Walt & El Grupo

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San Francisco International Film Festival

SAN FRANCISCO-- "Walt & El Grupo" sheds light on a relatively unknown chapter in the history of Disney animation -- a government-sponsored 1941 goodwill tour of South America by a handpicked mini-studio comprised of Walt Disney's star animators, dubbed, "El Grupo." Utilizing a lively Latin score and nifty visual effects to enliven a parade of rare photographs, 16mm footage of the trip and commentary by associates and relatives including Disney's children, Theodore Thomas (whose father, Frank, was on the tour) doesn't succeed in transforming essentially static material into a cinematic experience.

The family connection and the film's association with the Walt Disney Family Foundation, which enabled exceptional access to archival materials, may have influenced Thomas' choice to steer clear of politics and controversy. The result is a sanitized, though informative, special interest documentary whose appeal is limited to animation buffs and those enraptured with all things Disney, an audience not broad enough to support a theatrical release.

Thomas and his wife Kuniko Okubo, retracing the steps of Disney and his band of merry men, provide an unusual glimpse of the gang, horsing around in exotic locales, before Disney became an empire. Tidbits about individual artists such as Norm Ferguson, known for contributing "thinking characters"; Herb Ryman, credited with coming up with an early concept drawing for Disneyland; and Mary Blair whose vivid paintings and special relationship with Walt add interest.

Most tedious are clumsy sections where El Grupo's letters from home are read aloud. The film truly comes alive with excerpts from the Latin-American themed "Saludos Amigos" and the witty "The Three Caballeleros," cartoons at least partially infused with sensuality gleaned from the tour. The animators' sketches and wild, vibrantly colored drawings constitute an informal travelogue. Thomas and editor Lisa Palattella do a fine job illustrating the connection between what El Grupo saw and how those experiences translated into visual art. James Wesley Stemple's buoyant Latin score is a plus.

Production company: Walt Disney Family Foundation Films, LLC in association with Theodore Thomas Prods

Director: Theodore Thomas.
Screenwriters: Theodore Thomas.
Executive producers: Walter E.D. Miller.
Producer: Kuniko Okubo.
Director of photography: Shana Hagan.
Music: James Wesley Stemple
Editor: Lisa Palattella.
Sales Agent: Theodore Thomas Prods. ( Kirk, this is the only contact info I could find.)
No rating, 107 minutes.

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