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I had the source material and a bunch of research all done for Dumbo. Then I actually looked at my list and realized Dumbo was not the next movie. So, I started all over for our actual next review, 1941’s The Reluctant Dragon. This is the first movie on the list that I haven’t seen. In fact, this is one that I’ve never even heard of! And that’s what this whole adventure is all about! So let’s go on a little adventure to tour the shiny new 1940’s Walt Disney Animation Studio….
Pinocchio and Fantasia were over budget. Like… waaaay over budget. Like, Walt almost had to mortgage his house again and Roy was not happy about it overbudget. The Studio desperately needed to do something to make up for the exorbitant costs of their last two projects. At the same time, people were clamoring to learn the secrets of how an animated feature film is made. Walt had the idea to kill two birds with one stone and release a small, cheap picture that took viewers behind the scenes, ending in an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon (thanks Mara the Wolf!). It was a great idea in theory.
Unfortunately, World War II was still going on. The film was marketed as another full length feature, when in reality it was a mostly live-action documentary with a few shorts sprinkled throughout. And worst of all, it came in the middle of the Animators’ Strike. They actually had to hire actors to portray animators because the real ones were off protesting things like low wages and unfair business practices. That should have been the tip-off that this whole thing was ill-advised, but Walt went ahead with releasing it. Audiences hated it. They picketed outside theatres, carrying signs with a drawing of a dragon with Walt’s face that read “The Reluctant Disney”. The film failed to make back even its shoestring budget, and it met with abysmal reviews.
Did it deserve them?
This pathetic manchild is our guide for the movie. Robert Benchley was a notable radio personality at the time The Reluctant Dragon was released. It’s the equivalent of if Josh Gad showed us the studio nowadays. Again, great idea in theory but I am about to tear the guy apart because he is the worst part of this film.
The Reluctant Dragon opens with Mrs. Benchley reading a bedtime story to her pathetic manchild husband as he floats around shooting darts at rubber ducks. It’s Kenneth Grahame’s short story of the same name as the film, and her lines are the exact dialogue from the text which is always a nice touch. She decides that they should totally sell the rights to somebody else’s work to Walt Disney because they’re always accepting new ideas. And if that doesn’t sound like a shameless publicity stunt on Disney’s behalf, nothing does.
Benchley balks at the idea but does as she says anyway. She drags him into the car and they drive along bickering while Whistle While You Work from Snow White plays in the background. They’re stopped by pretty much the worst security guard ever. He does briefly ask if they have an appointment, but he lets them right on through anyway because that’s what you do when you’re running security for a high-profile company. Seriously, what’s the point of asking if you’re just going to give him a pass?
The wife leaves to go shopping in the first of many, many off-color sexist jokes. The point is, though, she took the car, and now Benchley’s stranded at the studio. Now he HAS to pitch their idea to Disney. He passes by the now-iconic signpost for Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive, which was actually a prop made for this movie. They were supposed to take it down after shooting but it’s still there to this day for Instagrammers to get photos with. They even replicated it for Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida.
Benchley meets his tour guide, a young bespectacled nerd. The tour guide is clearly meant to be insufferable because Benchley spends the rest of the film trying to escape him. He spouts facts about the studio and sure, they’re not the most interesting (he goes on for quite a while about the soil), but the kid’s just trying to do his job. I’d much rather follow this guy than Benchley.
Case in point: Benchley’s first detail is to follow a young woman in a bathrobe to a life drawing class. He tries to peep into a window to catch a glimpse of what he thinks is a nude model. And he is not subtle about it, when one of the artists comes out for a smoke break. That’s the thing that was hardest to watch throughout this film: Benchley is a pervert, and 99% of his screen time is spent objectifying women. And it is really uncomfortable.
But this time it’s not as bad as the rest of the film. Sure, the instructor tells his artists to emphasize curves and the texture of her skin. Sure, Benchley cranes his neck to get a glimpse of the girl in question and gets so eager he falls over. But the model in question is an elephant! She’s even wearing a little clown hat, because these animators are practicing for Dumbo!
The artists welcome the pervert into the fold and show him the cartoons in progress. And now’s where I take back everything I just said about this scene not being as bad as later ones. Because this is where we meet Lotus.
