Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Three Caballeros: Gold Classic Collection (1945)
Studio Line: Disney - Walt Disney's miracle musical FEATURE.

The ever-popular and excitable Donald Duck stars in one of his greatest adventures -- a dazzling blend of live action and classic Disney animation bursting with south-of-the-border sights and sounds!

When Donald receives a magical collection of gifts from his Latin American friends, they become his passport to a fantastic musical journey with Joe Carioca and Panchito, the charro rooster. With these experts to guide him, Donald hops, skips and jumps his way through every splash of local color -- each stop full of surprises and sensational songs!

Disney's 7th full-length animated film, The Three Caballeros is a stunning celebration of visual effects, lighthearted dance and lively Latin music. It's fine-feathered fun for the whole family!

Director: Norman Ferguson
Cast: Sterling Holloway, Clarence Nash, Joaquin Garay, Jose Olivera, Frank Graham
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture; Best Recording, 1946.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono, Spanish & French Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 16 chapters; rated G; 72 min.; $29.99; street date 5/2/00.
Supplements: "Don's Fountain Of You" & "Pueblo Pluto" Cartoons, Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C-/C-

When one examines the history of Disney's feature animation, one can see that the studio started out strong and knocked out one classic after another... until 1943. From 1937's Snow White through 1942's Bambi, each and every one of their five animated films still maintains a strong reputation. (Note to sticklers: I'm ignoring The Reluctant Dragon - sue me!)

The same cannot be said for subsequent efforts. In fact, Disney wouldn't release an animated movie that continues to enjoy a broad public profile until 1950 when the studio came back with Cinderella.

Although it may look that way, Disney weren't idle during the eight year malaise. In fact, the studio released seven essentially animated pictures from 1943 through 1949, plus two other films - Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart - that included varying amounts of animated content combined with live action narrative but essentially fell into the latter category. However, none of these had that zip that made the prior - and subsequent - offerings so compelling, so the memory of these films is left to Disney-philes like myself.

For two of Disney's Forties efforts, Walt and company looked to our neighbors to the south for inspirations; both 1943's Saludos Amigos and 1945's Three Caballeros offer looks at various aspects of the cultures of Central and South America. Disney's reasons for doing this were less than altruistic. For one, the releases of pretty much all the animated films after Snow White coincided with some well-known unpleasantries in Europe; the advent of World War II effectively shut down those lucrative markets and put a serious monetary pinch on the studios.

That wasn't a good thing, especially since these lavishly-animated films were rather expensive. Of course, roughly 60 years later, they all look like good investments, since they've returned their costs many times over, but at the time, all post Snow White films did relatively poorly and Disney had to tighten their financial belts.

As such, both SA and TC served two purposes. First, they were much cheaper to make. The animation went back to a more basic style that served the character-oriented shorts made by the studio; in fact, two Disney stars - Donald Duck and Goofy- would feature prominently in these films. Walt had famously declared that after the lavish efforts of their initial features, the studio would now only offer "meat and potatoes" animation, and these pictures were two of the first attempts at that kind of less ornate style.

Secondly, Central and South America were relatively untapped territories at the time, so Walt figured he should do whatever he could to interest these folks in his product, so why not send them a couple of big old valentines? Actually, Disney films were popular in these areas, but Walt simply wanted to push them as hard as he could, and I can't blame him; the studio really was in poor financial shape at the time.

Happily for them, these films ended up more profitable than most of the prior efforts. That's probably due as much to the lowered costs as anything else, but the unfortunate lesson taken from them was to continue to stick with these sorts of projects for the foreseeable future. That's why Disney would not produce a film with a coherent plot until Cinderella in 1950; from SA through 1949's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, each and every feature was a compilation of shorts to some degree (though some of the shorts were actually relatively long, as was the case with the two halves of Ichabod and a similarly-bifurcated program with 1947's Fun and Fancy Free).

I suppose it's ironic that projects like SA and TC were more profitable than the classics that preceded them, since so few remember the "meat and potatoes" animation and so many love the more complicated creations, but I won't slam Disney for taking the path they did. Without the belt-tightening seen in these films, the studio may not have existed long enough to create all the wonderful movies that followed in the Fifties, and without those hits, we wouldn't still see new animated pictures today. For those reasons, we have to at least be thankful that SA and TC found an audience in their day.

But is there still one for these movies in our day? Yeah, I guess, though there's a good reason these films aren't viewed in the same light as their immediate predecessors and later followers. They're generally interesting and entertaining pieces of work, but the title "Disney Classics" seems too much praise for them.

