In 1940, Walt Disney was struck with the biggest setback in his career in over a decade: having raked in piles of cash never before seen in the history of Hollywood with his instant-classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he proceeded to roll the dice on two ambitious, costly animated features, two works which wouldn't only prove that Snow White was no mere accident, but which would absolutely flatten it in terms of visual creativity and artistry. The first of these, Pinocchio, was seen as too grim and disjointed, and audiences responded sluggishly. The second, Fantasia, was straight-up avant-garde, two hours of experimental animation married to classical music, and the crowds that stayed away from Pinocchio ran away in sheer terror.
Thus did one of cinema's all-time most audience-friendly entertainers and most criminally incompetent businessmen piss away a fortune on two vanity projects - vanity projects that have been more than redeemed by history's judgment, of course, but that couldn't possibly matter to Walt and his far more practical brother Roy, with one film, the richly-detailed and expensive Bambi, much too advanced in production to abandon, and another, the deliberately cheap Dumbo, still too far away from its release to fulfill its necessary function of bringing some desperately-needed cash into the Disney Studios' coffers. With World War II effectively eliminating the foreign markets that might have brought some - any! money to the company, Walt was forced to look for a stop-gap measure, something that would be fast and easy and not tie up his resources too terribly long, and cost little enough that it couldn't help but turn a profit.
It was, in short, the same problem that would plague Disney in the years during and immediately following America's involvement in the war, and the response was the same: take the projects we have lying around, too slight for feature-length treatment, and yet too special to get dumped as regular old pre-feature shorts, and cobble them together into a movie long enough to get released. History would call these the "package films", and to be scrupulously accurate, that's not exactly what the company released in the summer of 1941, under the title The Reluctant Dragon. Sure, the film was in large part a vehicle for a short film that had been largely completed when the feature went into production; but the whole thing is structured along a very clear narrative thread, something not at all true of e.g. Make Mine Music. That narrative thread makes The Reluctant Dragon one of the most fascinating, irregular curios in all the cobwebby corners of Disney history.
Somewhere along the line, Walt had come into the idea that regular American moviegoers, having no real clue how an animated picture came into being, would love to have a peak inside the dream factory. Walt also had the idea that regular American moviegoers would flock to see non-representational art set to Bach, so he probably oughtn't have been trusted on this point, yet the idea stuck that the time was ripe for a quick & dirty documentary inside the brand new Burbank animation studios which had just opened at the very tail end of 1939. Though the word "documentary" suggests a project substantially more factual than is the case. It's filmed in all of the actual rooms where the Disney films were made; it shows, in essence, all of the procedures that go into making a cel-animated film. But it's transparently staged nonetheless.
The Reluctant Dragon opens in the home of- scratch that. In fact, it opens with opening credits, and these are in their way just about the most special part of the whole thing. As the cards for the animators involved in the creation of the four cartoon sequences seen in the movie, their handwritten names appear next to caricatures of themselves. In all the chronicles of Walt Disney Feature Animation, I know of no other single moment in which the animators who were so important in the successful prosecution of Walt's vision were brought to the fore, given emphasis and personality to such a degree - it certainly doesn't happen anywhere else in this film, given that virtually everyone who speaks onscreen is a professional actor.
After this nice little touch, we are at the "home" of famed essayist and film star Robert Benchley, who is playing with a dart gun in the pool and not listening to his wife (Nana Bryant, who was not in fact Robert Benchley's wife, nor connected to him in any sort of personal way) as she reads Kenneth Graham's 1898 short fantasy The Reluctant Dragon. Stunningly a propos of nothing, she proposes that Benchley should attempt to pitch this story to Walt Disney, causing him to hi-lariously fumble about and fall into the pool; when he splashes back up, he's spitting animated bubbles.
