Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Reluctant Dragon


Except for Victory Through Air Power, this is the least known of the Disney animated features. (I am using the broader definition, to include the films which were only partly animated, such as Mary Poppins.) Only the last part of the film, the “Reluctant Dragon” short itself, is widely available, paired with “Morris, the Midget Moose” on a Mini-Classics VHS tape. But in 2002 it was released in its full-length version on the DVD Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio. WDTs are sets that come in neat metal boxes and are not sold in video stores; you can get them only through Disney, and they each have a limited run. They are archival (The Complete Mickey; The Complete Goofy; The Silly Symphonies; etc.) or consist of stuff from deep in the celebrated Disney Vaults, stuff from the TV show, the Mickey Mouse Club; obscure things that only a Disneyphile would be interested in. I have a few of them, including this one.
It was made, along with Dumbo, as a cheap way of getting customers into the theaters after the financial disasters of Pinocchio and Fantasia, with the studio in deep trouble. It came out during the 5-week strike, when tempers were high. And it was a financial failure, too. If not for the big success of Dumbo later in the year, Disney might not have made it. People expected another feature-length tale, and felt cheated by this one. I can see their point, but it looks entirely different today. It’s a valuable look back at the studio when it was still young, and I like it a lot.
The schtick is that Robert Benchley is prevailed upon by his wife to take this little story by Kenneth Grahame (also the author of The Wind in the Willows) and pitch it to Walt. Bob isn’t enthusiastic. He is met at the studio gate by Humphrey, a studio guide apparently recruited from Mussolini’s Brown Shirts. The dude is seriously stern, regimented, and humorless; he even dresses like a Hitler Youth. Benchley spends most of the rest of the picture avoiding him, and as a result ducks into most of the studio’s departments and is, conveniently, shown how everything works by amazingly accommodating employees. This is fascinating stuff, and some of it is even accurate. In each department someone draws or sculpts a caricature of him. In the art department they are drawing elephants from a real elephant model. In the sound department he meets Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, and Florence Gill, who imitates a chicken singing. Then he goes to the Foley department, where sound effects are being added to a concept animation of Casey, Jr., the little train in Dumbo, the second reference (after the real elephant) to the other movie being produced at the studio as this one was being filmed.
When he enters the photography department the film switches from black and white to color, a la The Wizard of Oz, only Benchley notices the transition, saying, “Oh, Technicolor!” and examining his tie. Cute. We see the fabled multi-plane camera in use and then move on to Ink & Paint, a very nice and wildly colorful segment showing how the paints are made and then applied to the cels. And who should appear in the cel but little Bambi, who would be appearing in theaters about a year later.
In the maquette department there is a table crowded with foot-high concept sculptures, and I was amazed to see not only Captain Hook and Tinkerbell, basically as they would later appear in the movie, but the twin Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp. What is amazing about that is that Peter Pan would not reach theaters until 1953, and the mutts until 1955, 14 years later! Sometimes ideas percolated around the studio for quite a long time before they were fully developed. That, and WWII intervened and disrupted normal studio activities such that they didn’t produce another single-story, feature-length animation until Cinderella in 1950. In this department Benchley filches a maquette of what appears to be Sunflower, the black servant centaurette from Fantasia, now, alas, excised from the film and consigned to the waste heap of political correctness.
Then we move to the story department, the best part of the movie. The writer-animators (three of whom are played by themselves) want to try out an idea on Benchley, telling it via a storyboard that covers an entire wall. The story is “Baby Weems,” legendary among animation fans, and available only here on this obscure DVD. It is a wonderful and innovative use of extremely limited animation. There is very little motion as we segue from the man pointing to the drawings to the story itself. It is basically a series of still drawings with one or two animated elements. This doesn’t sound all that interesting, but trust me, it is just amazing. You have to see it to appreciate it, and unfortunately, it is so firmly embedded in this movie that it wouldn’t make sense to take it out and make an independent release of it, so it will probably continue to be seen only by the likes of me.
(Amusing detail: the guy who climbs up on a box to start telling the story—because the upper left-hand corner is almost at the ceiling—is none other than Alan Ladd! He toiled in mostly uncredited bit parts—including Citizen Kane—for over a decade before hitting it big in This Gun For Hire. Lee observed that even in a cartoon he had to stand on a box. In case you didn’t know, Ladd was 5’4” and usually had to stand on a box when kissing his leading lady, so he could look down on her.)
So that’s the second animated segment. The third is “How to Ride a Horse,” the first of the fabulous Goofy “How to” series. Introducing the short are three real Disney animators: Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, and Norm Ferguson.
At last Humphrey catches Bob and takes him to a screening room, where he meets a very young Walt and they watch the newest Disney film, which turns out to be, naturally, “The Reluctant Dragon.” Oddly, I found this last part the least interesting bit in the movie. The story is not very interesting and drags here and there, the animation is lackluster, and the dragon is portrayed as a very effeminate stereotyped gay. There is little to root for and little to laugh at.
I am not one of those who is apt to complain that Disney has screwed around with the source material, as so many do, possibly because, in most cases, I haven’t read the source material. So I don’t care if Mary Poppins is too sweet; I never read the book. But I did read all the Pooh books, and didn’t care for the Disney version, so maybe the detractors have a point. I do sort of wonder if this short story had more to recommend it than what made it to the screen.