Disney Lands Major Political ‘Coup d’Toon’


Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to … war … we go?"

When Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to stem the rise of Nazism sympathies and fascist followers in South America at the outset of World War II, he had not so much a new deal up his sleeve but an old one: "Let us entertain you!" was a theme that brought out not the gypsy in Latin America but the samba.

In looking for a man not a mouse to lure Latinos away from the glowing gorge of Nazi news out of Europe, Roosevelt found his answer in a compelling combination of both: Walt Disney.

It was Disney whom Roosevelt beseeched not to "Go West, young man!" — he was already there — but South, with a handshake-tour of samba society as a goodwill ambassador whose "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" fame would dwarf news out of an eviscerated Europe.

Nope, Disney said, not one to glad-hand or shake hands for the sake of show. He'd go and go one better; he'd tour Brazil, Argentina and neighboring countries not on a good-neighbor mission but as a film-maker seeking new sources.

Done deal, said Roosevelt, with the government financially guaranteeing the tour and two terrific movies ("Saludos Amigos," introducing tour-inspired parrot Jose Carioca, and "The Three Caballeros").

Such is the illustrious landscape of "Walt & El Grupo," his so-called caballero cartoonists who accompanied him on an outing that was a tour de force of goodwill and good timing. With amazing archival material and terrific voice-over by director Theodore Thomas and historian J. B. Kaufman, the docu, now on DVD from Walt Disney Family Foundation Films, portrays dervish Disney as one who could tango Argentines off their previously right-leaning feet.

News headlines were heady with Walt and his wall of fame turning Rio's Copacabana into a banner-touting beachhead for the cartoonists. Disney landed a coup d'toon, with news of Hitler's ascension in Europe pushed down the front page to make way for the man who could make audiences laugh and cry with Mouseke-tears.

That Disney landed such a punch to the nations' stomachs of fascist followers took guts — evident in this wonderful world of Disney film.

The irony is that long after Disney landed and left, some of the Latin American countries he visited eventually became lands of the lost, post-war havens for hated war criminals; good will hunting and Nazi-hunting spaced so closely.

Small world after all. 


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