Plot: Robert Benchley wants to pitch an idea about making a book called The Reluctant Dragon into a cartoon to Walt Disney. As he enters the animation studios, he is sent on a tour while he waits for his appointment and is escorted by an annoyingly uptight man named Humphrey. As he tries to dodge Humphrey, he finds his way into the various departments of Disney’s animation studios and gets to see how animated features are made. Oh and eventually you’ll see a cartoon version of The Reluctant Dragon.
Breakdown: The Reluctant Dragon is a bit of an odd duck, and really seems like it’s false advertising a little.
Most of the movie is made up of behind-the-scenes exploration of Disney’s animation studio, showcasing nearly every aspect of making an animated feature from the voice acting to foley artists, animations, backgrounds, music, character design and more. The Reluctant Dragon feature doesn’t come until the very end of the film and only takes up about 20 minutes of the runtime.
But maybe calling it false advertising is too harsh considering that there is a message at the front of the movie that says “This picture is made in answer to the many requests to show the backstage life of animated cartoons.” so at least it’s telling you straight out that its intention is purely that and The Reluctant Dragon is basically a sample of the work they do there.
My problem is that the box art is nothing but The Reluctant Dragon (with Baby Weems) and the title is simply The Reluctant Dragon. If some kid really just wanted to watch some cutesy dragon story and ended up with nearly an hour of education on the ins and outs of animation, they’d likely be a little pissed.
I’ve decided not to really take that into consideration in my final verdict. While, yes, it is sneaky, I want to stress how much I enjoyed this movie and the animated shorts included with it. So let’s dissect this movie into the various segments shall we?
Live Action/Behind the Scenes:
I adore this part of the movie. I really can’t get enough of it. I love seeing all of the various aspects of making an animated feature, and I especially love how fun and kooky they make the world of Disney Animation Studios out to be.
There actually is a plot here beyond just taking a tour of everything in the studio and seeing everything in development. The story of the movie is that a man named Robert Benchley is prompted by his wife to make a pitch to Walt Disney involving making an animated movie out of a children’s book called The Reluctant Dragon. He RELUCTANTLY (Bwahaha!) agrees and he’s brought on a tour of the studio by an annoying man tasked with essentially babysitting him until his appointment.
As he tries to avoid him, and sometimes by accident, he sees the inner workings of the various departments in the studio starting with a life drawing class, then going onto music and voice acting work, followed by foley work, then the black and white movie shifts to color (Technicolor!) during the scenes in the camera room, which is awesome, (adore the multiplane camera), the ink and paint department, the maquette department, storyboard department, animation department and finally meeting with Mr. Disney himself in the projection room for a twist ending.
Our first animated short, and yes there are several, is during the segment in which Mr. Benchley is in the foley department. The employees are setting up sound effects for a short involving a train, and the subsequent short is our first feature.
The short is very simple. It’s a train named Casey Junior, the same train from Dumbo, riding down the tracks and getting into hijinks. Like you’d expect of a short animated Disney feature made in the 40’s, everything is very overly exaggerated, practically everything has a face or is otherwise living, and conflicts just tend to suddenly happen. All of this short is intercut with shots of the foley artists making the sounds for each action that occurs on-screen, which I find to be awesome.
As for the short itself, it’s fine. It’s very short, only a couple minutes long, but it’s a little entertaining. Animation on the bullet train was a bit rocky, but overall solid in that department too.
There’s a very short animation of Donald Duck interacting with Benchley as he explains the way that animation works. It’s a very cute albeit extremely short segment.
A short shown while in the storyboard department, Baby Weems is definitely a unique experience from a Disney perspective. The start of the story is merely showing the various segments of the storyboard for the short in progress. Once we get past the first part, however, the rest of the short is very minimally animated while still showing the rough art style of the storyboard. Basically an animatic.
You just don’t expect a short like this with Disney. Everything traditionally animated by Disney is usually very polished and fluid. It’s neat to see an animated feature of theirs in such a rough format.
This is the first of the shorts to actually have a plot, story, as well as beginning, middle and end.
The short is about a newborn baby who is incredibly intelligent. Not only can he talk, but he is also one of the most intelligent super geniuses ever born, even easily debunking one of Einstein’s theories. Everyone in the world is fascinated by Baby Weems, and he instantly becomes a public sensation.