She’s drawing caricatures of elephants in the pointed hats. The men talk down to her. She speaks broken Engrish. The instructor draws right over her work. Benchley even has the gall to try to speak Chinese to her, then mansplain what he just said! It’s so horribly condescending, but it’s played for laughs because white men always know best of course.
My blood is already boiling, but Benchley’s not done jockeying for the position of Absolute Worst. He goes on this rant about how the cartoonists’ elephants don’t look stupid enough. And he just keeps going, ranting about how stupid elephants are for a solid five minutes. Even the elephant looks offended. The punch line is one of the cartoonists draws a caricature of Benchley as an elephant, the beginning of a running gag that goes on way too long. He thinks it’s an improvement and goes on his merry way after insulting everyone in the room.
Benchley’s next stop is a recording session. He stops to listen to the music, and Florence Gill walks in wearing a beautiful fur coat. The gentleman Benchley was talking to, Clarence Nash, steps up beside her in an immaculate suit, and everything is set to be a beautiful musical number.
And then Florence Gill starts making chicken noises. And Clarence Nash starts making his famous duck noises. They’re recording voice work for Clara Cluck and Donald Duck singing an opera piece and it’s easily one of the best moments in the film. Nash makes the most ridiculous faces and Gill is so earnest about the whole thing. I could watch them all day. After the song, there’s an interesting bit where Nash tries to explain how on earth he makes the Donald voice. Unfortunately, I tried making an air pocket in my cheek and thinking like a duck but it didn’t work because that doesn’t make any sense.
And then fun time’s over and Benchley opens his big mouth again. Since Nash is so good at talking like a duck, he asks if he can talk like a dragon. Nash does not do the smart thing and tell Benchley to shut his stupid mouth. Instead, he asks what a dragon might sound like. And without missing a beat Benchley gets on all fours and starts crawling around the room.
Benchley crawls right into the legs of his tour guide, who is understandably unimpressed. Come on, man, this kid just wants his paycheck. He doesn’t want to deal with this nonsense. Let him do his job. But Benchley doesn’t care because who cares about service workers amirite and runs off to hide in the foley room.
Our intrepid hero ignores all the cool sound effects equipment and horns in on a pretty girl sitting there working it. She introduces herself as Doris and asks if Benchley wants to see him make the sounds for a cartoon train. She showcases this nifty little contraption that looks like two tin cans that transform her voice when she holds them to her throat. Benchley uses it to recite Shakespeare because this dreck needed some culture. And then finally, finally we get to see our first cartoon.
Casey Jr. is a neat little piece. There’s not much to it in the way of plot- it’s just a train going down the tracks until finally it goes over a bridge that’s out and crashes. The cool thing is seeing all the foley work that goes into making a cartoon. We get to see two guys mooing into a tube to Benchley’s blistering insight of “Cows!”, a guy sticking his head into a bucket of water to mimic a sinking ship, two balls thrown at a sheet of metal to represent thunder. The short also serves as a nice little call forward to our next film, Dumbo. But the best part of the short is Casey Jr.’s face when he crashes.
This movie’s starting to get enjoyable, and Benchley just can’t have that. He ruins the moment with another mind-numbingly stupid quip: “wouldn’t it have been easier just to wreck a real train?” There is so much wrong with that I don’t even know where to start so I’m just going to reiterate: I hate this guy.
The poor beleaguered tour guide closes in and Benchley tries to hide in a broom closet to get away from him. Dude. Just let him do his job. The “broom closet” lights up an eerie green and suddenly, everything is in Technicolor like a really underwhelming version of Wizard of Oz. Benchley highlights this fact by unbuttoning his white shirt to look at his red undershirt. Who wears a red undershirt under a white shirt? Why not just give him a colored shirt or jacket or tie or something that didn’t involve him looking at his own underwear?
But let’s leave behind the wardrobe department’s baffling decisions. Something absolutely glorious is in the next room. Something I’ve mentioned on this review as being amazed by but never really seen with my own two eyes. Something called… THE MULTIPLANE CAMERA!!!
Seeing this thing is so, so cool. There’s a model of it at Hollywood Studios, but it’s only part of it. Seeing the real thing in its actual scale, in use, filming gave me goosebumps. I’m super jealous of everyone in this room. Yes, I am serious. Yes, I am a nerd.
