Plus or Minus #009: The Three Caballeros

Plus or Minus is a series detailing and analyzing every feature film now streaming on Disney+. It combines the unique history all these films share, their cultural impacts, and their qualities, or lack thereof. From timeless classics, to acquired hits, to DCOMs, no stone will be left unturned.

In the previous Plus or Minus, we looked at Saludos Amigos, Disney’s propaganda piece made for FDR’s Good Neighbor policy. Long story short, Nelson Rockefeller gave Disney a goodwill tour of Central and South America. This was an avenue for Disney cartoons, which were already loved in South America, to celebrate their heritage and culture, as well as create stronger relations between North and South America during World War II. During Walt’s goodwill tour, the crew saw inspiration for several other shorts that could not be made due to time constraints. Many of them based on Mexico, which didn’t get any representation in Saludos Amigos. But luckily, Saludos Amigos was a financial success. Not just in North America, but also in Central and South American territories.

And so, with new shorts, familiar characters, and the beauty of Mexico, The Three Caballeros was born. And Three Caballeros was certainly a more ambitious piece. It’s longer, albeit only 71 minutes, and features somewhat innovative animation techniques. So at the very least, one can argue it’s a strong improvement from Saludos Amigos. But how does the film as a whole stack up? When it comes to Plus or Minus, where does The Three Caballeros stand?

The First Present

Like Saludos Amigos, there’s no real narrative. Rather, an amalgamation of shorts. However, there is a clear wraparound for these segments. Specifically, it’s Donald Duck’s birthday, and he has three different presents to open. Yes, a very exciting premise. Donald’s first present is a film projector that presents a series of different shorts.

The Cold-Blooded Penguin

A little penguin named Pablo is tired of the Arctic cold and leaves his home to find a warmer climate. And his adventure leads him across South America, ending with him in the Galapagos Islands. It’s a very basic premise for a very mediocre short. Sterling Holloway’s narration is fun to listen to, but the plot is uninteresting, the comedy is underdeveloped, and its ending is a real abrupt one. Pablo finds a home, he finds himself yearning to be back with his penguin family…and that’s it. There’s no resolution; it just goes to the next short. It’s a very strange structure and is easily the most forgettable piece.

Aves Raras

After “The Cold-Blooded Penguin”, a new narrator, Fred Shields, takes charge. And it’s through Shields we learn about the various rare birds (“Aves Raras” in Spanish) of South America. For the most part, it’s amusing. All the birds are memorable, have solid designs, and a cute little gag with them. Of course, the most famous bird of the bunch is the Aracuan Bird, an eccentric little animal that loves to torment others. This character pops up a few more times, pestering Donald and his friends. His presence isn’t that common, but there are some chuckles when he appears, though not all that a major presence. Nothing in this segment is especially great, but there are a couple laughs here.

The Flying Gauchito

In another odd transition, the narrator for “Aves Maras” narrates this segment, where he is the grown adult version of the main character, a young boy with a flying donkey. When the boy, an aspiring gaucho, discovers this flying burro, he submits himself into a race against other gauchos. It’s certainly an alright short. It has a solid hook, the pacing is decent, and there’s an okay friendship between the boy and the burro. The problem is its ending. Like “The Cold-Blooded Penguin”, this short just stops with no real strong resolution or pay-off. It’s a pretty anti-climactic way to end this piece and the first present segment as a whole. But thankfully, Three Caballeros picks up steam immediately after.

The Second Present

Donald’s next gift, a book, is where we see the return of Jose Carioca. Introduced in Saludos Amigos, the film immediately picks up steam with his introduction. His fun-loving attitude and energy is fun to watch, especially when he shrinks Donald down so they can travel inside the book. This leads to the best segment of the entire piece.

Baia

After a brief train ride, Donald and Jose find themselves in the state of Bahia, though titled “Baia” in the movie. The duo meet up with some of the locals and take part in a samba celebration. And it’s here where the film really shines. The energy is infectious, and the backgrounds really pop. They serve as a great backdrop for the insanity to come and bring a lively atmosphere.

Image from "The Three Caballeros". Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

The one notable thing about this segment was the integration of live-action with animation. Led by Brazilian singer Aurora Miranda, Donald and Jose dance and chat with actual humans. The techniques are quite impressive, as the interactions between both mediums are well-integrated and consistent. There’s a lot of fun little moments here, and it’s clear the animators knew how to make these interactions fun and believable for audiences. It progressively gets more and more surreal as the party atmosphere infests the segment, and it all caps into one strong finale. It’s a blast to watch and honestly, it alone makes the film worth a viewing.