Of the two, I definitely prefer SA. It's so short that it's hard to qualify it as a feature - 42 minutes is awfully brief, though SA was supplemented with other attractions during its theatrical run - but this length seems just about right for this sort of offering; TC runs for about a half an hour longer, and it gets quite tedious.

Three Caballeros remains one of my least favorite Disney features. The film starts out very similarly to SA in that early on we find two shorts that would easily have meshed with the earlier piece. There's "Pablo", a story of an Antarctic penguin who just doesn't like the cold. The cartoon depicts Pablo's attempts to move to where the sun shines, and it's more cute than funny but I liked it nonetheless.

The next short - "The Gauchito and His Burrito" - also seems similarly charming but not especially laugh-filled. It offers a fantasy in which a young boy tries to win a horse race with a flying donkey. It's entertaining and likable.

At this point, only one significant difference exists between SA and TC: the latter dropped much of the live action footage in place of transitional scenes that show Donald Duck. It seems it's the Duck's birthday and he's received a present of some South and Central American materials, the foremost being a movie projector and screen; that's where he finds the aforementioned cartoons.

After those two shorts, however, Jose Carioca springs up and the film takes a very different turn. At that point, the entire project veers into the same direction as the "Aquarela Do Brasil" segment in SA. TC essentially becomes an elaborate, story-less musical that depicts songs and culture in which Donald, Jose and Panchito - a manic new character who appears only in this film and who rounds out the group to make them the three caballeros - romp through various scenarios. They sing songs and interact with others who dance and sing as well.

To be frank, I find these sequences clever and inventive and well-executed but ultimately tiresome and uninteresting. Much of the picture seems repetitive; no, the songs and sequences aren't identical, but they look enough alike that they all start to run together. The style worked well enough for the short in SA, but it receives too much emphasis here and the entire project goes downhill because of it. At least Fantasia offered some widely varying styles, but the same does not occur here and I honestly have a hard time making it through this film.

One notable aspect of these scenes comes from the technology used. Many of the musical sequences of TC combine live action characters and animated personalities. We think nothing of this today, but 55 years ago it was a big deal. Essentially two techniques were used. Some scenes involve rear projection; the animation was completed first then projected while the live actors worked in front of it; this works decently well but suffers from the degradation of the animated image, as it now becomes second generation. Still, considering my modern eyes are much more sophisticated in terms of special effects viewing than would have been expected at the time, the scenes work well.

The other technique seems even more successful. In those instances, the live footage was shot first and the animation was composited on top of it. This method helps eliminate the fuzziness found on the rear projected scenes, and it makes the characters integrate better with the actors. Of course, it's also more complicated and expensive, which is why it wasn't used exclusively. In any case, the technological strides made by TC were big and the film uses them effectively.

It's too bad the movie itself is a bit of a dud. TC is well-executed and technically proficient, but that doesn't alleviate the fact the material itself gets old pretty quickly. Saludos Amigos offers enough fun to withstand repeated viewings, but Three Caballeros is something I probably won't revisit too many times in the future.

The DVD:

Three Caballeros also appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. For a 55-year-old film, it looks pretty good, but some concerns knock my grade down to a "C+".

Sharpness usually looks pretty good, with most images appearing crisp and well-defined. Some softness creeps in to the animation at times, however, and things aren't as clear as one might expect. The softness reaches its greatest extreme during the scenes that combine live action and animation; in many of those instances, the cartoon characters seem fuzzier and less distinct than at other times. Nonetheless, these segments actually seem better defined than I'd expect; rear projection often results in some big problems, since it essentially means that one part of the picture is now a second-generation piece, so these parts may be flawed, but they could have been much worse.

No moiré effects or jagged edges were discerned by me. The print itself offers more flaws than I expect from Disney efforts. As with SA, it seems pretty grainy, and I also witnessed a fair amount of light speckling throughout the movie. I couldn't find evidence of any other problems like scratches or hairs, however.

Colors appear generally strong, with adequately bright and saturated hues; at times they seemed a bit noisy, but I actually think that effect stemmed from the graininess. Black levels looked very good, with some nicely dark and deep tones, and shadow detail seemed similarly positive. For a film its age, TC looks decent, but I must admit I've come to expect better than that from Disney's animated features.