Our tour guide for this veritable miracle of animation is none other than Doris the train whistle girl. Apparently she was only filling in as the train whistle, and her actual job is in the multiplane camera room. Naturally, she only handles filling it with paper because who would ever let a woman do something as important as operating the camera? Benchley for once has the proper reaction to things and marvels at the greatness that is the multiplane camera. Doris encourages him to climb up to the top level. Because this one-of-a-kind delicate piece of equipment is something that a buffoon like this should be allowed near.
The camera man who is seriously life goals invites Benchley to look into the camera. I let out a squee of delight as we delve deep into one of the backgrounds from Bambi, as deep and lush as a real forest. Even Benchley is suitably awed. The camera operator explains that they only really use the camera for long shots and backgrounds, and a completely different camera handles character animation.
We descend from on high to see this other, slightly less impressive but only slightly camera. An operator is putting cels of Donald Duck into the camera. Benchley, being an idiot who doesn’t know how a flip book works, notes that each drawing looks exactly the same. The animator corrects him and points out the subtle differences, along with a factoid that made my nerdy little jaw drop. It takes 26 cels just to animate one second of motion!
Donald himself takes it from there, beginning our second animated segment, Farmer Donald. He repeats what the camera operator just said, about each frame being very slightly different, leading up to Donald putting one foot down and picking the other up. When they do it faster, he’s walking. He then demonstrates them doing it faster and walks in a circle singing Old MacDonald. And that’s it.
Benchley talks to Doris about how his tour guide keeps trying to find him. Even Doris seems to think he’s annoying and I just… why? The kid has a job to do! No one will let him do it! His livelihood is on the line! It’s also revealed that the tour guide’s name is Humphrey, and I’m not sure why it took this long to get to that point but I am firmly #TeamHumphrey.
No one else seems to be, so we follow Benchley as he hides. Again. But this time, he hides in the most visually pleasing sequence in the entire film. The Ink and Paint Room, also known as the Rainbow Room which would be a great name for a gay bar, is full to the brim with pretty colors and swirly things and motion and activity and I love it so much. Another nice thing is that this room is entirely staffed by women a few years before World War II made female workers commonplace.
Of course, I can’t be happy for two minutes in this movie. Benchley looks at a woman blending colors in a paint mixer and comments, “looks tasty.” Really, movie? A women in the kitchen joke?! Are you serious?! I hate the 40s.
We’re then treated to the ink and paint girls mixing different powders, pouring them, mixing them, in a gloriously trippy and entirely pointless montage. It’s stunning to look at. Or maybe I just like bright colors, I don’t know. Paint makes me happy.
At the end of the montage we see one woman inking a cel of Bambi, whose movie we must remember is not out for two more years. It’s Doris, who apparently just works everywhere. She explains what she’s doing to Benchley because it’s not obvious enough that she’s painting you idiot. She holds up the finished cel and asks if he likes it. His response? “It’d be great if that reindeer would get out of the way.” And I am going reach into my screen and across time to deck this man in the face.
Doris gets out while the gettin’s good, and Benchley wanders into the maquette room. This is a really neat room. Among the maquettes on the table are more early bird cameos of movies in production, like Captain Hook and the Siamese Cats. Benchley is more interested in a maquette from a movie that’s already out- one of the centaurettes from Fantasia. Topless. Naturally. Because of course. And it’s not just any centaurette. Oh, no. That wouldn’t anger me enough.
Our old friend Doris is a sculptor now because sure. Benchley asks if the little statues are for sale and she looks at him like he’s a moron. Because he is. She explains that maquettes are used to make sure drawings look consistent from every angle, which, interestingly, is a technique created by the Disney studio that’s still in use today. As they talk, another sculptor designs an exaggerated bust of Benchley. The lightning speed with which she makes the statue is a neat little special effect. She’s actually destroying the statue, and they’re playing the footage backwards.
We watch poor Humphrey coming down the hallway in his desperate attempts to complete his assignment. Benchley is busy being The Absolute Worst and he follows a nurse into the storyboard room. The artists are working on sketching a baby, and they immediately swoop in on Benchley’s fresh mind. I think that’s giving him way too much credit, but either way it leads into our third “animated” segment, Baby Weems.
