Deneb does The Three Caballeros

“Arapa-papapapapapapa padiya, araqua houpa! Houpa! Houpa! Arapa-papapapapapapapa, Arapa-papapapapapapa padiya, araqua houpa! Houpa! Houpa!…”

The Scoop: 1944 G, directed by Norman Ferguson, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and Harold Young, and starring Clarence Nash, Jose Oliveira, Joaquin Garay, Pinto Colvig, Sterling Holloway, Aurora Miranda, Carmen Molina and Dora Luz.

Tagline: UTTERLY FASCINATING! ENTIRELY DIFFERENT!

Summary Capsule: Donald Duck discovers that Latin America is mighty nifty. That’s… really the best I can do.

Deneb’s Rating: WHOA THE COLORS!

Deneb’s Review: I… I… holy crap.

Seriously, I’m a little overwhelmed here. Just how does one describe a film like this?

Oh well, I’ll give it a shot. Let’s see what happens.

I’ve already explained in my last review about the goodwill/inspirational tour of Latin America that Walt Disney and his animators went on during WW2 as a means of staying buddy-buddy with the folks down south. It gave us Saludos Amigos, which was, at the time, a largish hit and a big moneymaker (at least partly because it was subsidized by the government).

Now, money was money, and Walt could not afford to pass up an opportunity for making a little more of it, especially during the tough times of WW2. So since Amigos had proved a success, he decided to make a sequel – a bit larger in scale, a bit higher in quality, and overall more elaborate and ambitious. That oughtta rake in the bucks, yessiree.

Did it work? Well, not really. But in any case, that extra effort wound up producing The Three Caballeros, one of Disney’s strangest, trippiest, most gloriously bizarre efforts to date.

Oh, where to begin? Well, the plot is usually a safe bet.

The plot.

Hmm.

The plot, you say.

Well, I guess it’s kind of got a plot, yeah.

OK, the story, such as it is, goes like this – it’s Donald Duck’s birthday, and he’s just gotten a whopping big package in the mail from his “friends in Latin America”. Opening it, he finds that it contains three presents, and he eagerly starts to open them – and therein lies the plot.

Really, that’s it. It’s him opening presents.

All right, all right, that’s not fair; they’re really good presents. The first one is a movie projector (this is what there was before DVD and VHS, kids), on which he watches a few short films about birds – well, birds and birdy things, anyway. The second is, basically, his old pal Jose Carioca (Jose Oliveira) from the previous film, who takes him on a quick trip to the Brazilian city of Baia. Finally, the two open the last present, which unleashes Panchito (Joaquin Garay), a fun-loving Mexican rooster. Together, the three go on a whirlwind tour of Mexico, where Donald learns to his delight that pretty girls cannot resist the Duck – and he can’t resist them, either.

If it sounds like I’m being a little, well, vague in my descriptions so far, I assure you that it’s intentional. The Three Caballeros works best when you have only the haziest idea going into it as to just what it is, so that the first time around you can savor the jaw-dropped, bug-eyed, ‘what the hell am I watching’ wonder of it all. For me to ruin that for you would be a crime. A crime, I say!

That’s not to say that there’s nothing to be talked about, though. The first third of the movie, for instance, is really pretty standard stuff; it’s like a warm-up for what’s to come. It’s like they’re going ‘OK, you’re going to get a headache if you dive straight into the crazy, so here’s a little normal to start you out. Now here’s a little bit of crazy… now some normal… now some more crazy… normal… crazy… little less normal… crazier… kinda-sorta normal… OK, WE HAVE OFFICIALLY HIT BUG%^#$! WOO!’

So let’s take a look at a bit of the normal – namely, some of the stuff Donald watches on the projector. The first short, “The Cold-Blooded Penguin”, is atypically set at the South Pole – well, mainly at the South Pole. It’s about a penguin named Pablo who is far too sensitive to cold, so he decides to move to the tropics – if he can get there, of course. The second, “The Flying Gauchito”, is set in Uruguay, and features a young Gaucho (or “Gauchito”) who manages to catch/befriend a flying donkey. In between, there’s some stuff about birds – regular ones, that is.

These are all interesting for different reasons. For one thing, while they’re all narrated over, they have different narrators at the helm, which help give them each a distinctive flavor. The ‘main’ narrator, who introduces the other two segments and talks about the birdies, is… well, honestly, I’m not sure whether it’s someone named Frank Graham or our old pal Fred Shields from Saludos, as IMdB credits both of them as “Narrator”. Maybe it’s both of them, I dunno. If it is, they have identical voices, and they’re neither one terribly intriguing, so forget about them. Let’s move on.

