Thursday, July 9, 2015

Reluctant Dragon, The (1941)

Director: Alfred Werker (live action), Hamilton Luske (animation)
Starring: Robert Benchley

Animated cartoons have been entertaining audiences almost as long as there have been motion pictures, but have you ever wondered how an animation studio makes these colorful creations? Well that is exactly the focus of Walt Disney’s feature The Reluctant Dragon. Although the title harkens thoughts of yet another fairytale-like cartoon, which is actually the truth as at the conclusion of this feature, the movie actually focuses on providing audiences with an fanciful inside look at the operations of the then newly constructed Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, CA.

The Reluctant Dragon is a live action and animated feature that provides look into the many operating departments of a working animation studio, showcasing a live action tour with various animated shorts mixed in concluding with an extended animated short about a peaceful dragon who wishes not to fight the frightened village’s knight. Actor Robert Benchley finds himself on the Disney Studio lot to pitch a children’s story to Walt Disney for a possible future project. Distracted Benchley is detoured through the various departments of a veritable magical factory that brings some the most colorful cartoons to life. Benchley is introduced to the numerous facilities for modeling, scoring, foley effects, as well as the camera department, ink and paint, storyboarding, and even encounters real Disney animators and the voice of Donald Duck, Charles Nash. When Robert Benchley finally finds Walt it is revealed that Walt was already in the final stages of producing “The Reluctant Dragon” which is being showcased in the screening room where they meet. As a conclusion we watch extended short for which the title of the feature is comes from which features the tale of a passive dragon forced to stage a battle with a knight to convince a frightened village that he was defeated and reforms so that he can live in peace with the villagers.

If one comes into this feature thinking they will be receiving the very same quality as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio, you will be greatly disappointed. What you actually get in this movie is a mix of a live screwball live action comedy that leads to animated shorts. This film is far from the expectations Disney had built up for his feature length films, but that is not to say it is not entertaining.

An example of how this film presents the studio as a magical place.
What we do see in this motion picture is a look into Walt Disney’s brand new studio which was built on the massive profits of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  The campus is spirited and filled with kinetic energy as our vicarious host, Robert Benchley, discovers the many processes on production for an animated picture. Almost as if living in a wonderland of Willy Wonka, the Disney Studios is painted up to be a magical place where every job is new, creative, and fun. The film even takes a chapter out of The Wizard of Oz as Benchley has a moment of turning from black and white to Technicolor when he enters the inner sanctums of the studio. Basically in the end we get a grand advertisement for Disney products wrapped in a nearly 75 minute package.

The Reluctant Dragon was the result of timing and bad luck for Walt Disney. Despite the capabilities of producing highly artistic animated features, Disney felt the sting of the box office failure of Fantasia. With a big loss from their recent feature, the shrinking European markets due to war, and a terrible animators strike at the studio that troubled Walt, Disney needed a cheap product that would turn profits to help the studio’s sagging pocket book. The film as well cites inspiration from many fan letters about wanting to see how their favorite animated pictures are made; therefore Walt and his team produced this feature that did just that in a very Disney-like fashion.
Walt Disney with Robert Benchley.

Many other studios such as MGM and Paramount had done various shorts subject films displaying the numerous departments and the various stages of working a film through the motion picture factories that the studios were at the time. These visual tours tended to be dull and were presented more as educational shorts than anything fun or entertaining with the exception of the occasional star sighting or cameo. Here Disney presents his studio through rose colored glasses, almost as if its employees are living animated characters in themselves working in a land of childish playful whimsy.

Along with this tour we are presented a package of short subjects, therefore making this feature the first “package film” in a long string of films the Disney Studio would produce during the very financially trying period of the 1940s. The film features the Goofy short “How to Ride a Horse,” a quick sneak peek at the up-coming releases of Dumbo and Bambi, Benchley conversing with Donald Duck as well as his actual voice actor Charles Nash, and showcases the short by which the film gets its title. The animation throughout is of Disney short subject quality, below the superiority of the prior feature length pictures. The total time of animation outweighs the live action segments, however it can be said that the live action is far more memorable than the silly cartoons that fill most of the movie.

To make the picture Disney would hire for the first time an outside director, Alfred Werker, from 20th Century-Fox in order to direct the live segments, while animator Hamilton Luske, the supervising director from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, overlooked the animated sequences. Robert Benchley was a well-known humorist and screen comedian that would bring familiarity to the live segments as his humor allows for fun to ensue in his discovery of inner workings of this dreamlike studio. To add to the whimsy of the picture is a small time supporting actress Frances Gifford playing a pretty studio inker who also helps in the sound effects department who aids Benchley on a portion of his journey. Also featured in brief appearances are valued Disney artists Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, and Norm Ferguson; no names to most movie lovers, but major players in the shaping of various Disney styles from the early days of the studio and the future decades.

The motion picture opened to the sight of picket lines from the striking animators who felt Walt Disney was unjustly not allowing his work force to unionize. Sympathizers would line the sidewalks of Los Angeles based theaters to spread the news of how they felt of their studio head and what they believed were his unfair practices towards his workforce, stating on sign “The Reluctant Disney.”

An inker fills in the color for an animation cell of Bambi.
For audiences eager to view the next Disney feature most came away from the theater with disappointment. Expecting more fairytale instead of a screwy live action comedy mixed with four average Disney shorts left audiences and critics with a bad taste in their mouths. This type of entertainment would be of similar quality to that of Disney’s later venture into television in the mid to late 1950s which in itself was highly praised as an anthology series enjoyed by viewers for its superior quality for television programming, however that would be years away and in a different medium. Expectation was the downfall of this feature.

The quality of entertainment is there as Disney teaches his audience about the cartoon production process in a fun and enjoyable way, but what audiences wanted at that time from Disney was not what they received.

Even though the film was made relatively inexpensively on Disney terms, the poor reviews and bad press from the animators’ strike resulted in a loss at the box office. Things were not looking good for Disney with the result of another flop. The studio would eventually settle the strike, but Walt was so jaded by the events that he would lose interest in his animated features. Dumbo and Bambi, the two up-coming features given sneak peaks in The Reluctant Dragon, would go on the produce meager profits while still suffering from the immediate struggles of limited audiences due to World War II.

Benchley enjoys the work of animator Ward Kimball.
The Disney Studio would fall into a massive lull as America joined the struggle in overseas. The War Department would partially take over the studio, commissioning Disney to produce propaganda and war time training films on extremely low budgets, while Disney had his animators focusing on quailty. To make up for the loss of income the studio would begin to produce more package films, movies consisting of an arrangement of original extended shorts with a loose theme, to keep the animators working on their practice of storytelling while the feature length division of the studio was handcuffed by the economy of the time. It would not be until the 1950s, several years after the war, when Disney animation would revitalize the higher quality feature length features.

The Reluctant Dragon is more or less a forgettable feature in the library of Walt Disney features, but has its cult following among deep-rooted Disney fans as a look into the fanciful studio when Disney and his key animators was younger, and before Walt became more of a face personality with his anthology television series in the mid-1950s. During the run of that series Disney would continue to give television audience fictionalized tours of his enchanted studio and it was perhaps in part thanks to this feature that aided in the style of what that series would become as it entertained the future baby-boomer generation.

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