Animated is in quotes there, because this short is entirely told through storyboard. It tells the story of a baby who is born with an incredible intellect and the ability to speak. He quickly gains worldwide fame and prestige, giving lectures, writing symphonies, and solving the great problems of science. All the while, though, Baby Weems’ parents are trying desperately to be able to even see their child. Just before Roosevelt calls on him to solve the Great Depression, Baby Weems falls ill. He has a 105 degree fever and the whole world waits with bated breath.
Literally. The whole world. This is shown in a montage. A horribly, horribly racist montage. It’s worse than Sunflower. It’s worse than the crows. I’d even say it’s worse than the Natives in Peter Pan. I literally gasped and went “nooooo” when I saw the portrayal of Africans. Thank God the studio moved on from that since, that’s all I’ve gotta say.
Anyway, Baby Weems recovers from his fever and is taken out to finish his big speech. When he finally talks, though… it’s just baby talk! He’s lost his intellect and his ability to talk. But there’s a happy ending: his poor parents, who were stuck sitting on the sidewalk while their baby was dying in the hospital, finally get him back. The short ends with them on the floor, happily playing on the floor with their perfectly normal baby.
Even without considering the frames that should really have been cut out, the short is weird. It’s weird and nonsensical and lacks heart and I really don’t like it. It’s no surprise that the final version of the short never came to be, because I can’t imagine Walt being thrilled about a story that feels so cold. I do think this short may have inspired Baby Herman from the Roger Rabbit shorts, so that’s neat.
After the short, the storyboard artists create yet another caricature of Benchley, this time wearing a diaper and a bonnet. This wasn’t funny the first time and it’s still not funny here but at least this is the last time it happens. Once again, Humphrey seeks Benchley, and once again Benchley hides and if this is getting repetitive for you imagine how it was watching it.
This time, Benchley hides in a gallery featuring drawings of Donald and Daisy Duck in famous pieces of art. More importantly, this room is where the really famous animators, including three of the Nine Old Men, are doing their thing. Benchley looks over the shoulder of the great Ward Kimball, supervising animator of such characters as Jiminy Cricket, Captain Hook, most of the cast of Alice in Wonderland, and all Three Caballeros. This time around, he’s working on some sketches of Goofy and flipping them so he appears to dance.
We cut back to poor Humphrey who is getting the third degree from his boss for failing to keep a leash on Benchley. Do you see what happens when you’re terrible to people just doing their job? This stuff shows up on performance reviews. Poor guy.
Back to the animators, Ward Kimball and Fred Moore offer to let Benchley have a sneak preview of the new Goofy cartoon they’re working on. Or, rather, Kimball does. Legend says Fred Moore appeared but was too drunk to actually do much. Which would beg the question, how on earth did this guy keep his job, but in addition to the centaurettes and the donkey scene (THANKS FRED), he also redesigned Mickey for Fantasia so I guess the guy’s credentials make up for his poor work habits.
How to Ride a Horse is the first of many Goofy cartoons where he’s taught how to do something and fails hilariously. It was made because the filmmakers wanted Goofy in this movie but his voice actor Pinto Colvig wasn’t available, and it works. Goofy’s fantastic in pantomime, and the horse’s reactions to things are brilliant. Easily the highlight is Goofy riding with the trot in slow motion. The narrator of this segment, John McLeish, was told he was recording for a serious documentary and didn’t find out it was a Goofy cartoon until after!
After the short, Benchley goes to bother Norm Ferguson who is animating his best-loved creation, Pluto. To get the dog’s expressions right, Ferguson is making ridiculous faces into a mirror. Benchley joins him and the two pant for some of the most painfully awkward moments of the film. Blissfully, Humphrey walks back in to collect the idiot and frog-marches him to the projection room.
And in the projection room, we find something miraculous. Something astounding. Something that made more chills go up my spine than even the multiplane camera.
Yes, Mr. Benchley has found Walt Disney at long, long last. He’s sitting very strangely (who sits like that?) waiting for his new picture to begin and is the very picture of agreeability and humility. Of course, it’s a very obvious publicity stunt because his animators are outside the doors protesting favoritism and poor working conditions, but hey, that’s no different from the Disney company today. It’s so weird to see him this young, too. Most video footage of the man is from the Disneyland T.V. show, towards the end of his life. Seeing him in his thirties, full of energy and not quite yet everyone’s favorite uncle is surreal in the best possible way.
