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Animated April: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

In honor of our annual animation program and the 3D cartoons that will run at the Wexner Center before the show, we spend April looking at animated feature films.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: The story is pretty simple. Robert Benchley, who we are assured needs no real introduction, is lounging in his backyard when his wife, Nana Bryant, talks him into going to the Disney studio to pitch a story idea based on a children’s book that she had just read to Walt Disney. Upon arriving at the studio, Benchley quickly loses his wet blanket tour guide and snoops about the studio learning how cartoons are made and seeing some works in progress.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The Reluctant Dragon is one of the many Disney features that doesn't make the essentials list, so this was the first time I'd seen it. I enjoyed the many novelty elements of this movie. There is animation in the live action scenes, like when Benchley blows bubbles in the pool. Most of it is in black and white, but then a portion turns into Technicolor. The vivid colors stuck in my mind to the extent that my memory of the film is entirely in color. The animators show us how they voice characters like Donald Duck and then put the voice with the animation. I found the Sonovox device that gave Frances Gifford a train voice to be slightly unnerving. In a way, it plays like a travelogue but with an appealing plant inserted to make it more palatable.

RB: When casting the film, Disney used a mix of actual studio employees and actors. You mention Frances Gifford, who was not an employee of Disney but an actress, having just wrapped up work on the Republic serial Jungle Girl, which is now considered something of a classic in the genre. Alan Ladd also has a notable scene showing Benchley the storyboard for a new short film Baby Weems, that we’re to believe the studio was working on.

SG: Casting Robert Benchley for this film was a smart choice. One associates animation and Disney with children, but Benchley provides a mature humor and intelligence to snag the adult viewers. Photoplay's reviewer called the film, "Long, and even a bit wearisome in spots, it nevertheless keeps up its interest due to the cozy cleverness of Mr. Benchley." It is obvious the attempts by the page boy to keep track of him are half-hearted, but the proceedings are so pleasant, I didn't mind.

RB: Disney didn’t have a live action director on staff, so he reached out to his friend and fellow polo-player Daryl Zanuck for a favor. Zanuck loaned him Alfred Werker a journeyman director that was helming B’s in Sol Wurtzel’s unit at Fox to handle the live action segments of the film. Upon his return to his home studio after working on Reluctant Dragon, Werker was thrust into work on Moon Over Her Shoulder, which we’ll be screening on Thursday afternoon at this year’s Picture Show.

SG: According to IMDB, the sculptor who makes a bust of Benchley was shot in reverse. The bust was pre-made, and the actor destroyed it on camera and then the film was run backward. It was a clever way to make the impossible possible.

RB: There’s a lot of interesting stuff here that’s definitely entertaining, but as Leonard Maltin noted in the introduction to the version of the film that I saw, Walt was definitely more of a showman than a documentarian. There’s not a whole lot here that is ACTUALLY how cartoons were made, but it’s all an awful lot of fun to watch.

SG: Disney fans will be delighted to see elements from Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Bambi. This film is a product of its time and isn't above stereotypes. In the art department, we see an Asian artist drawing an Asian caricature.

RB: You can also see evidence of the recently released Fantasia and Peter Pan, a film which was in development at the time, but would be sidetracked due to war work and financial issues. It wouldn’t be completed and released for twelve years. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the US Military essentially took control of the studio to produce training and war propaganda films. Work had also begun on Alice in Wonderland and was sidelined by this as well. What is often ignored is that the war essentially saved Disney from financial ruin. The feature films that were being turned out before Dragon were extremely expensive, and at one point during the decade Walt and his brother Roy had considered selling the studio to their distributer RKO. It really took the advent of television and Walt’s masterful control of the medium to turn Disney into the empire that we know today.

SG: The Reluctant Dragon was a short story included in Kenneth Grahame's 1898 book Dream Days, but he is best-known for his novel The Wind in the Willows. Disney often used Victorian novels for his films. I actually found the Baby Weems sequence to be more entertaining than the Dragon, because it felt more representative of the time period. Unfortunately, Disney chopped the film up when it released the animated portion on DVD in 2009. It is available on their streaming service in its entirety.

RB: Yeah, that’s Disney doing what Disney does, unfortunately. They have released the film complete in a few other ways. I watched it on one of the Disney Treasures sets (Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio), but it’s also featured complete as a bonus feature on the Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad/Fun and Fancy Free Blu-ray release. So while it requires a bit of judicious looking to make sure that you get the correct version of the film, it is available, which is frankly a pleasant surprise with a lot of Disney material. Disney often targets their releases to kids, so I assume that they felt that the 2/3rd of the film that features Benchley would have limited appeal to a modern audience. They also seem to prefer not to date their films, capitalizing on the timelessness of the product. Whatever.

SG: Showmen's Trade Review called the film, "Revolutionary and amazing. Walt Disney's new triumph is utterly unlike anything he has ever produced." Film Bulletin delighted in the novelty but warned that some might dismiss the film as a feature-length coming attractions trailer.

RB: The trades were very fond of it, as they were of most everything Disney did. The exhibitors however felt otherwise. “Not enough to make this do much more than 50% of normal Sunday-Monday-Tuesday business…Positively my last cartoon feature. The first three-quarters of this not bad, but the sequence on the Dragon was entirely too silly to be interesting,” griped L.V. Bergtold of the Westby Theatre in Westby, Wisconsin. “If Disney wants to keep his reputation, he better skip these,” agreed Cliff Noble of the Simcoe Theatre in Ontario. “Well, we were warned and naturally expected a washout, but it wasn’t as bad as we were looking for,” was a somewhat positive remark from the Star Theatre in Hay Springs Nebraska. However, they went on: “When the Dragon episode came on, it spoiled the whole of the picture. It wasn’t even good enough for a regular length cartoon”. Oof. Tough crowd.

SG: The story is very simple which is good because it isn't really about that; it exists to show off the studio and its accomplishments, and I came away impressed. Three stars.

RB: While no one would ever claim that this is peak Disney, it’s a lot of fun and reminded me of how much I loved this kind of stuff when I was young. I’m not sure that classic Disney films were my introduction to classic movies, but I was definitely obsessed with this stuff when I was a kid and devoured any information that I could get on it in those pre-internet days. Three and a half stars for a good movie that made me feel nostalgic for a time in my own life.

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