One of the best shows on Disney+ is one you’d have to do a bit of digging to even know it exists. Legend of the Three Caballeros expands the universe of a relatively obscure entry of the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon with humor and delight, making it a must-watch for any Disney fan, especially if you love Donald Duck.
In the late 1930s, Donald Duck usurped Mickey Mouse as Walt Disney’s most popular character. Donald’s firecracker personality lended himself to stories Mickey couldn’t tackle and proved a phenomenon culturally penetrative enough for Walt’s animators to produce more Donald cartoons than Mickey ones. In 2020, the cards are flipped in Donald’s favor again, as the duck has a lead role in a staggering four animated television series: he shares the screen with Mickey in the self-titled Mickey Mouse shorts on Disney Channel and Mickey Mouse Mixed-Up Adventures on Disney Junior, then goes two steps further to add to his résumé DuckTales on Disney XD and Legend of the Three Caballeros on Disney+.
Legend of the Three Caballeros serves as an origin tale for the trio of fine-feathered friends Donald Duck, José Carioca, and Panchito Romero Miguel Junipero Francisco Quintero González. (They all starred together in the 1944 Disney film The Three Caballeros, which derived from Walt Disney’s goodwill visit to South America. This series winds the clock before that film.) Turns out that Donald, José, and Panchito are descendants of ancient warriors known as the Three Caballeros. They’re united by Xandra, the goddess of adventure, who pleads for their help in an ongoing battle with the dark wizard Lord Felldrake. Despite Donald, José, and Panchito not having any particular experience in the category of adventure, they take up Xandra’s offer, which leads them on an episodic quest around the globe filled with hijinks, monsters, and magic.
While Donald Duck is obviously a staple of the Disney pantheon, José and Panchito… not so much. Look, let’s be honest. Their 1944 film was a bit all over the place, perhaps best described as psychedelic or nonsensical. A whole TV show centered around that movie is a hard sell. Smartly, then, Legend of the Three Caballeros serves as a tribute to Donald’s heyday of the 1940s and ’50s, the era during which The Three Caballeros initially debuted in 1944, rather than being a verbatim TV series specifically about the actual film. The show instead brings the characters from that movie and makes them part of a larger Donald universe, in a sense, on which to land a narrative focus. It’s fantastic.
It’s cool to think that this is the biggest use of these characters ever, and they’ve never felt better. They aren’t stylized or rebooted; they’re very much in their classic appearance, and the story follows suit in not departing from its source material too radically. Just as the trio opened gifts that took them to new locales in their original film, each episode here uses a magical book as a device to send the caballeros to a different exotic destination around the globe, and with it its own set of history and myths. The season’s 13 episodes tell a larger narrative together, each installment feeling serialized by nature and making it perfect binge material.
The three stars are joined by a who’s-who of Donald Duck mania, the likes of which would make Mickey weep of jealousy. Humphrey the Bear and the Aracuan Bird, two of Donald’s occasional foils from his classic era, make a glorious resurgence for the series. Daisy’s here too, as are her nieces, April, May, and June, marking only their second-ever animated appearance after appearing in Carl Barks comics for decades and only appearing onscreen for a cameo in the 2001 series House of Mouse.
José and Panchito likewise have never had this much screentime. Prior to 1944’s The Three Caballeros, José had co-starred with Donald in a segment of 1943’s Saludos Amigos. All three friends appeared in Audio-Animatronics form in 1971 for Mickey Mouse Revue, an opening-day attraction at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Those Animatronics were later repruposed to be made part of Gran Fiesta Tour starring the Three Caballeros, a boat ride that opened at Epcot in 2007. The caballeros appeared here and there over the years, including House of Mouse and even as recently as season two of the new DuckTales, but Legend of the Three Caballeros serves as the most comprehensive exploration of their personalities to date. As such, it is a thrill to discover who they are after just scratching the surface of their characters all these years.
On paper, this series could have been a disaster. In execution, it’s brilliant. We have an unsuspecting group of storytellers to thank for that. Unlike most Disney series, which are created by Disney Television Animation, Legend of the Three Caballeros is made by Disney Digital Network, formerly known as Maker Studios prior to its Disney acquisition in 2014. Predominantly known for its online content and partnerships with well-known YouTubers, the studio also produced 2017’s Mickey Mouse Club revival called Club Mickey Mouse. Therefore, an animated TV show rooted in the obscure Three Caballeros definitely feels like it’s out of left-field for this development house, but nonetheless seems to have been an excellent choice because the series clearly knows its heritage and goes leaps and bounds to deliver a real treat of a television show.
Disney+ marks the American debut of Legend of the Three Caballeros, but it’s technically not a Disney+ original series. The show first aired in the Philippines in 2018, and with that distinction has been absent from the prominent “Disney+ Originals” menus on the streaming service. This means that it’s relatively hard to find unless you’re looking for it, which is a shame because it’s so good and worthy of a production order beyond its one season of 13 episodes. So if you like it, share your enthusiasm!
Nonetheless, Legend of the Three Caballeros takes one of Disney’s most neglected and admittedly bizarre animated features and turns it into a relevant romp filled with cartoony slapstick and Disney-signature storytelling. It particularly serves as an epic showcase for Donald Duck, depicted here as the true hero many have always known him to be.
Have you watched Legend of the Three Caballeros?