The Three Caballeros is Disney’s first sequel, coming directly after Saludos Amigos, as part of Disney’s goodwill message to Latin America. It’s not a sequel in that it continues the story in Saludos Amigos; it’s more of a thematic sequel, in that it stars Donald, who was one of the stars of Saludos Amigos, and that it continues to teach him, and the audience about Latin American countries through a variety of barely related animated segments.
The Three Caballeros was released in 1944 and was marketed as the first cartoon picture to combine animation with flesh and blood personalities. Though it had been done before in shorts, this was the first time it had been done successfully. You can watch the original trailer here.
The movie begins with Donald receiving a gift from his Latin American friends, who we will later find out are José Carioca, the Brazilian Parrot, and Panchito Pistoles, the Mexican Rooster. José was introduced in Saludos Amigos, but this film is Panchito Pistoles’ debut.
The gift contains many presents, each one leading to a different series of segments. The first present is a film projector and a reel of film called Aves Raras, or Strange Birds. This film is a series of shorts about a variety of birds, all of which somehow relate to South America. This section of the movie is the most disjointed and the most out of place when compared to the rest of the film.
The Cold-Blooded Penguin
The first short in the film follows the misadventures of a little penguin who hates the cold. Through a series of mishaps, he is finally able to escape Antarctica by boat, a chunk of ice containing his igloo, and he sails up the coast of South America. When he reaches the equator, he follows that until he reaches his destination, a small island where he contentedly lives out the rest of his life. Until he gets homesick.
The Aracuan Bird
The next segment is a sort of faux nature documentary about the native birds of South America, but it’s really just a vehicle for the madcap lunacy of the Aracuan Bird. This segment has really no plot except to introduce the bird who will show up again later.
The Flying Gauchito
This segment is about a rare “Donkey Bird” a little donkey with wings. It takes place in Uruguay and follows the adventure of a little guachito who discovers the young donkey, and how they become friends. It’s a cute little story, but like the other shorts in the Aves Raras segment, it feels rather out of place in the film as a whole.
Have You Been to Baia
The next gift is a pop-up book that contains a miniaturized version of Donald’s friend José Carioca. José sings Have You Been to Baia, a song about Baia, Brazil in an animated segment that occasionally rivals a few of of Fantasia scenes in animated beauty. José then shrinks Donald down and brings him into the book where they board a train which takes them to Baia. During the trip they are taken on a surreal journey which is sabotaged by the Aracuan Bird, but as it is a surreal segment, there is no harm done, and they arrive safely in Baia, after getting out of the book and turning the page.
Os Quindins de Yayá
In Baia, José and Donald meet a group of dancers led by Aurora Miranda, who Donald promptly falls in love with. During the musical number, Os Quindins de Yayá, he pursues her in a state of perpetual jealousy, trying to take out all the other men around her. When a group of female dancers come and distract the men, leaving Aurora alone, Donald sees this as his chance, and it pays off, as she gives him a kiss, leading to another surreal sequence, which first seems to be a dream sequence, but might not have been? It was rather unclear.
The Three Caballeros
After escaping the book and returning to their original sizes, Donald opens another gift, which, after a surreal musical introduction, is revealed to contain Panchito Pistoles, who initiates the titular musical number, The Three Caballeros.
Panchito has with him a piñata, which leads to lesson about Christmas in Mexico and the tradition of Las Posadas, symbolizing the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. This tradition always ends with a piñata, which is why Panchito brought one for Donald. This leads to Donald breaking it, after which they are showered with gifts.
One of the gifts in the piñata is a book about Mexico, leading to a song called Mexico and another journey into the book, this time on board a magic sarape, which takes them through a variety of live-action locations where they see and participate in a selection of Mexican dances. They also visit Acapulco Beach, where the three of them, though mostly Donald, chase the women all over the beach.
You Belong To My Heart
After leaving Mexico through the book, they look down over the city at night and are led into a musical number by Dora Luz, singing You Belong To My Heart in the night sky.
Donald’s Surreal Reverie
The singing of You Belong To My Heart is interrupted repeatedly by José and Panchito singing The Three Caballeros and leads into a huge mashup of traditional Mexican music in a massive surrealistic segment involving live action dancers, animated cactus, and all sorts of fantastic visual imagery. This scene has some of the best animation and design of the film. It’s just wonderfully strange. I actually prefer the animation in this scene to the animation in Fantasia’s surrealistic scenes. It’s just beautiful and fun.
The surrealism builds to a frenzied pace, becoming more frantic and disjointed and making less and less sense, until the film really has nowhere to go and abruptly ends with a fireworks display, spelling out “Fin,” “The End.”
The Three Caballeros is…Something. It is definitely not one of Disney’s best films, and it is quite strange and frequently makes very little sense. It is made up of a bunch of random shorts that have no narrative connection, which are all held together by a very thin plot that barely holds up. But for all that it has going against it, it’s not a bad film and is pretty entertaining.
The Three Caballeros is a great exercise in surrealism, and it has some great animation. It melds live action and animation together very well and has a lot of great music. It’s also a great introduction to several new cultures, and it might even teach you something. It may not be one of Disney’s best, but for what it is, it’s very fun, creative, and sometimes even quite beautiful.
What about you? Have you seen The Three Caballeros? Which segment is your favorite?
Jonathan North is writer, photographer, video editor, and animation fan from Iowa. He studied advertising and design at Iowa State University, and also has degrees in multimedia and art. His favorite movie is Fantasia, and his favorite cartoon is Gravity Falls. Or maybe Steven Universe. He can’t decide. You can find more of his work on his blog, as well as his Podcast and YouTube channel, where he reviews animation, movies, TV, or whatever else his guests feel like talking about. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, @jonjnorth.