Anyway, Humphrey has Walt sign for Benchley like he’s a package. Benchley rifles through his pockets, handing off all the caricatures to a benignly puzzled Walt. He also reveals that he stole the centaurette maquette right in front of Walt Disney you do not do that dude. Just as he finally pulls the Reluctant Dragon book out of hammerspace, Walt turns his attention to the screen and the picture begins.
It’s… The Reluctant Dragon!
And it is magnificent.
We open on a beautiful multiplane camera shot of a valley, where a young Boy is reading. Suddenly, a flock of sheep race past him, followed by his frantic father. Apparently, the old shepherd saw something terrible up on the hill. The Boy is remarkably blasé when he says “it’s only a dragon”. The father runs off screaming to warn the village. The contrast between the two reactions is hysterical, and really sets the tone for the short.
It’s a really good thing this dragon isn’t a threat. The Boy creeps up the hill armed with only a slingshot. In most stories, this kid would wind up barbecued and fileted. As it stands, though, when he enters the cave, he finds… this.
The dragon. Oh my God, you guys, I love this dragon. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s never battled or kidnapped damsels or scourged the countryside. He just wants to write poetry and play his flute and prance around his cave all day. His voice is hysterical. His poems are hilariously awful. And best of all, he’s SO campy and flamboyant, it’s hilarious. This guy might be a new favorite Disney character for me because I just love him that much.
The Flamboyant Dragon celebrates his newfound friendship with the Boy by reciting one of his poems. The Boy is confused because The Dragon is like nothing he’s ever seen in one of his books, and he warns him that the villagers are coming to attack. The Dragon waves him off saying he’s far too lazy to make enemies (honestly, same) and the Boy stomps off, frustrated.
Miffed, the Boy returns to the village which is all done up for a festival. The great Sir Giles is riding into the village on his white horse. The Boy hears the cheering crowd call him the Dragon Killer and races up to warn The Dragon again. The Dragon is busy playing flute for his little bird friends and waves the Boy off.
The Boy is annoyed at being written off like this, but he sneaks in to see Sir Giles. He finds him in the bath singing, just like he did the Dragon. However, while the Dragon was embarrassed by this fact, Sir Giles just lets the kid waltz right in and if that’s not suspect nothing is. The Boy tells him the Dragon doesn’t want to fight and he just wants to write poetry, which has the opposite of the intended effect. Turns out, Sir Giles is a flouncing, flamboyant poet, too!
The Boy takes Sir Giles up to the cave, where the Dragon is prancing around singing his own theme song. It’s a catchy little tune about how he just wants to play. He sees them coming and announces that he’s having a picnic and begs the Boy and Sir Giles to join him. Sir Giles and the Dragonget on like a house on fire, with the Dragon tossing jam sandwiches at him like machine gun bullets. And then there’s the bad poetry. There’s so, so much bad poetry and I love it so much. Ode to an Upside Down Cake has to be seen to be believed:
I have no words. Only joy.
The Boy spends the entirety of the scene wondering why everyone he meets is Like This. Everyone knows knights and dragons fight, dangit, and the whole village is expecting it. This is where the short (and the story it’s based on) kind of lose their focus. At first we establish that the village wants the dragon dead because dragons eat livestock and kidnap maidens and stuff. From this point onwards, though, it comes off as a sporting event and I do not understand.
Sir Giles and the Boy do, and they get around the Dragon’s staunch refusals by appealing to his artistic nature. It’s a beautiful spot for a fight, they say, and the people will adore him. This whole section is in verse, which I thought was a clever little touch. The Dragon is this close to being charmed by the poetry, and then he realizes that he might get hurt. But it’s okay! Sir Giles has another plan!
Cut to the villagers, who have now fully embraced the sporting event thing with the snazziest dragon balloons I’ve ever seen. But there’s a problem. The Boy sits with the Dragon in a cave, miserable and disappointed. It turns out, you need to be angry to breathe fire, and that’s just not an emotion the Dragon has in his body. That is, until the Boy calls him a punk poet. Then we get a reaction highly reminiscent of the “I’m angry!” scene from Enchanted but with more fire. Giggling maniacally, the dragon blows fire all over the place, while the Boy shrieks “punk poet!” over and over again.