The penguin one is much more involving, since it features Sterling Holloway (introduced as “Professor Holloway”), who you will recognize immediately, since he did scads of work for Disney and had one of the most distinctive voices ever. (He’s best known as the original Winnie-the-Pooh.) The man knew his stuff, and he does a good job here – Pablo is imbued with real character despite the fact that he never says a word. As for the Gauchito sequence, they use a rather interesting narrative device – the narrator is actually Gauchito grown up. That in itself is not all that revelatory, I know, but he’s not just narrating his past life, he’s directing it! Gauchito can hear him, and often has to be hectored and scolded by his older self into doing the right thing so that the story can continue. Combine this with the fact that much of the narrative is delivered in rhyme, and you have something that’s memorable, to say the least.

Now like I said, that’s the normal part of the movie. The rest of it is decidedly less normal, although the weirdness comes and goes in waves. The Baia sequence, for instance, is only moderately weird, and the travelogue footage of Mexico is almost pedestrian – but in between you get little bursts of weirdness that tickle your appetite for more, and then it all crashes down in a glorious crescendo of Latin-flavored bizarritude.

Along the way, you get catchy rhythms, wildly creative visuals, and some excellent examples of integrating animation and live action. (They’re not perfect, mind you, but for the time they’re pretty darn impressive.) What more could one ask for?

Well, characters, for one – which I guess is my cue to talk about the titular Caballeros. Let’s start with Donald.

There’s nothing too terribly significant to say about Donald’s character here – you all know who he is; he’s Donald Duck. Clarence Nash delivers his usual fine performance that to this day makes him the definitive Duck Man, complete with all the mannerisms one would expect. He’s perhaps a little less feisty than usual, and a bit more open and credulous, but that’s only to be expected; he is, after all, the audience surrogate here.

The main thing that differentiates this depiction of Donald from all the others is his lust for the ladies. Oh, you thought I was kidding with that “pretty girls and the Duck” bit? I was not at all. Not one little bit.

I am dead serious here, roughly the last third of this movie is almost nothing but Donald chasing girls. Live action girls. Very pretty live-action girls. Lots and lots of them. There’s sort of a preview of this in the “Os Quindins de Yaya” sequence (which, incidentally, is pretty darn good in its own right and one of the highlights of the film – no more details, check it out), but once he gets to Mexico, he goes crazy. You don’t generally think of Donald Duck having a sex drive, but that’s clearly what’s going on here. Donald is going crazy with passion over beautiful women, and he is running after them wanting to hug them and kiss them and… do other stuff that Disney films cannot mention. It’s a good thing that none of these spicy Latinas seem to object to the attentions of a cartoon waterfowl, because otherwise, things could have gotten… ugly.

Here’s the thing, though – this does not ruin the film. I mean, you’d think it would, wouldn’t you? Donald Duck chasing after women for twenty-odd minutes – novelty value aside, that sounds kind of dull, and possibly a little bit skeevy. Ah, but you have not reckoned with the power of Disney at its craziest, my friend. Donald’s quest for the lovelies is only thematically what’s going on – it’s couched in and surrounded by pure glorious animated insanity, and that is the part that I am under no circumstances going to spoil for you by talking about it, because it would be a crime. A crime most heinous and foul.

Ahem. Anyway. Let’s move on.

Next, we have Jose. I love Jose. I realize that his… er, Brazilian-ness would have made it a little difficult for Disney to make him a regular Donald supporting character, but I honestly wish they’d tried, because he is just so cool. He was cool in Saludos, and he’s especially cool here.

Jose provides the Disney animated universe with a character type that they had not featured up to that point – the man about town. With his Panama hat, kid gloves, umbrella and cigar, he is the era’s epitome of a stylish gent. More importantly, he is a bon vivant and connoisseur, and the best example of both – he loves life and the finer things it has to offer, and he is enthusiastic about sharing the joy of them. He is, basically, the guy you want by your side when you’re in a foreign country that you’re unfamiliar with.

All of this would be meaningless, however, if the character was saddled with an uninspired vocal performance. Fortunately, that is not the case – from what little I can find out about him, Jose Oliveira was an energetic and accomplished singer and performer in real life, and he invests the little green parrot with every bit of that energy.  He sings, he dances, he belts out impromptu musical numbers on his umbrella (it’s a cartoon; roll with it) – he knows black magic! He’s generally fun to be around. Even when he’s not doing much of anything, he’s just such a nice guy that you can’t help but like him.

So OK, Donald’s fine, Jose’s awesome – what about Panchito? Panchito’s all right. Of the three, he’s probably my least favorite, but given the numbers involved here, that ain’t sayin’ much – it’s not like he’s last in a class of 500 or something. I just don’t like him as much as Donald and Jose, and that’s some pretty tough competition right there.

