“Walt & El Grupo” achieves a bizarre kind of feat by not knowing when to stop and still going nowhere. You’d think a documentary about Walt Disney being sent to South America by President Roosevelt for a cultural exchange would work, but “Walt & El Grupo” just makes the whole thing seem mundane, as if its makers don’t even know why it matters. When you’re dealing with lots of rarely seen home movies of Disney and his staff getting to know the locals, it’s pretty hard to turn them into something worthwhile – some of us can’t even get through our own home movies.
As if that weren’t enough, we also get letters read by a number of surviving family members, some of which seem kind of chafed that they were left behind while Disney and company had the time of their lives. At least it provided them with some inspiration: What they absorbed there led to a handful of short films set against a variety of Latin landscapes, as well as an Oscar-nominated feature called “The Three Caballeros.” We even get to see a few clips from some of them which, unfortunately, are cut short for more letters.
For all of the boredom the audience has to endure, the film still has the potential to do better, particularly in light of some of the more interesting material it has at its disposal. It was hoped that Disney’s trip to South America would inspire pro-American sentiments there, as support for the Nazis was beginning to grow. (Given the accusations of anti-Semitism, the fact that Disney was sent to curb the rise of Hitler is more interesting than this film realizes.) That detail doesn’t get the attention it deserves – the film cares more about the reputation of its subject than exploring the motives behind the trip.
On top of everything, all of this was going on while Disney was faced with an animators’ strike that put the future of his studio in jeopardy. What little focus is placed on this problem reveals that labor relations there were transformed afterward, but the film never explains exactly what that means. Those details get pushed to the sidelines in favor of a story that’s merely a footnote in film history, one that didn’t really lead to anything special. If you don’t believe that’s true, try to remember the last time you felt like watching “The Three Caballeros.”