And then the fight. And there is so much glorious, glorious comedy here and I love it so much. The highlight is the part where Sir Giles and the Dragonrun into the cave and bang and shout like they’re actually fighting. They’re really having tea! Giles runs back out with a teacup in hand and doesn’t notice until the Boy shouts. His deadpan “Egad” makes the whole scene and had me in stitches. Then later, the Dragon and Sir Giles waltz in the middle of a smoke cloud. Because love is love whether it’s between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a man and a dragon. Don’t judge.
The Dragon pretends to die in a suitably over-the-top fashion, chewing the scenery to shreds. The short ends with Sir Giles informing the village that he’s reformed the dragon. No one questions this, nor how the Dragon is not dead, and the Dragon takes his rightful place among society.
As much as I loathed most of the rest of the movie, this short was gold. It had heart, it was beautifully animated, and best of all, it was hysterically funny. The Boy is just so over everybody’s nonsense, Sir Giles is a great reversal of the usual knight tropes, and there are no words for how much I adore that ridiculous Dragon. He’s an absolute blast to watch and the fact that I’d never heard of him before this review is criminal.
But as the short fades out… no. NO. No, movie. Fade out on the cartoon, and let that be it. Don’t go back to live action. Don’t do it. Don’t you dare.
It’s a short moment, of Mrs. Benchley nagging him that he took too long to give Walt the book. It’s like she has no idea an animated movie takes months to years to complete and he probably had the idea for the short eons before we had to endure Benchley. But all Benchley has to say is a bunch of unintelligible nonsense in an effort at Donald Duck’s voice. It’s a completely idiotic callback and makes what could have been a solid ending fall flat. Because Benchley just cannot let this movie have good things.
There’s not a whole lot of stunning visuals to this one, but the ones that stand out look great. Those would be the Rainbow Room and the opening shots of the Reluctant Dragon’s village. As a whole, though, the studio looks very cold and clinical, which I guess is to be expected. We’re seeing the infancy of the magic we’ve come to expect. Also, I just really like color.
There’s really not much that stands out here. The two instrumental pieces that do are cheery instrumental renditions of Whistle While You Work and the opening of Heigh Ho (“We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig the whole day through…”). They’re fun and suit the idea of a studio tour well.
I also want to bring up how much fun it is to listen to an opera sung by a duck and a chicken. That was one of the highlights of the film, and I wish I could find what short it was in. You would really expect it to grate, but I was crying laughing.
Finally, there was the Reluctant Dragon’s theme song, which apparently was based on a poem? I can’t find it anywhere but people posted different lyrics than the ones that appear in the film. Either way, it comes off as a little unnecessary, because at this point the Dragon’s character is well-established. It’s fun, though, and watching this dragon prance around doing his thing is never not a blast.
99 percent of this movie is insufferable. Benchley is the worst tour guide I have ever seen and I cannot imagine his brand of “comedy” being popular. He’s misogynistic, he’s crass, he’s buffoonish, he’s insulting. Going behind the scenes of the studio is cool, though. I just wish we could see it through the eyes of someone who appreciates it and doesn’t try so hard to steal the spotlight. Even the actors playing the studio workers look uncomfortable every time he opens his mouth, especially poor Doris who bears the brunt of his lechery.
The title short, though… my god, that was a riot! Apparently Disney execs agreed, because most releases of Reluctant Dragon are just the short, packaged with other shorts. The characters are fun, the story his relatable, and the animation is bright and fluid. It had me laughing out loud about a dozen times in its twenty minute runtime, which is more than I can say for any of the remaining hour’s attempts at humor.
Favorite scene: “POOOOOOR little upside down cake, cares and woes you’ve got ’em, BECAAAAAAAUSE, little upside down cake, your top is on your bottom!” The whole poem had me in stitches.
FINAL RATING: 4/10. Don’t misunderstand me. Three of those points belong to the short. One of them belongs to the combination of seeing the multiplane camera and Walt Disney himself. The rest of it was utterly painful. But the title short? Perfection.