However, his parents can’t even get a second to see him due to his incredibly hectic schedule. As he grows more and more famous, it only becomes more difficult to even catch a glimpse of their son, and they get so desperate to have him with them that they put the radio that constantly reports his activities in a bassinet.
Baby Weems soon falls ill, and the world is taken by storm by the news. We get a slue of fairly racist depictions of people across the world including probably the most racist depiction of a black person that I’ve ever seen. I was going to avoid posting a screencap, because the shot just makes me that uncomfortable, but I can’t explain this properly without you seeing it so here ya go.
It’s like they mixed those racist cartoons of black people back in those days and combined them with a duck. It’s so ridiculous that I’m just mind-boggled by it. They even animate the mouth moving really fast and have the sound effect that accompanies it be clacking, like a duck bill….What is even this?
Anyway, the world obsesses over the health of Baby Weems, and since the parents are so fiercely barred from seeing their child, they’re forced to wait outside the hospital and constantly monitor the radio for news. Baby Weems eventually recovers, and as he’s set to make what is supposed to be a world-changing announcement, he reveals that he can no longer talk and is no longer a mega ultra genius. He’s merely a baby of the goo-goo-ga-ga kind.
The world dumps Baby Weems like he’s moldy cheese, and he’s finally handed over to his parents to live as a happy healthy baby boy.
This short is very interesting, creative, and certainly memorable….I do have one major problem with it, though.
Baby Weems….is an asshole.
Think about it, he was a super genius. One that seemingly cared a lot about changing the world for the better and caring for people. He had to have known that he had parents who would logically want to be with him and loved him deeply, yet he never tried to make any time in his schedule to see them at all. They never had a millisecond with the kid. He was taken into the custody of the spotlight from practically the second he left the womb. It’s terrible and probably illegal how his parents were always barred by other people to see him, but the fact that Baby Weems never spoke up to let them in or wished to even visit them is just awful.
How to Ride a Horse:
I adore the how-to videos with Goofy. They are by far my favorite type of Disney short. This one is very good, and I got plenty of laughs out of it, but sadly it’s not really one of my favorites.
The Reluctant Dragon:
The main feature of our movie is obviously The Reluctant Dragon, which is debuted when Benchley meets Walt. The big twist or irony is that Benchley went through all that trouble to get a meeting with Walt to pitch a short or movie based on The Reluctant Dragon book only to find that Disney had just got done producing one. I would’ve checked with the author before going through all that, but whatever.
As for the short itself…..I don’t like it.
The art and animation are lovely as always….it’s the story and the characters, moreso one in particular that I don’t like. The story of The Reluctant Dragon involves a medieval town going crazy after spotting a dragon. A local farmhand’s son who seems to be quite the bookworm goes off to investigate only to find that the dragon is far from the big bad violent creature he’s made out to be. He speaks in a very effeminate manner, has very fancy mannerisms and is disgusted by the concept of performing regular dragon duties like battling knights, reigning terror on countrysides and kidnapping damsels. He’d rather do nicer things like write poetry, playing the flute and taking baths.
The young boy, disappointed that the dragon is nothing like what his books describe, walks away mid-conversation with the dragon and goes back to the village only to find that a knight, Sir Giles, has taken it upon himself to kill the dragon.
The boy returns to the dragon to warn him, but he just scoffs at the idea of fighting and shoos the boy away. He decides to speak with Sir Giles next only to find that the real Sir Giles is also far from the knights depicted in his books. Instead of a muscular manly swordsman with long blond hair, he meets a very spindly older man who also writes poetry. Upon hearing that the dragon is kind and will not fight, Sir Giles agrees to go to the dragon’s location and speak with him about the impending fight.
When they arrive, they have a nice picnic with the dragon, and he and Sir Giles bond over poetry. When the boy finally breaks up open mic night, he brings up the imminent fight only to have the dragon completely refuse to take part.
The boy and Sir Giles then romanticize the battle and shower the dragon with flattery to get him to partake. It works for a bit until he hears that Sir Giles will be using a spear. Worried about getting hurt, the dragon refuses again, but they develop a secret plan to avoid injury. Also, this entire scene is in poem form….
