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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

Week # 5: "The Reluctant Dragon"

(Originally published on 2/1/22)


The Reluctant Dragon

Run time: 73 min

Release Date: June 20, 1941

Where/when I first saw it: First time watch

How I watched it today: Blu-ray, Sunday night.

Disney’s fourth feature film often gets overlooked as though it never happened. So much so that as far as a physical media release, the film currently only exists as a bonus feature on what is also a kind of throw-away package of films (a blu-ray of “Ichabod and Mr. Toad” paired with “Fun and Fancy Free.” The 2002 DVD release, “Behind the Scenes at Walt Disney Studios,” is out of print). Yet, this was a feature film released in theaters about seven months after the groundbreaking “Fantasia.” So, ya know, it’s canon.

The film that’s here is a trifle, of course, but not without innovation and certainly not without highlights. It centers on radio comedian Richard Benchley taking a tour of the Disney Studios on his way to meet Walt to pitch him the idea of an animated version of a children’s book called “The Reluctant Dragon.” Every door he wanders into leads to a further understanding of how animated movies are made and just how much work goes into them. He meets foley artists, voice actors, storyboard artists, the technicians who run the multiple camera and, of course, many animators. Not to be outdone by “The Wizard of Oz” at the time, the film starts out in drab black-and-white only to shift to Technicolor as Benchley enters the room with the multiple camera.

Essentially, what we have here is a tour of Walt Disney Studios with Benchley as the reluctant tour guide, which ends up being the main problem. Benchley is just too aloof and sarcastic to make these discoveries interesting. His character doesn’t really want to be there in the first place (his wife is making him do it). I wish he had been as interested as I was to take this little journey. Even the bemused artists take shots at him, as every department ends up making a Benchley caricature of some form. This is amusing, but Benchley just doesn’t have the natural screen presence to make him an interesting surrogate for the audience. Then again, maybe someone with wide-eyed wonder would be too self-serving for this type of thing.

The highlights, though, are worth noting. By far, the best scene is when Benchley meets Clarence Nash and Florence Gill, the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck, respectively. Their duet is loaded with charm and it’s easy to go along with the silliness. Watching a cartoon (“Baby Weems”) via storyboard illustrations is also kinda fun, as is the Goofy cartoon “How To Ride A Horse” (which would eventually get re-released as a stand-alone short later on).

The film was released as a way of having some kind of product out there while Walt and his crew were hard at work on the next two features, both of which are alluded to here. It was a quick one-off, but it was also something of a disappointment for those who wanted an actual film and not a behind-the-scenes feature. Disney’s workers were also on strike at the time of its release, protesting the working conditions of the studio.

Such context can cast a dark cloud over it, but on the whole, there are enough segments of this film that make it worth viewing for a curious fan. As for “The Reluctant Dragon” cartoon itself (shown in its entirety at the end), it’s not quite memorable enough to warrant the effort and the strength of the animation looks weak compared to the feature films that came before it, but it does show Disney’s commitment to story and that it will take as long as it takes. Too short for a feature, too long to be a short to play before a feature. One might look at this whole endeavor as a precursor to “Adaptation,” in that it’s about the making of a film rather than just the film itself.

Aside from the aforementioned quibbles and a moment of cringey, casual racism in the drawing department scene, this is a Disney oddity worth seeking out if you're a completist or animation buff who enjoys seeing the process of animation in action.


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