Donald Duck dirtied his feet in politics during the '40s, but the result was anything but corrupting. After defending The American Way in a series of wartime cartoons. Duck was enlisted to help implement the Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America in the feature-length Walt Disney films "Saludos, Amigos" and its sequel, "The Three Caballeros."

As an ambassador, the duck was less intelligible even than most, but as a bearer of goodwill he was practically perfect. Now he ranks with Chaplin among the global media giants of this century, a figure and a personality reversed by children and adults throughout the world.

"Caballeros," rarely shown in its entirely, is the opening film - Sunday afternoon at 2:30 in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center - for The American Film Institute's 10th anniversary salute to itself. The [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Theater aspect of this celebration continues through Nov. 17.

Although it is not nearly so dear so many hearts as sentimental favorites like "Bambi" and "Snow White", "Caballeros," with its episodic, bastic-revue formal, may show that Disney animators at their most darling, because they were liberated from narrative constraints - and from the artsy aspirations of "Fantasia" - are allowed to pull out a mesmerising out ray of stops.

'The Three Caballeros" offers striking variety of animation styles and represents probably the best combination live-action and assination work until "Mary Poppins" in the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] In faithfully preserved three-strict Technicolor that outglows anything [WORD ILLEGIBLE] films today, "Caballeros" takes the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for a rollercoaster ride that is [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and merrily exhilarating.

The diplomatic mission of the film as twofold: it presented a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] idealized incessantly musical vision of Latin America for U.S. audiences and, through foreign-language verions produced simultaneously served as Yankee greetings south of the border. The political significance now is the least interesting part, except so far as the film epitomizes this country's Latin mania of the '40s.

"Caballeros" and other films created a Latin America of the mind where the idea of a military dictatorship or a bloody group was entirely unthinkable. People danced day and night in pertual fiests, on beaches and streets hysterically streaked in yellow and magenta. It may have been a fraudulent calculated mirage but it was and remains incredibly charming.

These were also days after all when there was no stigma whatever attached to the idea of flaunting the star-spangled banner in other countries. If there were, would Donald Duck have had anything to do with it?

The simple formal of the film finds Donald receiving a surprise package that produces a number of stories, travelogs and virtually psychedelic fantasies about Latin America. Stories include the fairly funny tale of Pablo the Penguin, who craved a warm climate and so sailed north from the South Pole, and a not-so-funny tale about the original flying burrito.

It is the redoubtable Donald Duck - joined by a spirited, bon vivant parrot named Jose Carioca (introduced in "Amigos,") and by a wild bird called Panchito) - who holds the film together and supplies its most delicious moments of comic relief. Warner Bros. cartoon director Chuck Jones once said that one of the most important things an animated character needs is the illusion of weight, and Donald had it, albeit mainly toward the rear. This mere product of ink applied to paper seems as substantial and three-dimensional as nearly any other movie star of his day.

And his personality was, at least, as complex and charismatic as any other comic actor's. Confronted with live-action schoritas with whom he flirts and dances, the duck is always ready with a "Hi, toots,'" that marks him as unmistakably American and indefatigable, "Get your hands off me," he squawks at one point: "This is a free country!"

The incomparable Disney team of creative zanies, who had already built a better mouse, also gave the world its most enduring and attractive duck. Charges of antropomorphism are entirely irrelevant when the resulting fantasy is this rich and proves this indelible. What the Disney artists gave to their time and their culture is every bit the equal of what Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm gave theirs, and "The Three Caballeros" is a kindle masterpiece they obviously tossed off with relish.