends, the go-for-broke, happy-go-lucky The Three Caballeros is also a distinct encroachment on new territory. With the previous year’s Saludos Amigos more a test-run for this wonderfully woolly production, this 1944 feature not only salvaged the animation giant’s reputation when times were tough but found Uncle Walt still massaging untold wonders of variegated style out of his art. A 180 degree turn from the splendid restfulness of Bambi, this unassuming lesser masterpiece of geometry and color is no less fantastically experimental in more fanciful ways, especially in its emphasis on urges and impulses rather than traditional structure.
So it goes without saying that Disney was unabashedly in the middle of a run of pragmatic stay-afloat gestures here, a far cry from the innocent, often non-corporate personal flights of fancy the company produced a mere three years beforehand. But if their head was now running the show at the expense of their heart, their eyes were still in the fight for the company’s soul. The dream that they could do anything and society would follow them had been shattered and strewn about the ground, but that didn’t stop them from dreaming in spite of their better senses.