The Third Present

After that one bombastic and fun-filled adventure, we return to the final president. Inside is a Mexican rooster named Panchito Pistoles. A firearm-obsessed oddball with an explosive energy, he leads Donald and Jose to the titular musical number. And it’s a really great one. The character animation is fast-paced and energized, the colors are vibrant, and the lyrics are intensely memorable. It also leads very well to the final moments of the film, which become the most surreal and crazy.

Las Posadas

This details a Mexican holiday tradition. A group of children celebrate Christmas through re-enacting the moment where Mary and Joseph try to search for a room at the inn. It’s a sweet, mildly educational moment, but the best part about it is the art direction. The designs of the kids, with basic forms and pastel colors, is done by legendary Disney artist Mary Blair. Her work, especially in titles like Alice in Wonderland, are absolutely gorgeous to watch, with bright colors combined with abstract designs. The segment isn’t very long, but it is quite sweet and a beauty to look at.

Mexico

On a flying serape, Panchito gives the other birds a tour of Mexico. And on this journey, they continue to interact with live-action humans, ending with Donald Duck trying to pine for some pretty girls at the beach. Yes, that’s the premise of the segment. It starts out as another educational piece before devolving into a weird, out-there moment. Donald’s live-action escapades are fun to watch, and the way live-action props blend with the animated character are really impressive to watch. It’s certainly an odd segment, but there’s so much creativity and innovation here that it is fun to watch.

You Belong to My Heart and Donald’s Surreal Reverie

For the grand finale, Donald is serenaded by Mexican singer Dora Luz in a surreal cacophony of flowers and colors. And it all leads to one bonkers conclusion, full of fast-paced music, animation/live-action blending, a lot of odd dancing, characters transforming. It’s an absolute madhouse of colors and sounds by the end…and then the movie ends. It’s abrupt, but an absolute blast of a conclusion. The animators clearly have fun with each individual moment, and while it is a touch overlong, it certainly gives audiences something exciting to latch on to. Again, to say nothing of the colors and character animation.

Image from "The Three Caballeros". Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

The Film’s Fatal Flaw and Saving Grace

If you’ve followed this Plus or Minus on The Three Caballeros long enough, you can gather the biggest issue here: its structure.  While Fantasia and Saludos Amigos have different segments, there’s a basic format to the whole piece: A live-action moment, followed by an animated short. At first, it starts out as a hodgepodge of animated shorts. Then it goes into a weird party film, full of singing and dancing. After that, it transitions into an educational piece. And then, we find the film end with more dancing, with surreal imagery to boot. All of these moments are a touch overlong and don’t really gel into anything coherent. If anything, it feels as if the Disney team were making up the movie as they went along.

In a way, that’s a deterrent. And I’m sure many will be frustrated at this lopsided approach to the film. But for me, the odd structure and inconsistent pacing is where a lot of the film’s charm comes in. Not only is this film an avenue for surreal, expressive, and fast-paced animation, there’s an idea you don’t know what you’re going to get here.

There’s an unpredictability to the entire piece, and while these segments are hit-and-miss, everything is at least creative and ambitious. There’s a sense that Walt and his crew wanted to do Saludos Amigos with a bigger budget, and this was a perfect avenue to do so. And through some fun moments and an oddball structure, I feel it succeeds in exactly what it wants to do.

Plus or Minus?

Giving a Plus or Minus to The Three Caballeros is tough. Simply put, this film is not for everyone. It’s lopsided, bizarre, and a bit too abrasive at points. But as an avenue for surreal visuals and wild animation? As a dive into Latin American culture, albeit from a very whitewashed perspective? As an experience where a group of animators are having fun and trying out different techniques? It’s an absolute blast, and so many individual moments are so much fun to watch it makes it worth a stream all on its own.

While some may disagree, between Plus or Minus, The Three Caballeros is a solid enough Plus, especially for classic Disney fans.

NEXT TIME: Miracle on 34th Street becomes the first of several Christmas and 20th Century Fox titles populating the service. We all know the film, but is it truly deserving of a Plus? Or is it just a Minus?

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