Disney’s just-released “Encanto” is the 60th animated feature produced by the studio. To mark the milestone, it features a special version of the “Steamboat Willie”-inspired logo that plays before the movie; the one that starts with the flapping of an animator’s pages and ends with Mickey Mouse, in velvety black-and-white, whistling on the bridge of a steamboat. (If it wasn’t one of the most iconic moments in animation history, that logo, seen before worldwide phenomena like “Frozen” and its sequel, has certainly made it so.) But “Steamboat Willie” and the 60th production are only a part of “Encanto’s” connection to the studio’s past – there’s a much more direct path between it and a journey that Walt Disney took. This isn’t a fairy tale, exactly, but it did take place once upon a time.
In 1940, South America was seen as being vulnerable to Nazi influence. A government post was invented called the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, the brainchild of oil heir Nelson Rockefeller (who had keen artistic and business interests in South America), and one of the chief goals was to bolster positive support of South America through film productions released in the United States and abroad. Early efforts, such as sending Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and, um, the Yale Glee Club, had been lackluster. Part of the efforts called for distribution of American films in South American theaters, with grants being provided to American studios that would produce suitably South American content. (Disney was one of those studios.)
Distribution and production deals were one thing. But in 1941, they asked Walt Disney to go.
Disney normally wouldn’t have taken time away from work to go on a goodwill tour. But ambassadorship sounded good at the time. Walt was reeling from a series of personal and professional setbacks, including (but not limited to) the death of his mother in 1938 (something he and his brother Roy shouldered much guilt about, as she died due to a gas leak in the home they had purchased for her); the critical and commercial shortcomings of “Fantasia,” a groundbreaking artistic work that was supposed to usher in a new era of animation; an overseas market that had all but dried up due to the war; and a bitter dispute with his animators that led to a contentious strike at the studio just a few weeks earlier.
Walt was ready to get away. According to Neal Gabler’s biography, “Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination,” Walt referred to the trip as “a godsend.” “I am not so hot for it but it gives me a chance to get away from this God awful nightmare and to bring some extra work into the planet,” Disney said. He was suffering from “a case of the D.D.s – disillusionment and discouragement.” Walt described the journey as a “combined ‘business and pleasure’ trip.”
Disney assembled a small team of artists (who later called themselves “El Grupo”), along with Walt’s wife Lillian. They began their trek in Rio de Janeiro in August 1941. (This trip, by the way, was chronicled in a fascinating documentary called “Walt and El Grupo,” directed by Theodore Thomas, the son of Frank Thomas, the only animator on the trip. It’s available to watch right now on Disney+.)
Together, the team toured Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. The intent was to gather material for shorts or features that could be screened in South America, per the new deal. And there was a great deal of sketching going on. Artist Mary Blair, now viewed as one of Disney’s most incredible stylists, particularly flourished. But Frank Thomas admitted that “mainly we were wined and dined all over the place, where it was real hard to do any work.” While there were certainly discussions about potential projects, and the artists did soak up a lot of inspiration from the locals and the culture (particularly the music), the obligations of the “goodwill tour” aspect of the trip weighed on Walt. According to the Gabler biography, he told the group as they were leaving Chile that he was “goddamned tired of being dressed up like a gaucho and put on a horse.”
At one point the group boarded a boat for an ambling trip (noted in the biography) that included stops in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. That last stop is crucial. While the subsequent films that came out of this South American trip (charming, music-filled “package films” “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros”) didn’t explicitly depict the culture of Colombia, it would be something that would come back years later, when the studio was working on “Encanto.”
Like Walt’s fateful trip, the filmmakers (including director Byron Howard and Jared Bush and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda) took a research trip to South America. That trip inspired them and fueled what would become “Encanto,” and added a level of cultural authenticity. (There was also a Colombian Cultural Trust that advised on the filmmaking team long after they returned to Burbank.) Like the films that were born out of Walt and El Grupo’s trip to South America, the music of Colombia had a huge impact on “Encanto.” And the filmmakers are eager to share its unique Colombian-ness with the world. “I’m excited for the Colombian audience to see it,” Howard told TheWrap. “Our Colombian Cultural Trust and we have very close friends who are Colombian, who specifically asked us to put certain things in the film. When they, the Colombian audience sees it, I’m very excited to see them recognize themselves in the film.” And now, while watching, you might see and recognize some Disney history in the film as well.