If I had to describe Panchito in one word, I suppose it would be ‘enthusiastic’. Joaquin Garay gives him an infectious energy that makes him seem larger than life – the first thing we hear from him is a wild whoop of excitement. He’s the life of the party, the wild extrovert – even in his quieter moments, he is never unenthused. He’s a rootin’, tootin’, gun-shootin’ vaquero who would probably be a little exhausting to be around in real life, and honestly, that’s pretty much it in terms of characterization. He’s nowhere near as inspired a character as Jose, but he does work well as part of the ensemble, and let’s face it, ‘The Two Caballeros’ would not sound as good. (Plus, he’s the guy who sings the title song, without which the movie would probably be nowhere near as well remembered, so we owe him a debt of thanks.)

Aside from the Caballeros themselves, there is only one other character worth mentioning in this movie, and that’s the Aracuan. The Aracuan is a crazy little jungle bird who is really only in the movie for about five minutes, but boy oh boy are they a memorable five. He’s basically an anarchic force of chaos – he breaks the fourth wall, he plays around with cartoon physics, he does the impossible six times before breakfast, all the while zipping around and singing his insanely catchy little song. He has no effect on the plot (even considering how loosely that’s defined here), but it would not feel the same without him. He’s odd, but awesome.

Now, am I saying this movie is perfect? When have I ever said that? No, it’s not – it does have its flaws. Despite how fast it can zip along at times, there are definitely a few sequences that drag a little, especially during the Mexican part of the film. The dancing scenes, for instance, are all right for what they are, but we really didn’t need more than one of them – two is overplay, feels repetitive, and slows the movie down to a crawl.

Furthermore, if you go into the film expecting the standard sort of Disney plot and characters, you will be sorely disappointed. There’s no villain in this movie, and not really any heroes, either – it’s just Donald and his pals bopping around. And the sheer insanity that TTC ultimately dissolves into may not appeal to everybody – it doesn’t so much end as build to a climax and then explode, and hey presto, it’s over with. It’s never bothered me too much, but apparently it gets on some people’s nerves. And there’s no denying that the film does ultimately present a rather dated and sanitized version of the countries it represents, especially by today’s standards. If you prefer your Disney films to stick to fairy tales and the like, you may want to give this one a miss.

But if you’re up for a little adventure in your vintage entertainment and want to see a bizarre harum-scarum Latin-flavored mixed-chocolates hallucinatory sort of flick where Donald Duck runs after sexy live-action ladies in between bouts of explosive cartoon creativity, then Three Caballeros is the best of the bunch. In fact, it is the bunch. For better or for worse, it’s one Disney movie that everyone should see at least once.

Fun as it is, though, you’d better hope you don’t get presents like that on your next birthday. Imagine the mess you’d have to clean up…

While normally the closest of friends, when the Caballeros started to quarrel over the last tortilla chip, things could get ugly.

Intermission!

  • There was some talk of releasing a third movie in the series, sparked by complaints from several Latin American countries that hadn’t been focused on, including, most prominently, Cuba. (This was pre-Castro, when we still liked the place.) The movie was tentatively titled Cuban Carnival, and would have featured a fourth Caballero, a miniature rooster of the sort used in cockfights. Planned sequences including a line-dance with a group of dancing cigars, a cockfight and a carnival scene. It was ultimately called off, but ah, the glorious weirdness that might have been…
  • While the character of Jose Carioca is fairly obscure in the States, he is a superstar in his home country of Brazil, where comics starring him have been popular for decades. He is commonly referred to as “Ze Carioca” (‘Ze’ being a common shortening of Jose in Portuguese) and has obtained a position similar to that of his good friend Donald, complete with nephews that live with him, a girlfriend and a supporting cast.
  • The “Three Caballeros” song is based around the melody of  “Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes”, a song composed for a Mexican film of the same name. When Panchito sings in Spanish at the beginning and end of it, he is actually singing the chorus of “Ay, Jalisco”.
  • The sequence where the two “rival” dancers briefly turn into fighting roosters may be a reference to Capoiera, a Brazilian martial art that incorporates elements of dance and is partially styled around cockfighting.
  • The woman playing the titular Yaya in the “Os Quindins de Yaya” sequence is Aurora Miranda, sister of Carmen Miranda and an accomplished entertainer in her own right.
  • The series of shorts in the beginning was apparently planned to last longer in initial drafts, as there is a cartoon short called “The Pelican and the Snipe” which originated as a sequence in the movie. It also features Sterling Holloway as the narrator, and would likely have followed directly on the heels of “The Cold-Blooded Penguin.”
  • Jose claims that Yaya “sells cookies”, but in fact (according to the title of the song, at least), she is selling Quindims, a popular Brazilian dessert that is something like a custard.
  • “Mexico” is the only entirely original song in the movie – the rest are all pre-existing Latin American songs that were translated into English, used as they were, or had the melody used as the basis for new English lyrics, as in “Three Caballeros”.