The movie's monaural audio isn't bad for its era, but it does seem somewhat weak. The main issue comes from a slight distortion that affects much of the track. I noted a little edginess for the music and effects, but it's really the dialogue that suffers the most; the majority of the speech seemed intelligible but somewhat harsh and rough. This isn't much of an issue when Donald speaks - he sounds edgy under the best of circumstances - but it does present problems for the remainder of the characters.

Other than this distortion, the audio seems typical of the period. Music and effects are fairly thin and lack dynamic range but they seem reasonably clear and smooth without any shrillness. Again, the speech would be fine if it lacked the harshness; the tones appeared acceptably natural. Without the distortion, this would be a good track; as it stands, it only earns a "C-".

TC features few supplements. We find the film's theatrical trailer and we also get two very entertaining shorts: "Pueblo Pluto" (from 1949) and "Don's Fountain of Youth" (from 1953). These are connected to TC only in that they vaguely relate to South or Central American themes. This loose association doesn't bother me since the cartoons are so good, especially the terrific Duck tale.

What does bother me, however, is that this DVD could have included so much more in the way of extras. Both TC and SA had previously been packaged together in an expensive laserdisc boxed set. In many ways, SA could have been considered an "extra" on its own, but I prefer to look at the box as a double feature; after all, SA receives equal billing with TC on the cover, although the former receives much more attention.

The LD featured a wealth of information about the creation of TC, from unused concepts to details about the technical aspects of making the movie. Is there any reason these materials do not appear here? None that I can conjure. It's nice to get the two shorts found on TC - especially because they didn't appear in the LD set - but it doesn't quite replace the loss of the box's supplements.

Actually, while the fact Disney couldn't be bothered to port over already-existing supplements bothers me, I'm even more irritated that these two titles weren't packaged together. When they were initially announced, the Disney website made it appear that both TC and SA would come on the same DVD. To me, that made sense, since the concepts were interrelated and since SA is such a brief program; to ask $30 for such a short film seems a bit much. Yeah, the "South of the Border..." program adds value to the set, and it's not absolutely unprecedented to ask full-price for a relatively brief offering, but Disney could have created a lot of good will had they sold the two as one DVD, and God knows the company needs all the affection they can muster from DVD fans.

Well, I suppose it's unfair for me to slam Disney for not taking the more generous road in regard to packaging these two films together, so I won't factor that disappointment into my recommendations. Ultimately I believe TC is best left to Disney diehards. It fits the bill as a more traditional full-length feature but suffers from a serious lack of story. The cartoons in TC offer elaborate musical numbers that all look a lot alike to me. The DVD provides adequate but unexceptional sound and picture, and it includes just enough in the way of supplements to get by. Serious animation buffs will want to own it - I'd buy it if I didn't already have the laserdisc set - but others may want to pass on them.

A few footnotes about this release and other "Disney Gold Collection" titles: Three Caballeros continues the questionable trend we now find on some Disney DVDs: a slew of advertisements that appear prior to the main menu. The DVD starts with the usual copyright warning, and then it launches immediately into an announcer with his usual "Coming soon to own on video and DVD..." line. Here we find ads for the Disney Gold Collection as a whole plus promos for The Little Mermaid II and The Tigger Movie. I don't particularly mind these ads; they offer some potentially interesting information and my Panasonic players allow me to quickly and easily skip them through the "chapter skip" button.

However, many others detest these trailers; some feel that way just due to the principle of the thing, whereas others have had a trouble bypassing the commercials as easily as I could do so. It appears some DVD players have more difficulty with them than others, though I haven't heard of any concrete trends that indicate any particular models that all refuse to advance. Whether these ads are a serious negative or just a mild nuisance is up to you, but be warned that they're there.

A more positive feature appears on these and other Disney "Gold" DVDs. According to Disney, they're supporting the DVD with a 30-day money-back guarantee; if you don't like the DVD for any reason, they'll refund your cost. I have no idea how easy or difficult it'll be to do so, but I thought this made for a nice gesture.

Another nice gesture comes from a $5 rebate that previous owners of Three Caballeros can receive if they buy this DVD. If you send in your receipt and proof of purchase for the DVD with the proof of purchase from your prior copy of the film plus the certificate that comes with the DVD, you can then get $5 back from Disney.

Ultimately, Three Caballeros is a mildly entertaining program that has some high points but often drags and seems monotonous. The DVD provides adequate but unspectacular picture, sound and extras. TC makes for an interesting historical curiosity but isn't something that will appeal to many people; it's best left to the most rabid Disney buffs.

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