You’ve heard of Condorito, the international phenom, the scrappy comic book lothario who happens to be a condor? The one whose comic strips almost always end in a flop take and the caption “Plop!”?
Condorito is lazy, charming, irresponsible, and a cad. He was born in 1949 in Chile as a specific and spiky response to Walt Disney’s 1942 charm offensive to conquer South America. Chile wasn’t having it. Where Disney’s personification of Chile is a plucky infantilized plane, Condorito is mischievous. He’s adult, and so are his jokes. And, despite the fact that his eponymous strip has been one of the most popular in all Latin America, he’s unmistakably Chilean. In the 69 years since its creation, Condorito has soared: In 1983 the property was bought by Televisa, and the magazine reached the rest of the Americas. Soon the local editions were adapting Condorito for the locals: The Argentine edition, for example, generally has 50 percent Chilean content, but the rest is adapted to Argentine idioms and humor.
That a Condorito movie is playing in the United States this week closes the loop on a decades-long struggle over national representation. Condorito has finally returned to the land that sparked his creation. But the results are mixed. That the film, which is bizarrely in 3-D, was voiced by a Mexican actor, produced by a Peruvian film company, written by an Argentine, and directed by a Brit shows just how international the property has become. That the film isn’t much good is largely a function of how something that began as a jokey portrayal of Chilean identity got watered down to the point where universality equals insipidity.
In 1941, the U.S. Department of State commissioned Walt Disney to produce a movie that could be shown in South America to increase goodwill towards America (and intervene in some of those governments’ close ties to Nazi Germany). That led to Saludos Amigos, an amusing little survey of South America that represented Chile with a little mail plane named Pedro. The movie premiered in 1942. Condorito, a mischievous cartoon condor engaged to an improbably proportioned young woman named Yayita, appeared in print for the first time on Aug. 6, 1949. He was created by René Ríos Boettiger, a sometime doctor who’d spent years drawing for Topaze, a Chilean political magazine. When he saw Disney’s film, he decided then and there that the gringos would not define the country.
It’s hard to overstate how different Disney’s version of Chile as a paradise with snowy peaks and tidy houses is from Ríos’ irreverent corrective. Condorito’s world is hard and adult, and his town, Pelotillehue, is dirty and vital and populated by all kinds of weirdos. There’s Don Máximo Tacaño (Sir Maximal Stingy), a miser in tattered finery who’ll do the absurd to save a buck. There’s Ungenio (literally A Genius), a buck-toothed imbecile with the best intentions. There’s Garganta de Lata (Tin Throat), a red-headed alcoholic whose wife routinely awaits his return from the bar with a bowling pin. And then there’s Yayita, Condorito’s bombshell girlfriend, and her large and fearsome parents, Don Cuasimodo and Doña Tremebunda.) They had higher hopes for their daughter than a condor in patched pants who routinely brings her flowers ripped from her own yard.
Pelotillehue is, that is to say, a lived-in kind of place. Its patron saint, San Guchito (sandwiches in Chile are called “sanguches”) is generally depicted holding a sandwich in his right hand. The town has an intense soccer rivalry with neighboring Buenas Peras, plenty of stray dogs, and a fancy restaurant (El Pollo Farsante, literally The Charlatan Chicken). Condorito’s closest friends are Don Chuma, a neatly dressed mustachioed string bean of a man, amiable to a fault, who’s always lending Condorito money, and Huevoduro, a man with an egg for a head, based (so Ríos said) on a Canadian ambassador whose pallor and paunchy friendliness he memorialized. Condorito’s nemesis is Pepe Cortisona, a roided-out jock with blinding teeth and great hair whose eyes are generally squinty with self-satisfaction. He has a nice car and he wants Yayita. His nickname is Saco de Plomo (literally sack of lead) because he’s so pesado (literally heavy, Chilean slang for being unpleasant and hard to take).
Condorito’s world, in other words, is quite … specific. So specific that for years the comic abounded with inside jokes. Some of the most frequent graffiti in Condorito comics said “muera el roto Quezada” (“death to the no-class Quezada”). Why? Well, Ríos and his wife went to eat at the Club Militar at the invitation of a friend — a lieutenant — when his wife and her friend’s purses got stolen. They complained, and the head waiter (improbably named Washington Quezada) implied they’d made the whole thing up. Rather than confront him and get his lieutenant pal in trouble, Ríos peppered his fictional town forever after with graffiti that said “muera el roto Quezada,” usually pictured with a peeing dog. That dog’s name? Washington.