February 4, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault: The Reluctant Dragon

Robert Benchley tours the Disney Studios in Burbank in The Reluctant Dragon.
Robert Benchley tours the new Disney Studios in Burbank in the 1941 release The Reluctant Dragon.

When TCM announced their first slate of films in the “Treasures from the Disney” vault series, the most exciting inclusion was The Reluctant Dragon. Released in 1941, this barely known feature mixes animated shorts with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Disney Studios in Burbank. It strikes an interesting balance in revealing what’s behind the curtain but removing the rough edges. Our entry point is Robert Benchley, an actor and comedian playing an exaggerated version of his everyman persona. The thin story sends him to the studio to pitch an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon story to Walt Disney. Pushed by his wife (played by Nana Bryant) to make the pitch, Benchley’s more interested in visiting the various departments and avoiding this meeting. We follow him on the episodic journey, which takes a few breaks for animated shorts that reveal Disney’s latest techniques and ideas.

What do we make of this film? TCM co-host Ben Mankiewicz comically struggles to describe it during the introduction. It’s no surprise that guest Leonard Maltin loves The Reluctant Dragon. His label of a “little time capsule” is fitting; it’s a window into the past for Disney fans. The studio tour foretells Walt’s brilliant approach to the Disneyland TV series 13 years later. He shows us pure joy from the animators and crew working at Disney. It’s essentially a commercial for the magic of Disney packaged within a feature film. Maltin recounts how audiences felt cheated in 1941 because the animated segments were only part of it. This wasn’t Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or even Fantasia. The company was facing money troubles and a vicious labor dispute at the time. None of the strife is evident on screen, and it’s easy to look at this film’s presentation as a portrait of a thriving company. The truth was very different.

We’re introduced to Benchley as an oddball shooting fake ducks in his pool while his wife reads Grahame’s story to him. It makes me wonder about the normal happenings at this house. This opening sets up Benchley as a dreamer who cares little about business deals. His guide is ready to take him to meet Walt, but Benchley’s distracted by an attractive robed girl heading into an art class. The set-up to reveal the elephant model is clever; a Chinese student drawing an elephant with a stereotypical hat is less thrilling. The mix of actors and actual Disney employees is handled well, but it’s usually easy to spot the legitimate artists. Clarence Nash and Florence Gill demonstrate the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck, and they’re the real deal. The employee named Doris (Frances Gifford) is less convincing.

Despite the documentary feel to Benchley’s tour, there are moments that break the fourth wall. The story begins in black and white and switches abruptly to color when Benchley steps into the camera room. This sets up the depiction of the multiplane camera and the gorgeous scenery on display. Benchley even takes a moment to look at his outfit and marvel at the Technicolor. Artists also sketch an elephant to resemble him and sculpt an exaggerated bust of his face that he carries around the studio. We learn more about how animated films are created, but it’s never a dry explanation. Benchley’s regular guy approach keeps the tone light despite all the work that’s happening on screen. He chats with Bambi in an animation cel and gawks at a female centaur in the model shop. The audience gets the joke and realizes it’s partial reality.

The animated segments occupy about half of the 74-minute feature and are inserted creatively into the main story. Benchley meets the guys in the storyboard department, who show him their latest creation Baby Weems. We observe the story through limited animation with certain elements moving while others are static. The visual technique is more interesting than the actual narrative. Benchley meets animators like Ward Kimball and Fred Moore, and they present the Goofy cartoon How to Ride a Horse. It would receive an official release in 1950 beyond its appearance here. The mix of slapstick from Goofy along with the serious narrator in this type of “how to” film provides some good laughs.

The Reluctant Dragon, released in 1941 by Disney.
The Reluctant Dragon is charming because no one wants to fight, especially the title character.

The title film arrives at the end and is a charming 20-minute adaptation of The Reluctant Dragon. Benchley meets Walt in the screening room, but the film they’re watching is actually the story he’s trying to adapt. It’s a clever joke that reminds us of how little the narrative arc really matters. Walt looks so much younger than the normal images from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Knowing little about the source material, I found plenty to like with the idea of a peaceful dragon that loves poetry. He’s introduced while taking a bath and is the least imposing dragon of all time. His opponent is Sir Giles, who’s built a reputation as a slayer but is older and prefers to relax or create poems. They’re quite a likable pair! Only the young boy wants to see a real fight, and the blood-thirsty crowd awaits the great battle. The comic fight has an inventive solution to the problem from pals with little interest in their normal roles. You might call them reluctant, just like Benchley.

Casual Disney fans will probably get antsy during the studio tour and wait for the animation. Hardcore devotees like Maltin and Me are different, however. The Burbank lot had just opened in 1940, so this is a very early view of a Disney studio that still functions today. Despite the actors’ involvement, there’s still a lot to see within this controlled reality. It doesn’t totally work as a feature film, however. It’s more like a longer episode of Walt’s TV series with better production values. This explains the confused reactions from general audiences. They hadn’t been exposed to this formula or seen the package films that Disney would use to stay afloat in the ‘40s.

The Reluctant Dragon set the stage for the leaner years where the company just tried to survive. Dumbo and Bambi followed, but Disney didn’t make another feature-length animated story after them until Cinderella in 1950. It’s easy to forget that the behemoth we know today struggled to be financially viable even after Snow White’s success. Walt needed cheaper projects to keep the lights on until the opportunities for growth returned following the war. The Reluctant Dragon wasn’t a hit, but it served a purpose and remains quite a curiosity more than 70 years after its release.

2 comments:

  1. Love your write-up. Don't know much about The Reluctant Dragon but now I'm intrigued.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. It's worth checking out if you're interested in Disney history.

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