The Three Caballeros Return

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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The Three Caballeros Return

There are many things I love about Disney theme parks including the live theme park shows, but not the ones done by people who hated Disney theme park shows and tried to show how much more sophisticated they were by ignoring their audience.

I have fond memories of watching the Kids of the Kingdom at Disneyland and the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" show at Walt Disney World among many other fine shows I wish I had videotaped to enjoy later at home. Actually, I wish those shows were still running.

I also enjoyed many of the films that were created especially for the theme parks. For example, the preshow to Cranium Command is one outstanding example and I loved the Figment animation in the original attraction, as well.

When Epcot first opened, more than 1.5-million feet of film had been used to produce more than four hours of filmed entertainment. These motion picture films, totaling more than 73,000 feet of finished product represented the work of sixteen production crews in more than 30 countries and nearly every state of the United States. The films were designed to be seen sometimes up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Some of that film was in the Mexican pavilion in World Showcase for a boat ride titled El Rio del Tiempo ("The River of Time") that took visitors through the history and culture of Mexico from Mayan high priests to modern merchants.

That leisurely and often ignored attraction was transformed in April 2007 into the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros.

The new storyline was that guests would still enjoy a boat tour experiencing the arts, culture and history of Mexico, as well as some of the famous modern day resorts and locales.

However, the tour hits a snag when Panchito and Jose Carioca discover their amigo, Donald Duck, has gone sightseeing in Mexico on the very day the famous Three Caballeros are to perform a reunion concert in Mexico City.

The Three Caballeros—Donald Duck representing the United States; Jose Carioca, a parrot, from Brazil representing South America; and Panchito Pistoles, a rooster, representing Mexico—is an animated compilation feature film produced by Disney in 1944, although not released in the United States until 1945. In the film, after singing their memorable theme song, they go on a magic serape ride over Mexico combining animation and live action.

Of course, there was a Dell comic book adaptation of the film (Dell Four Color No. 71, April 1945) illustrated by Walt Kelly. In recent years, cartoonist Don Rosa has reunited the trio in several comic book stories. The original trio did reunite in the Disney animated television series, "The House of Mouse."

Jose appeared in several other animated adventures with Donald including "Saludos Amigos" and "Blame It on the Samba" and the Disneyland television show episode "Two Happy Amigos" (originally shown February 1960).

The water fountain located in the center of the Calypso Pool at the All-Star Music Resort has figures of The Three Caballeros.

I wrote about the mysterious "fourth" caballero in my article, "The Fourth Caballero" (August 9, 2006).

In charge of this new theme park attraction reuniting the Three Cabelleros was director George Scribner (who was also director of Mickey's PhilharMagic) and animation director Eric Goldberg (supervising animator on Aladdin's Genie and co-director on Pocahontas).

"We always thought the Three Caballeros would be perfect for the Mexico pavilion," said Goldberg, who directed the new animation for the Gran Fiesta Tour. "And it's a great way to introduce the Disney characters to the Epcot pavilions and keep them within the context of the travel and tourism story of the World Showcase."

"When I started at Walt Disney Imagineering, vice president Tom Fitzgerald had this idea," George Scribner said. "So I said, 'What if it's a concert they're going to perform but Donald gets lost? Jose and Panchito would have to find him through Mexico and that would take us to different places.' Once we got the OK, we went to Mexico to film the live-action footage that would be combined with Eric's animation," said.

The new film elements are a combination of traditional character animation, overlaid onto film clips of live background footage that are projected onto a series of screens framed by dimensional walls, arches and rockwork to set the scenes. Throughout the attraction, props, set facades, lighting and the sound system also have been refurbished and enhanced.

"The main architecture of the show remains intact except for the finale scene, senior show producer Lori Coltrin said. "We've replaced the carousel structure there with an outdoor stage scene for the concert. Plus, there's a new mural behind the stage, and we've kept the fiber optic fireworks here and in the existing Mexico City murals."

The Theme Park Productions team spent six weeks south of the border to get the footage for the new film, and they cast local talent for some of the smaller roles where Donald interacts with actors.

Goldberg is proud that he was able to utilize the same color palettes, stylistic design and graphic elements as in the original theatrical feature when he chronicled Donald's escapades through Mexico including encounters with a baby octopus and beautiful live-action women.

"Eric just understands character performance and he has a tremendous sense of timing," Scribner said. "We're using model sheets from the period and very accurate guides to get back to the original look that was done by some of the top animators of the time, including Ward Kimball and Fred Moore. All of the animators were really honored to work on these characters."

"Drawing these characters is a joy. They've got the best animated design I've ever worked on. They almost leapt off the page," Goldberg told famed Disney musicologist Greg Ehrbar, author of the outstanding book, "Mouse Tracks." "My lead animator, Bert Klein, and I were just trying to channel Ward and Freddy who created some of the most beautiful, fluid and funny Disney animation ever."

When Donald tries to climb the Mayan pyramid and it turns into an escalator, that sequence was animation done by Goldberg, as well as the sequence where Donald dives off the cliff in Acapulco and bounces around like a pinball.

"There are alternate gags, too," Goldberg said. "You might not always see the same show twice. You might see two gags as Donald is going up the escalator in Chitchen Itza: in the restaurant scene and the cliff dive scene."

The reason the color is so vivid is that Goldberg's wife, Susan, as animation art director worked hard to capture the distinct Technicolor look, while Scott Johnson created special lighting for the characters. When Chris Biggs processed the live action with the animation, he used a special technique to get that really bright color

Musical director for the project was John Dennis who brought in music arranger Richard Bellis to create an homage to the original song that underscores much of the attraction as well as the version in the final concert scene.

"We knew that we wanted to use the 'Three Caballeros' song, but because the attraction has many shared scenes and the music is not isolated in one room, we wanted to make sure it wasn't too repetitive," Dennis said. "So I challenged Richard to write a piece of music that would work in counterpoint to the song and he came up with a lovely Paso Doble which is now in two different scenes of the show."

The music was recorded at Capitol Records in Hollywood, California where Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland recorded. It helped recreate the unique sound of the time period.

The new attraction officially opened April 7, 2007 at 11 a.m. to good reviews from the guests. The attraction is reminiscent of the old "C" Ticket attractions at the original Fantasyland in Disneyland where the entire family could experience the ride together. There is breathtaking footage from Acapulco, Chichen Itza and Mexico City as the guests leisurely drift through the dark and it is fun to see the Three Caballeros reunited after so long an absence.

Rob Paulsen, perhaps best known for his voice work as Pinky in "Pinky and the Brain" (although he has done voice work for Disney as well including Pete's son P.J. Pete), supplies the voices for Jose Carioca and Panchito. Tony Anselmo is Donald.

There are some wonderful scenic touches to the attraction including plenty of papel picado (traditional clipped tissue paper flags), some representing Donald, Jose and Panchito.

However, there are some of us who would have preferred having audio-animatronics of the trio in the finale concert rather than more animation. It would have been a much more satisfying ending.

Some purists complain that in the new animation, Jose does not smoke his cigar and Panchito does not fire off his pistols as they do in their original film, but I feel that is a minor concession to political correctness in order to see these characters together again.

Outside the attraction, it is terrific to see costumed versions of the Three Cabelleros meet and take photos with guests. Jose is hugely popular in Brazil, with his own long-running comic book series, and I saw some Brazilian guests very excited to be able to pose with a Disney character they grew up loving.

With all the attention focused on new attractions, I think some Disney fans may have forgotten that this delightful little attraction with some outstanding animation by Eric Goldberg opened roughly six months ago. So, I hope by sharing a little insight into the creation of the attraction that it might remind some of those fans to give it another visit.