When he was a kid, Theodore Thomas got to have dinner every night with Walt Disney.
Well, not quite in the literal sense. Ted’s father was Frank Thomas, one of the Walt Disney Studio’s fabled “Nine Old Men,” a legendary animator who worked on such classic features as Bambi, Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella.
“I got to meet him a handful of times in social situations,” recalls Thomas. “In most cases, it would be my father saying, ‘That’s my son,’ and Walt saying, ‘How are you doing, young man?’ To me, he seemed like an adult who had a lot of things to do but wasn’t in a hurry.
“While I only met him a few times, he was at our dinner table every night. My father talked a lot about him. He was such an influential personality, and those who stayed with him over their careers realized they were doing something they wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.”
This experience laid the groundwork for young Ted’s future endeavors, which include writing and directing two Disney-based documentaries: 1995’s Frank & Ollie, about his father’s relationship with another “Old Man,” Ollie Johnston, and the recent Walt & El Grupo, about Disney’s 1941 journey to South America.
Walt & El Grupo tells the fascinating story of how Disney, at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s invitation, took a goodwill tour with a group of artistic staffers (including Thomas) that included stops in Chile, Brazil and Argentina. The White House suggested Disney and company use the trip to inspire new projects. At the same time, the administration wanted Disney to try to curtail South American governments from getting involved with Hitler and Nazi Germany through the “Good Neighbor Policy,” a kind-of cultural exchange of American ideas and ideals. And besides, the time seemed right for Walt himself, besieged at the time with a strike and financial problems at his studio due to the expense of producing Fantasia.
The documentary details the saga of the expedition, with incredible Kodachrome color footage from the trip—much of it taken by Disney himself—along with photos, interviews (new and old), drawings, lively regional music, and clips from Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, the studio efforts inspired by the junket.
According to Thomas, the film was five years in the making, including three spent on research. The impetus to put it together, according to Thomas, “was an intersection of different influences.”
“I grew up with a lot of these stories, but it wasn’t until I met J.B. Kaufman, who shared this shadow box of snapshots (from the trip), that there was a film here,” says Thomas, referring to the Disney historian who wrote the book South of the Border with Walt Disney. “For the first time there were images that were connected.”
Further research for Thomas included taking a journey to the countries Disney and his associates visited, in order to speak to some of the people that knew of the trip—and some who played a part in the goodwill pilgrimage.
“We uncovered many things, met descendants of those El Grupo met, and found the remnants of the Urca Casino (in Brazil),” says Thomas. “This gave us a visual metaphor for what the film is about—people-to-people contact. The world becomes smaller and better, too.”
Thomas, who has also helmed specials for National Geographic and directed the feature Where the Toys Come From, finds it interesting that there are many myths about Walt Disney and the journey persisting today.
“Of course, the biggest myth is that Walt Disney is frozen,” says Thomas. “That’s not just in South America, but all around the world.”
“Another myth is that the idea of Disneyland came from Argentina. They believe the City of Children in Buenos Aries, which is still up today, had a big influence on Walt. But he never came back there. Argentinians claim he came incognita to get ideas.”
The third myth is that Walt Disney got the idea for Bambi from the trip, based on a chance encounter with a deer.
But Thomas says that’s never been proven true, either.
Thomas, who names Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as his favorite Disney animated feature, has seen Walt & El Grupo play at several film festivals over the last two years, and now make its way to DVD. The films inspired by Walt and El Grupo’s 1941 adventure have become favorites for Disney fans over the decades.
As for how the people in South America feel about the projects inspired by the visit, Thomas says they love them for the most part. However, there is one common thing he found people in South America complained about.
“Their biggest criticism was ‘Why aren’t we in there?,’” Thomas says, referring to the disappointed South American people whose countries weren’t as well represented as they thought they should be in the movies.