Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Reluctant Dragon

All was not well in the Magic Kingdom in 1941. Just a few years earlier, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs had been a worldwide phenomenon. Its success had enabled Walt Disney to break ground on a new multi-acre studio in Burbank, a big step up from his old Hyperion Avenue studio in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. The Burbank lot officially opened in February of 1940, right around the same time that Disney’s second animated feature, Pinocchio, premiered.

Unfortunately, Pinocchio underperformed at the box office, leading to a million dollar loss for the studio. Its follow-up, Fantasia, premiered in November. By spring of 1941, it was on track to do even worse business than Pinocchio.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Walt was also facing dissent among his animators who were demanding that the studio be unionized. Disney was having none of that. In a speech to his employees in February of 1941, he essentially dismissed the pro-union faction as a bunch of grumbling whiners. Needless to say, this did not go over well. The next thing Walt knew, he had a full-fledged strike on his hands.

This could not have come at a worse time. The studio was hemorrhaging money and the strike effectively shut down production of Disney’s next planned feature, Dumbo. If the studio was going to survive, Walt needed to get something into theaters. So he made a movie showcasing the biggest asset he had on hand: his shiny new studio in Burbank.

The Reluctant Dragon is, by any definition, a strange film. The movie opens on what is presumably a typical day for noted humorist and occasional actor Robert Benchley (appearing as himself). Mrs. Benchley (played by character actress Nana Bryant, not the actual Mrs. Benchley) reads aloud from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Reluctant Dragon, while Robert lounges in the pool shooting darts at duck decoys. Mrs. Benchley is convinced that the story would make a great Walt Disney film. So she hectors her husband into dropping by the lot unannounced to somehow sell Walt the movie rights to this book (that, again, he did not write and presumably does not have any controlling interest in).

Once there, Robert is assigned a security guard escort named Humphrey (Buddy Pepper), an annoying little Poindexter who rattles off facts and data about the lot straight from the Disney Investors’ Prospectus. Robert understandably wants to shake Humphrey and, somewhat less understandably, avoid meeting Walt (perhaps to avoid being sued by the Kenneth Grahame estate), so he ducks into various rooms at random and ends up getting a lesson (more or less) in how cartoons get made.

As a documentary, The Reluctant Dragon is of dubious value. If you knew absolutely nothing about animation going into it, you would perhaps know slightly more than nothing coming out. Most of the Disney “employees” we meet are actors, including Alan Ladd as a story man who pitches Baby Weems to Benchley, Frank Faylen (who you’ll no doubt recognize as Ernie from It’s A Wonderful Life) as an orchestra leader, and Frances Gifford as Doris. We first meet Doris providing vocal effects for Casey Junior (soon to appear in Dumbo) and she ends up acting as a more attractive tour guide for Benchley but it’s never all that clear what her actual job is supposed to be.

Now as a Disney fan, some of these sequences are a lot of fun. We get to meet Clarence Nash and Florence Gill, the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck. We get to see foley effects made, including the cool sonovox used by Doris. We get to see the massive multi-plane camera, the maquette department and a gorgeous Technicolor tour of the ink-and-paint department. And with the benefit of hindsight, we realize that 1941 audiences were treated to quite the preview of coming attractions. There are glimpses of Dumbo, Bambi and, if you’re really paying attention in the maquette department, models from such future films as Peter Pan and Lady And The Tramp.

But for anyone expecting a worthy successor to Disney’s first three films, this hodgepodge of animated scraps and live-action tour certainly wasn’t it. In 1941, the name Walt Disney was even more synonymous with animation than it is today and there is precious little animation to be found, including a few seconds of Donald Duck here and a few seconds of Bambi there. All told, there are four major animated sequences. The first is the black-and-white glimpse of Casey Junior, which is intercut with live-action looks at the sound effects team in action. The rest come one after the other at the tail end of the film and one of those isn’t even fully animated.

That would be the aforementioned Baby Weems sequence, told in the form of a stylized animatic. Even if this had been fleshed out, it isn’t much of a cartoon. It’s about a genius baby who becomes a worldwide sensation, gets sick, then reverts to being a normal baby after he recovers. As a means to recycle some rejected storyboards, it’s certainly cost-effective but that’s about the best you can say about it.

The next sequence, Goofy starring in How To Ride A Horse, is one of the film’s highlights. This was actually the first of Goofy’s long-running How-To shorts that would find our intrepid hero mastering everything from skiing (“pronounced shee-ing”) to hooking up a home theatre. These were some of the funniest cartoons Disney ever produced and the formula is established from the get-go here. And for Disney aficionados, it’s nice to see the animators in this sequence portrayed by actual animators Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson.

Finally, Benchley arrives at the Disney screening room where he comes face-to-face with Walt himself and watches his latest cartoon: The Reluctant Dragon. (I guess the fact that Walt has already made the movie Benchley wanted to sell him is meant to be a punchline of sorts but I couldn’t tell you what the joke’s supposed to be.) This is a pleasant little two-reeler about a boy who befriends a gentle, poetry-loving dragon. When the eccentric knight Sir Giles rides into town, the boy tries to arrange a battle between the two, only to discover that Sir Giles is a bit of a poet himself. So a mock battle is arranged, Sir Giles emerges triumphant and the dragon’s fearsome reputation is rehabilitated.

Kenneth Grahame’s original story works on a number of different levels but Disney seems content with just a surface reading. It’s silly, breezy fun but nothing more. Disney had proven himself capable of much more than this and not just in his features. He’d made Silly Symphonies and other short films with more ambition than is on display here. This feels exactly like the placeholder it was.

The Reluctant Dragon was hardly a blockbuster but it accomplished what it was designed to do: it turned a modest profit. Walt Disney did eventually (and begrudgingly) sign a union contract, ending the strike and getting the studio back to work. But the strike came at a heavy cost. Many of Disney’s best animators left the studio, some temporarily, others forever. Some went to MGM, others went to Warner Bros. A handful, including David Hilberman, Stephen Bosustow and John Hubley, struck out on their own, forming United Productions of America (UPA), a studio that would have a profound effect on animation in the 1940s and 50s.

This was also an important film in the burgeoning cult of personality that was beginning to surround Disney and persists to this day. Seriously, who else besides Walt Disney would even consider releasing a movie like this? The “peek-behind-the-curtain” premise is really just an excuse to show off the new Burbank digs. That’s a premise Walt would return to in the 1950s with the opening of Disneyland, both the theme park and the TV show of the same name.

More importantly, The Reluctant Dragon and its all-access tour of the Burbank studio sows the seeds that will eventually blossom into Disneyland’s moniker, “The Happiest Place on Earth”. Life on the Disney lot looks like a dream job. It’s unstructured, free-wheeling, and open to all. You don’t even need an appointment to get a meeting with Walt himself. Everyone who works on the lot is happy, smiling, and eager to stop whatever they’re doing and show off their work. It’s a magical place full of music and laughter where no one would ever even consider grabbing a picket sign and going on strike.

Of course, real life is a lot messier than a Disney movie, which is exactly why Walt went to such pains to ensure that his movies had as little to do with real life as possible. The Reluctant Dragon couldn’t make all of Disney’s problems go away. His real employees were still on strike and his studio still badly needed money. But it could hide them for a little while and make the rest of the world believe that Disney’s land was the happiest studio on Earth.

VERDICT: A split decision. For hardcore Disney buffs, it’s a Disney Plus. For the more casual fan, it’s a Disney Minus.

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