After devoting over a year and a half to reviewing every Disney animated film, I was ready to put Disney behind me, for awhile. I recently became one-half of the Walt Sent Me podcast (available to listen to now) and our first featured film was The Reluctant Dragon. The Reluctant Dragon isn’t considered one of the 53 movies Disney considers part of their animated legacy. Odd, considering it contains an equal amount of live action to animation, on par with the later package films. The movie is gimmicky in its depiction of a happy Disney environment during a time when it was anything but, but it depicts a moment in time at the Walt Disney Studios we’ll never witness again, and that makes all the difference.
Humorist Robert Benchley’s wife convinces him to speak to Walt Disney about turning his book, The Reluctant Dragon, into a movie. Begrudgingly, Benchley goes to the Walt Disney Studios, but has trouble meeting the man himself. Instead, he’s side-tracked by the various departments within the studio, learning about what goes into a Disney picture.
The Reluctant Dragon’s documentary aspect is where it excels. The Disney Studios changed in many ways since 1941, and so as Benchley wanders from place to place, the audience feels they’re getting an insider’s view of a sacred place of magic; Looking at it in 2014 only enhances this feeling. Not only are we going beyond the berm, so to speak, to see where Disney creates Mickey Mouse, we’re seeing a time in our history where people were hand-drawing Mickey himself. Now, I’m sure all those drawing desks are replaced with computers. The movie, at barely an hour and 13 minutes, is unremarkable in its trajectory. Benchley attempts to evade a young tour guide and wanders from room to room learning about the animation process, and working himself into it in the process. In the podcast episode I mentioned it as akin to what Uncle Joey was attempting to convey in that detour he took to the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Florida during that special Disney World episode of Full House.
Much like Full House, this is a movie surrounded around the gimmick of “lifting the curtain,” but with the added benefit of Disney cartoons. At various points in the movie the live-action cuts to animation. Unlike the package films, where the live action attempted to work alongside the animation, the animation is a diegetic piece of the narrative. The animators are making something, and through the eyes of the animators and Benchley, it’s alive. This is the case with the “Casey Jr.” sequence in the audio segment, as well as the screening of The Reluctant Dragon (a film within a film) at story’s end. Other times, the “Baby Weems” story for example, it’s just storyboards shown consecutively which gives the illusion of life. The “Baby Weems” number is the cleverest, utilizing still images while an off-screen animator (Alan Ladd, not a real animator himself) explains the story. This device of story-telling is far more effective than the animated narratives of the package films, where the live action takes you out of the story and only forces you to confront the unreality of the animation. Within the confines of The Reluctant Dragon, the infectious nature of the Disney spirit combined with the knowledge the animators do this for a living, helps your belief in the animation.
The first Goofy “How-To” short, “How to Ride a Horse” plays during the movie and it’s a clever lampoon of serious “how-to” videos playing during the war. The various shorts, up till the end, understand how to keep the laughs coming; that changes with the final short, The Reluctant Dragon. To start, this is the only time you actually see Walt Disney himself, and even then it’s only about a minute. He puts in a cameo in his own movie. The dragon short is animated well, but the effeminate dragon comes off as dated and goofy; not to mention the story just seems to go on and on. It’s fun for what it is, but after the brisk clip of Benchley wandering through the studio, it doesn’t punctuate as well as it should.
Obviously, Alan Ladd wasn’t a Disney animator, and the true-life events going on behind the scenes leave The Reluctant Dragon with a dark mark on it. During this time over half the animators were on-strike over loss of bonuses, as well as lay-offs and firings due to the war. Walt was staunchly against unions and the resultant strike led to several key animators leaving Disney for good, as well as ruining Walt’s belief that they were one big happy family. Of course, none of this is evident in the movie itself. The happy family element remains in effect here, although almost none of the so-called animators (aside from Ward Kimball and a few others) truly worked there.
I was left reluctant by The Reluctant Dragon. It’s a great documentary for the sillier set, as well as a time capsule to a time in Disney history we’ll never see. It’s also a highly idealized look at the animation house; an attempt to remove itself from the strike and concerns of a world war. It’s a product of its time and deserves inclusion within the Disney animated canon.
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