Disney Film History: The Reluctant Dragon
It’s funny that this film is called The Reluctant Dragon because I was very reluctant to watch it. I was unfamiliar with this picture and I have no real explanation as to why it was made. Even audiences at the time thought this film was strange. I guess we can say that this is the first of many films that would be dubbed “package films” as they don’t center around one story, but several. That is the case with the Reluctant Dragon and that’s how I will really have to write this article, analyzing each segment of the film in all of it’s oddities.
If you are familiar with Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book titled The Reluctant Dragon, you’ll be familiar with only 20 minutes of this film. Yes, that’s right. Despite the film being titled The Reluctant Dragon, the story is only featured in the last 20 minutes of the film. This film is actually a behind the scenes look into the Disney studios as seen by popular radio comedian Robert Benchley. This pseudo-documentary takes Benchley on a quest to talk to Walt Disney because his wife told him to offer up the idea to make a film out of the Grahame book.
The reasoning I call this film a psuedo-documentary is vecause half of the film’s characters are real life cartoonists, animators, and personalities. We do meet Clarence Nash and Florence Gill, the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck, as well as animators like Ward Kimball and Fred Moore, some of Walt’s Nine Old Men. On the other hand, the film stars actors playing character parts like Humphrey, who is played by Buddy Pepper or Doris who is played by Frances Gifford. Doris becomes Benchley’s main counterpart in the film showing off different sections of the studio such as the ink and paint department or the camera room where they use the multiplane camera to shoot Donald Duck.
The film also starts out in black and white, but as Benchley makes his way through studio rooms the film changes to full color. Benchley even pokes fun at the change and breaks down the fourth wall saying how everything looks better in Technicolor. It’s also interesting to note that several films were being show as well at Disney studios while the Reluctant Dragon was being filmed so we get glimpses of future films such as Dumbo, Bambi, Peter Pan, and Cinderalla, while the film is scored with music from Snow White and Pinocchio. I especially love the art class scene where Robert Benchley walks in thinking they are sketching a female model but it turns out to be a large elephant as they prep for Dumbo. Nobody ever says these films are in production, but it’s clear as day now. I’m sure for movie goers of 1941, it was peculiar to see artists sketching an adult elephant. Benchley also collects several things from each area of the studio, having animator’s caricature him, or a face made of of clay in the modeling room.
The film also integrates several short pieces including one cartoon shown completely in storyboard format with only pieces of it animated. The short is titled “Baby Weems” and is about a genius baby. Story men tell showcase the board to Benchley before the viewing audience gets to view the entire piece. It’s an interesting way to animate a short and stands out as the first of it’s kind to be showcased this way to a viewing audience. It’s my personal favorite segment of the film.
The other short that comes with this film is showcased in the animation room with Ward Kimball when he asks Benchley to view a short they just finished. They show “How to Ride a Horse” which was the first of many How-To shorts for Goofy after Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy, left the studio in the midst of Goofy’s popularity. The How-To short is really the main standout of the film and has been seen on several television specials. It’s one of the more popular Goofy shorts and it’s nice to see it here.
Humphrey, who has been searching for Mr. Benchley the whole film, finally catches up to him and brings him to Walt who is in the viewing room, or the “sweat box” as the animators called it, to view a new film. Before Benchley can propose his idea to make an animated film out of The Reluctant Dragon, the film starts and it is in fact the very story Benchley came to propose. This animated film only lasts about 20 minutes but is quite comical. I was actually looking forward to seeing it as I was unfamiliar with the film. I won’t take anything away from the Reluctant Dragon cartoon, but I felt like after watching the last three films (Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia) this was a step backwards. It was very cartoonish, the characters were over the top, and the hero, simply named The Boy, is unrelatable and uninteresting. Again, not taking away from it, but I was expecting more.
What I was surprised by most is how I wanted so badly to not see the documentary portion of this film as there have been an abundance Disney studio documentaries, and I was looking forward to the actual animated portions of the film. In the end, I really loved the studio tour, especially seeing some early pre-television Disney work, while I wasn’t too fond of the Reluctant Dragon animated film. It isn’t a film I’d recommend to the average movie goer, but if you are a diehard Disney fan, the documentary parts of the film are very interesting and enjoyable. The cast really makes this one shine, and I wish I could see more of radio personality Robert Benchley in films of the era. He has a slapstick Abbot and Costello feel to his performance here.
Unfortunately again for the studio, who had put $600,000 into the film, they lost money in it’s initial release. That makes three films in a row after Pinocchio and Fantasia. This was also in the midst of the 1941 studio strike where animators picketed in front of the studio or theaters calling Walt “The Reluctant Disney”. Luck, however, would soon change for Disney after this film with Dumbo, but that’s another story for another article.
Have you see The Reluctant Dragon? Would you see it if you haven’t? What’s your favorite scenes if you have? Leave your thoughts and comments and I will see you all soon.
Posted on March 6, 2013, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged dragons, Dumbo, Fantasia, Film, Fred Moore, Funny, History, Josh Taylor, Modern Mouse Radio, Nine Old Men, Pinocchio, Review, Robert Benchley, snow white, The Reluctant Dragon, Walt Disney, Ward Kimball. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.