The Benchleys arrive at the Disney Studios, where Robert is ushered in with remarkably little effort, while Fake Mrs. Benchley leaves to do some errands. The remainder of the film consists of Benchley's attempts to dodge the irritatingly officious guide Humphrey (Buddy Pepper) by darting into different rooms of the studio campus: and in doing so, accidentally giving both himself and the audience a whirlwind tour of how traditional animation is made. There's a classroom where animators study an elephant to determine how to caricature such an animal without making it look outright false; a scoring stage where Clarence "Ducky" Nash and Florence Gill provide voices for their signature characters, Donald Duck and Clara Cluck while an orchestra plays the music they're singing along to; the Foley stage, in which Benchley gets to watch the various tools that Foley artists use to mimic real-life sounds, explained by a young woman from the art department named Doris (Frances Gifford).
This sequence also brings us to the first of the four animated pieces in the movie, which is nothing so much as a commercial for Dumbo: it's a short journey for that film's train Casey Jr. involving just about every environmental sound effect which you could possibly expect to run across in two minutes.
Leaving that room, Benchley sneaks through yet another door, and the black-and-white film switches to lurid Technicolor; for this is the camera room, where Benchley learns of Disney's marvelous innovation, the multiplane camera.
He also get to see how animation is photographed, a laborious process involving one sheet of celluloid at a time being placed on pins and then clamped underneath a frame, filmed, and then removed.
Then it's own to the Ink & Paint department, the only place at Disney where most of the employees were women; and the place where the messy pencil sketches of the animators are turned into the beautiful, hyper-saturated images we know and love. Here we get a short, maybe ten-second snippet of the title character from Bambi.
Then it's on to the maquette room, where the three-dimensional reference models used by the animators to get their characters' shapes right. This is one of the film's real treasure troves for the Disney buff. For here we get to see figures from Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp - movies that were barely into development when WWII broke out, and had to be shelved, meaning that the maquettes we see in the movie are somewhat different than the versions of the characters who made it to theaters over a decade later.
Even more unexpectedly, one of the notorious African-American centaurettes from the "Pastoral Symphony" sequence of Fantasia is seen; seen, and pawed at by Benchley in a most uncomfortable way. With that character having been censored out of the movie and flushed down the memory hole, The Reluctant Dragon is the only "official" way that this regrettable piece of Disney history (yet how much more regrettable that Disney indulges in self-censorship!) remains on record.
The next room is also pretty damn special: Benchley wanders into the middle of a storyboarding session, led by a pre-stardom Alan Ladd (who was not, incidentally, a Disney storyboard artist. In case you were wondering). The story men are working on a project called "Baby Weems", and they ask Benchley to serve as a pair of fresh eyes. What he sees is one of the most peculiar and interesting sequences in Disney's history: "limited animation" doesn't begin to describe it. It's photography of storyboards, with voice actors providing the story of a baby born with the ability to speak and think at a genius level, and frankly, it's not a terribly diverting film per se. It's all in the presentation: as a tribute to the fine art of the Disney storyboard, it is unmatched, even as some of the camera movement and some of the rare motion we see make it obvious that this is not just a series of boards. It's unlike anything else in the studio's output, is all, exquisitely beautiful and unusually aesthetically bold. Given that the sequence unquestionably grew from a desire to be as cheap as possible, it's all the more shocking that it should be this lovely.
This sequence has another claim to fame, and it's enough to make The Reluctant Dragon perhaps the most influential film in Disney's history. Seriously. See, when Walt decided to make a "documentary" about his studio, he had to confront the fact that nobody in his company knew how to make a live-action film - till that point, the only non-animated footage ever produced at the Disney Studios were the interstitials in Fantasia. So he did the humble thing, and asked his buddy Darryl F. Zanuck for help. Zanuck sent over a contract director, Alfred L. Werker, to make the movie for Disney; not a huge sacrifice on his part, for Werker is not one of history's better-loved studio hacks. Also along for the ride were two cinematographers, who are loved: Bert Glennon (late of Stagecoach and a goodly number of other John Ford pictures) shot the 20 minutes in black-and-white; Winton C. Hoch, one of the inventors of the three-strip Technicolor process (who would work quite a bit with Ford in the future, shooting the exorbitantly gorgeous She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), handled the color sequences.
