It's a geography lesson for 3-year-olds, but it's also a cartoon. A movie starring Donald Duck, but no grown-up of any age can look away. A musical from the golden age of musicals, with numbers as elaborate as anything from MGM, but nobody's in it you've ever heard of (except of course Donald Duck), and the score is all hot and south-of-the-border style. A Latin musical.
Give up? I'm talking about Walt Disney's The Three Caballeros, one of the most remarkable movies for children ever made. Disney's seventh animated feature film, from 1944, is not as well known as the early biggies like Pinocchio and Snow White but it's just as great and in a genre all its own.
It's a tour of Latin American countries by three avian cartoon characters, with ravishing illustrative art and knockout musical numbers to get across something of the culture of Patagonia, Mexico, and most memorably, Brazil.
I had never seen it as a child but discovered it when my daughter Kate fell in love with the movie and asked to watch it more than any of her prior obsessions. So I sat down and watched it with her and couldn't believe my eyes.
One of the reasons The Three Caballeros is so much fun for parents and children is because of the time it was made. In the 1940's there was no home entertainment, and kids and their parents went to the movies together. (Sometimes this backfired, as recounted by my father, who was taken along to see Dracula at age 6 in 1933 in a moment of questionable judgment on the part of my colorful grandmother. My father says it ruined his life.)
Interestingly, The Three Caballeros is also of its time because it is a WWII-era promotion of solidarity of the Americas, a point likely lost on children AND most parents but nonetheless interesting. You see it that way once someone tells you to see it that way.
Anyway, at that time children's films had to be intelligent or interesting or beautiful enough for parents to want to see them too, and one notices this in most kids' movies up through the 1960's. Have you ever watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Walt Disney's personal favorite, 1956) with your children and then watched it again after they went to bed? I bet you have, and so have I. Would you do that with many kids' movies now? Okay, maybe Wallace and Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. But not many. This is something we've lost in most parent/child moviegoing -- a genuinely shared good time, where the children are in love with the fun and the adults are impressed with the cleverness. But in 1946 it was alive and well and made Disney movies as rich as anything else coming out of Hollywood. I don't know a better example of it than this film.
Yes, the solidarity of the Americas: The film starts in Patagonia, then moves to the Andes where kids can learn a little Latin and understand that South America is the home of many species of birds and many cultures of people. This movie teaches kids to love both.
The centerpiece of The Three Caballeros is the big dance number in Baia, where Donald loses his heart to a Brazilian woman selling cookies, the beautiful Yaya. If, as you watch this, you wonder how such a marvelous performer could be someone other than Carmen Miranda, it's because she's her sister, Aurora Miranda, a fact that made it all fall into place for me. The bird characters do a fantastic Busby Berkeley-style samba, interacting with Technicolor human singers and dancers. Yaya offers her cookies. Donald falls in love. She goes for the dude selling oranges (he's human, which helps). Donald turns green with envy, but everything is made right with a big, wet smack from Yaya in the end.
All these singers and dancers are tip-top Brazilian musicians, which shows kids how great Latin music is and makes them curious to learn about a place that looks so much fun. "What language are they speaking?" Kate asked me. "Does Baia really look like that? Why is she wearing that dress?" Kate has already made me promise to take her to Brazil.
The number climaxes with the dancers acting out a cockfight in dramatic red and black shadows, so that in a movie full of birds doing people things for a moment we have people transformed into birds. It's a triumph of choreography and animation and of teaching through images that are subconsciously educational but always fun.
The three bird buddies go to Mexico, where Donald gets in on some quite beautiful folk dancing in Veracruz, then it's on to Acapulco where they get a look at the hot stuff on the beaches, all of whom look they should be on the arm of Howard Hughes.
At this point the movie lets go of any pretext of plot and may be a little too free-form for some tastes. But when it's great, it's so great that I feel like a bad sport asking for more from the script. And if solidarity of the Americas is the real message, it comes across.
My favorite image of the whole South American tour is the beautiful map of Patagonia in the very beginning. We go down into the Magellan Straits to meet our first Latin bird, a cold-blooded penguin. All kids love maps, and Kate, at age 3, asked if she was pronouncing Magellan correctly. Where else could you get a 3-year-old to be so interested in geography?
Well before the digital age made everything look smooth and convincing, Disney had figured out how to put people and cartoons together to tell great stories through collage. While all of today's technology is in service of some pretty good films when put into the hands of Tim Burton or Gore Verbinski, director of the truly great Mousehunt (1997), I don't think there is a better kids' movie than The Three Caballeros anywhere, no matter what resources are thrown at it. This movie is a different art form than any in existence today, and the graphics of that time are in some ways more fun to watch than today's high-tech products.
Now, most movies that combine film and animation spend a lot of energy trying to make you believe... In The Three Caballeros they put that energy into the singing, dancing, map-making, psychedelic coloration, and hilarious character development that make a child and a parent fall in love with this film. You don't need to believe -- you'll be having too much fun.