The battle is made into a big sporting event, and after getting the dragon mad enough to breathe fire, the fight begins. Obviously, it’s a staged fight and Sir Giles and the dragon screw around while putting on a show for the audience. I will admit that this is the first part of the short to actually make me smile. Some aspects of it are pretty funny like making the dragon mad and the horse getting irritated at the silly shenanigans of the dragon and Sir Giles when he was expecting a legit fight.
In the end, Sir Giles pretends to slay the dragon and the battle ends. Later, the dragon, despite seemingly being killed, is claimed to have been tamed by Sir Giles, and the local villagers welcome him as a member of their society.
And to wrap up the live action segment, after the film, we see Benchley driving home with his wife as she berates him for letting them make the film while he was dillydallying around the studio. Because, yes, they developed an entire short animated film in 45 minutes. She continues to rag on him claiming anyone else would’ve caught onto the idea and got it to Disney long before now, but Benchley basically tells her to pipe down in a Donald Duck voice and we fade out. Also, she’s the one who first gave the idea to Benchley. So, technically, she should be at fault for not showing the idea to him sooner.
Bottom Line: I really do like this movie a lot. I love seeing and learning about all of the various aspects of the animation process, seeing in-progress animated works of early Disney, behind-the-scenes tidbits, and I love the tone and creativity put into its presentation. The shorts are all pretty memorable and entertaining in their own rights while only varying slightly in quality and entertainment value. However, the big issue for me here is the main feature presentation of The Reluctant Dragon.
If The Reluctant Dragon were just another short included among all the rest, then I’d probably be fine with it existing in this movie without really giving it much of a thought. However, considering this is the main feature of our movie and the main focus of all of the advertising, including the box art and theatrical posters, I am forced to give it the scrutiny it deserves.
It goes without saying that the art and animation for the short are fantastic a la classic Disney, though I did spot one slight animation error during the battle. Some of the sound effects or lack thereof bothered me, but I was overall fine with it.
My issue, as I stated, is with the story and the characters. Most notably the dragon himself. Who came up with his character? Because he just comes off as a really wimpy self-important snob with a seriously annoying voice and manner of speaking. This probably makes for more comedy, but a more likable and sympathetic option would probably be someone less selfish and annoying and more gentle, kind, shy and not annoying.
The story is not really very creative. It’s the same story of avoiding a fight by having a fake one that has been done numerous times, even before this period of time. They’re just adapting a dragon vs. knight motif to it. You can predict everything that will happen from the second you see that Sir Giles is equally as soft and squishy in character. The ending also makes no sense. They straight out say that they’re staging the dragon’s death, and they do, yet he returns later to be a member of the village?
Like I said, I did get a few smiles out of it, but no laughs, and it’s disappointing that this is our main feature of the movie.
My final rating is taking into regard anyone with an interest in the animation process and Disney works, and people who go into this not expecting a feature length dragon movie.
If you meet those criteria, then it’s a pretty darn good movie. If you don’t, then probably move on.
Recommended Audience: Outside of some racist depictions brought to you by the ’40s (I didn’t even mention the Chinese elephant they were drawing, complete with music track…) and some nip-less nudity on a female centaur figure, it’s perfectly fine. I don’t know how many kids would really be all that interested in the live action parts, though. 7+
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One thought on “Exploring Disney’s Castle: The Reluctant Dragon (1941) Review”
I remember you mentioning that you were going to review this movie a while ago when we had that text block conversation. Good job on the review. I agree if The Reluctant Dragon was a separate short film, it would’ve made more sense. The behind-the-scenes animation stuff could be it’s own independent documentary or docu-fiction with how it’s framed.
That African character is easily the most racist character they’ve ever made, so I do agree with you there. He makes other Disney characters with stereotypical Black undertones or overtones like Sunflower from the original cut of Fantasia, the crows from Dumbo, King Louie and Shenzi look politically correct by comparison. That’s just a gigantic sack of no on so many levels.
The Reluctant Dragon did have a weird voice. I get what they were trying to do by making him a softie, but he comes off as way too effeminate. They could at least have him talk in a lighter and more shy voice and not so flamboyant. Okay, the part where he gets insulted by being called a punk poet was funny though. The ending made no sense with him being “dead”, but suddenly is back and tamed. It’s also weird how he showed up again in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? of all things.
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