The Three Caballeros (L-r: José, Panchito, Donald) and unidentified companion.


Original Medium: Theatrical animation
Produced by: Disney
First appeared: 1945
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In the early 1940s, Walt Disney took key members of his staff on a months-long junket through Latin America, partly as a friendly gesture toward our neighbors to the South and partly to soak up atmosphere and material for future animated projects. (Another reason was probably to take his mind off the famous strike that had recently paralyzed his studio and was still casting a shadow over employee relations.) The two features that came out of this tour, Saludos Amigos

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… (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1945), were only part of its contribution to the Disney oeuvre, but they were among the studio's most energetic and well-received 1940s features — especially the Caballeros one.

The Spanish word "caballero" is the equivalent of the French "cavalier", and is usually translated as either "horseman" or "gentleman" (in the aristocratic sense). The Caballeros in question were a well-established Disney star (Donald Duck), a relatively new Disney star (José Carioca, who had first appeared in Saludos Amigos) and a complete newcomer (Panchito Pistoles). They cavorted through one of several segments of the film, with individual "Caballeros" starring in other segments. Two other segments, Aves Raras (Rare Birds) and The Flying Gauchito, had independent stories with characters of their own, one of which, Pablo Penguin, had a reasonably heavy impact on non-Disney animation by inspiring Walter Lantz's Chilly Willy.

The Three Caballeros was released February 3, 1945, a bit later than planned because wartime shortages made it hard to get enough color prints. It was Disney's first feature to blend live action with animation, in fact Disney's first extensive use of the technique since The Alice Comedies, back in the silent era. (The Reluctant Dragon had both animated and live segments, but didn't blend the two.) Donald's dance numbers with singers Aurora Miranda. Carmen Molina et al. may not have been as sophisticated as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but at the time, they got high marks from both audiences and critics.

If there was one common complaint about The Three Caballeros, it's that it was too fast-paced, and therefore somewhat confusing to some, especially when the Caballeros got together for real high-energy action. But master animator Ward Kimball (Jiminy Cricket) remembers it as some of the best work he ever did. Film historian Leonard Maltin has quoted him as having called it one of the few instances in which he wouldn't go back and change his work even if he could. "Everything else I've done, I criticize. I say I should have done this or I should have done that. But on The Three Caballeros, I had a lot of fun."

Dell Comics published an adaptation of the film in Four Color Comics #71, a 1945 issue of the title that published everything from Andy Panda to Yogi Bear. Walt Kelly (Pogo) did the artwork.

With the exception of a badly cut and poorly re-assembled version in the 1970s, The Three Caballeros has never been re-released to theatres, because studio bigwigs considered it too much a '40s period piece — as if anything else Disney ever did could even compare with Victory through Air Power in that regard. But it's appeared on The Disney Channel and been made available as home video, so it's still possible for it to regain its rightful place in the public consciousness, as one of the classics.


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Text ©2008 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Walt Disney Productions.