The Missing Disney Uncovered in El Grupo
The new Walt & El Grupo documentary from the husband and wife filmmaking team of Ted Thomas and Kuniko Okubo (Frank and Ollie) opens today in limited release in LA and New York. It's a fascinating convergence of art and politics, following the adventures of Walt Disney and his animators on a goodwill tour of Latin America in the summer of 1941, during the tumultuous studio strike, at the urging of the Roosevelt administration to counter Hitler's attempt to woo the region over to the Axis. It may have been an opportune time for Disney to get away, but he wasn't interested in a PR escapade, so he managed to swing a sweet production deal, and out of this invaluable cultural exchange came a series of Latin American-themed films, including Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. I recently chatted with Thomas, son of legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas, who was on the tour.
Bill Desowitz: I really appreciated the new insight gleaned about Walt from the movie.
Ted Thomas: Oh, good. Well, I'm hoping so. I've come to feel like this is the missing chapter in Disney's biography. We really get the opportunity to get a different insight into what made him tick.
BD: How long did you work on it?
TT: We started the project in 2003 and wrapped at the beginning of 2008, which gave us five years to really dig into it.
BD: What motivated you to take this on?
TT: Well, it was a coming together of a lot of different elements. I had grown up hearing stories about the trip, since my dad was on it, but those were pretty funny.
BD: So the funny little anecdotes didn't give you the full sense of what they experienced?
TT: Either they were funny or insightful on a people to people level. My dad would comment, "You know, when we were there, every vendor on the street had a song for whatever it was they were doing." And then I had the benefit of being an exchange student to Brazil and then studying in India and living in Japan, so a good part of my adult life has been living and traveling internationally. It was in 2003 that I heard that J.B. Kaufman was doing this book on the "Good Neighbor" films, which is coming out in October and called South of the Border with Disney. And at the same time, Diane Disney Miller gave a call and said that J.B. had this shoebox of photographs from the trip that I should take a look at.
BD: That must've opened up a treasure trove.
TT: Well, it really did. But it was also like opening up a long, lost tomb because here are all these photographs -- and the Disney people are recognizable -- but then here are all these hosts and artists and dignitaries they're with and who the heck are they? So, the challenge for us was to go to school and find out who these people were. And then once we did that, mainly by making use of the itinerary that was kept, [we could dig deeper] because the trip was government-sponsored.
BD: Yes, $500,000.