Groovy Quotes:

Jose: A little black magic will fix you up!

Panchito: Some fun, hey kid?

Gaucho: He acted just like he was loco, but I was an expert, of course. He thought he could throw this Gauchito, but he soon found out who was the boss! Psst! Gauchito!
(Gauchito looks up)
Who is the boss?

Donald: Slap me with a boogie beat, Joe!

Narrator: Well, that’s human nature for you – even if you’re a penguin.

Panchito: YAAAAAAAAAAA-WOO!

Song lyrics: We’re three happy chappies/With snappy serapes/You’ll find us beneath our sombreros/We’re brave and we’ll stay so/We’re bright as a peso/Who says so?/We say so/The Three Caballeros!

Jose: He is meya ma loco – a very stupid fellow.

Donald: Hiya, toots!

Panchito: Even the sky is full of romantic!

Aracuan: Arapa-papapapapapapa padiya, araqua houpa! Houpa! Houpa! Arapa-papapapapapapapa, Arapa-papapapapapapa padiya, araqua houpa! Houpa! Houpa!…

Panchito: (singing) We sing and we samba/We shout “Ay Caramba!”
Jose: What means “Ay Caramba”?
Panchito: Oh yes; I don’t know…

Jose: You kill my head!

Donald: Oh, I’m a midget! Ohhhh! You! You’re a midget, too!

Disembodied voice: Poorty girls… poorty girls… poorty girls… poorty girls…

Panchito: Look at the little wolf in duck’s clothings!

Donald: What’s happening, anyway?

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Saludos Amigos
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Fantasia
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12 Comments

  1. Ahh, one of my top five favorite Disney movies, not the least because it features my favorite character, Donald. If you can handle films that are largely plotless and seemed to have been made on large quantities of really interesting substances, this is a heck of a lot of fun. If nothing else, it sure delivers on that tagline – it is fascinating, and it’s probably one of the most “different” things Disney ever did. 😉

    • Absolutely. One tends to forget, now that the term “Disneyfication” has been in wide use for quite a while, that there was a time when Walt Disney and his employees were taken seriously not merely as producers of “kid’s movies”, but as ARTISTS. You look at their earlier films and you see the result of talented people at the top of their games rushing headlong into a field that was then brand new and filled with spectacular possibilities. I love and appreciate many of the later Disney films, but one can’t help but look back wistfully to an era when animators were giddy with excitement over the opportunity to EXPERIMENT – an opportunity which is still there, and yet all too often goes unnoticed and ignored. Sad, really.

    • I have long since come to the conclusion that when an anthropomorphic bird goes bottomless, he is regarded as fully clad by the standards of polite society. I mean, if you look at where Donald’s legs join his body, they’re clearly designed to look like they’re emerging from a THICK layer of feathers, just like on a real duck. Basically, anything he’s *ahem* got to hide is already as well-covered as if he WAS wearing pants, so why bother actually donning the garment in question? (Porky Pig, on the other hand, is just disturbing.)

      • I think that may have more to do with how Donald perceives himself than with an actual functional change. For all his Duck-ishness, he’s still basically a person living in human society (and, it seems, is not regarded as a particularly unusual person within said society, at that), so when he’s unclothed, his instinctual reaction is exactly the same as a regular person’s would be, simply because that’s what everyone else would do, and whether or not he’s functionally naked, he FEELS naked. (Plus, him covering up his chest – which would be more natural – would make him look kinda femme-y. Plus it’s funny.)

  2. I agree whole-heartedly on this one. I came across it long ago when HBO was the only movie channel and had a deal with Disney. I had seen many of the classic Disney animateds, and then Three Caballeros came on and blew my little mind. It may be why I still can sometimes appreciate a show of movie that may not be that good, but it is different enough to never be boring. Admittedly, I was shocked later to realize that Carioca was never a major character in Disney America.

    • In retrospect, it is somewhat understandable – after all, his very name identifies him as a resident of a foreign country. It’d be a little difficult to keep bringing him into contact with Donald and company, unless you had him immigrate, and somehow, I don’t think Jose living in America would work very well. (Doesn’t stop me from wishing they’d TRIED, mind you.)

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