So you have these folks here, just on hand to help some idiot animators film a cheapie documentary, and what do they see, that no other live-action filmmakers had ever seen before? Storyboards. A way of laying out the narrative of film in terms of its shots, prior to ever building a set or assembling a crew. History does not record what Werker did with his new knowledge; whether he went straight to Zanuck and said what he found, or whether it was just one of the those things, trickling out slowly. But nowadays, just about every major motion picture is heavily storyboarded before it gets shot. If The Reluctant Dragon had no other legacy, let it have that.
Next up, Benchley pays a visit to the animators themselves, Ward Kimball and Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore (none of whom are named onscreen). They invite him to watch their newest Goofy short, "How to Ride a Horse"; it's tempting to assume this was a parody of Benchley's famous, award-winning project How to Sleep, a jokey short that spawned a whole series. In which case much of the history of one of Disney's most beloved characters started with a sly in-joke. At any rate, "How to Ride a Horse", which received theatrical release nine years later, is not among the funnier of Goofy's "How to" films, and the animation is unmistakably rushed and cheap; but it gets the job done.
Finally, Humphrey finds Benchley and marches him into a screening room where Walt is about to watch the newest completed film. Just as Benchley is about to pitch his idea, the lights go down and - lo and behold! - Disney has already made "The Reluctant Dragon"!
In the years since the feature fell off the earth, this two-reel short is the only thing anyone has seen much of. It's certainly not without merit: a goofy fractured fairy tale about a dragon and a knight who'd rather write poetry than fight, and the irritable young boy who wants to force them into conflict. Truth be told, the motivations throughout the piece are a bit hard to keep square; first the boy wants this, then that; and it has not remotely the same ending that Fake Mrs. Benchley read in the opening scene.
But it's still a charming piece all in all, with some delightful nonsense rhyming , and a truly excellent performance by Barnett Parker as the dragon; he has the stuffy primness of a cartoon Briton, but ends up being the character we find most sympathetic and likable. The animation is no stronger than in "How to Ride a Horse": just look at the stripped-down backgrounds, and you can clearly see how fast Disney needed to get this little filmlet cranked out.
Ironically, given that we earlier saw a camera operator patiently explain how desperately important it is to blow all of the dust off the cels before they get photographed, there is plainly a smudge on the glass frame of the photography table in one shot. For all that I can complain about its shortcomings, though, "The Reluctant Dragon" has fun, appealing characters, and a breezy story, and it would have been a standout in any one of the subsequent package films.
This project absolutely failed to meet its goals in 1941: released right in the middle of the crippling animators' strike that, in its way, forever changed the fortunes of the company, it was hard for anyone to take seriously Walt's theme-park vision of how his workers lived and played; there was moreover a strong feeling among critics and viewers that this was a dirty trick, Disney's attempt to sell people an animated feature that was only half-animated. Even at a tiny budget, The Reluctant Dragon lost money.
Seven decades later, it's much easier to appreciate the film as a queer little time capsule, a fantasised version of how animated movies were actually made in 1941, beyond a doubt, but still the glimpses we get of the Disney Studios has a measure of truth behind it nonetheless. That is the multiplane camera; that is Clarence Nash and Florence Gill doing their voices; that is the very Foley equipment used to make all those sound effects. A truly great animation documentary? Absolutely not - but it still is a decent and fun animation documentary, and those were thin on the ground before the age of EPKs and DVD special features. There is history here, even if it has been sanitised - it is the only history we're going to get (besides, even Walt Disney's inveterate showmanship ends up having some value: as a snapshot of how Hollywood liked to think of itself, it's irreplaceable). The Reluctant Dragon is rare but not impossible to find; and it is absolutely essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in the art of animation, warts and all. It is a snapshot of a world that simply doesn't exist, and it is to be treasured.