Digging Into Disney

You might think that everything to be said about Walt Disney and his career has been said by now…but you’d be wrong. Film buffs and scholars are unearthing all sorts of material on the many facets of Walt’s life and career. Ted Thomas, son of legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas, has written and directed a fascinating new documentary called Walt & El Grupo that’s now showing in specialized theaters around the country (and will continue to rack up play dates throughout the fall). It’s an eye-opening look at Walt’s Good Will tour of South America in 1941—the trip that inspired Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Thomas uses home movies, photographs, sketches and paintings made by the artists who traveled with Walt, and their eloquent letters home (read aloud by—

—their wives, children, and grandchildren), to make us feel as if we’re actually taking the trip alongside Disney and such creative colleagues as Lee and Mary Blair, Charles Wolcott, Jim Bodrero, and Frank Thomas. Ted retraced the group’s journey to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, and spoke to people who participated in the hoopla that surrounded Walt’s time there. This is no cut-and-dried talking-head documentary: it’s a combination of cultural journey, travelogue, and time-travel experience that deepens our awareness of what was going on in the world at that time, and how it affected Walt at what he called the lowest point of his life, when his artists went on strike. Don’t miss the opportunity to see Walt & El Grupo. Incidentally, the folks at Disney, who aren’t accustomed to handling a modest documentary, are giving this one extra TLC, and have produced a wonderful one-sheet poster that looks as if it was created in the 1940s! There’s also a colorful and informative website. (We’ll get to learn even more about the subject in JB Kaufman’s book South of the Border With Walt Disney, to be published October 20 by Disney Editions. JB was a consultant on the documentary and is one of its key interviewees.)

Both the book and the feature-length documentary were funded by the Walt Disney Family Foundation, which is steered by Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller and her son Walter Elias Disney Miller. There are many other scholarly projects in the works, but their chef d’oeuvre is about to be unveiled: the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco, which has its official opening on October 1. Years in the works, this museum will fulfill Diane’s desire to keep her father’s memory alive. She fears that younger people recognize Disney only as a corporate name and don’t know much about her father and his life. I can’t wait to see the finished museum and will report about it here after I get a peek. (I’m proud to serve on its Board of Advisors.)

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June 2024