MAY 23, 2013 SCREENING: THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941)
As I kid, I always used to confuse Disney’s two loveable bumbling animated dragon movies, 1941’s The Reluctant Dragon and 1977’s Pete’s Dragon, so I decided to watch them back to back on consecutive days during my fantasy film marathon. How do they stack up? Well, the good news is that once they’re fresh in your mind, the two movies don’t really have much in common aside from featuring an overweight gentle friendly dragon. However, they don’t really offer up anything really compelling or memorable, either. Here’s a balanced look at both movies, starting with The Reluctant Dragon.
The surprising thing about the 1941 movie is really what it turns out the movie isn’t about: the reluctant dragon. The film clocks in at 76 minutes running time, and only about 10 minutes of it (a portion of the film that occurs near the end) is actually the animated segment about the reluctant dragon. So what fills the vast remainder of the movie? A wraparound segment about the “magic” of Walt Disney studios. Some of it is really interesting and fun, but unfortunately, much of it is as hokey and dated as it sounds. Rather than just give us a straight “behind the scenes” look at Disney animation studios of the 1940s, the film goes with a fictional story about an ordinary Joe wanting to pitch his reluctant dragon story to the studio (which he is too modest to do, leaving his wife to talk him into visiting the studio and seeing Walt Disney in person). Once inside, swell Mr. Disney is nice enough to meet him face-to-face and give him a grand tour of the studio himself. What a guy! Walt Disney plays himself in the movie, and while he is always a delight to see on screen and an important figure in history, I found myself preferring to watch “Saving Mr. Banks” with Tom Hanks as Disney, than watch the Disney company’s “look how awesome we are” puff piece from the 40s.
A huge irony about this movie is that most the “Disney animators” in the movie, (who talk about how great it is to work for Disney) were actually actors cast as animators. The real-life animators went on strike around the same time this movie came out, which led to quite an embarrassment for Walt Disney Disney pictures at the time. In fact, it probably contributed to the movie flopping at the box office. In fairness to Disney, the strike happened after the movie was completed so its fantasy version of “real life animators” really wasn’t deliberate, and the animation techniques and various production offices they show at the studio do appears to be genuine – however, much of the information they give about movie making magic is relevant to 1940s film-making and no longer holds true today.
Not surprisingly, the bulk of this feature length movie is no longer shown its in original form today. It can be found in some obscure Disney releases, like the 2002 out of print DVD release Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio, or as exclusive DVD available to Disney Movie Club members by mail in 2007. More often, the 10 minute animated short has been released on its own and packaged with other Disney cartoon shorts on DVD. The short is cute, harmless fluff. It lives up to its title by giving us a story about a reluctant dragon who doesn’t want to fight battles with humans, so he and a “brave knight” scheme to hide in a cave and pretend to have a battle (complete with shouts and sound effects) so the local villagers will believe he slayed the dragon and stop pestering both of them. Ironically the whole wraparound segment about “Mr. Disney” agreeing to make this cartoon seems to be its own version a phony story presented to audiences so they will leave the studio alone.
Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of the “studio tour” that were really funny and provided some good information to viewers, and it was a genuinely innovative idea to create a “package film” in this manner, and give us something different besides a series of unrelated cartoons strung together. However, the end result gives me much of the same reaction that critics of the 1940s had: we were expecting a feature length movie about a dragon, and didn’t care for an idealized version of what Walt Disney Studios is like. It’s passable entertainment, but considering how Disney prides themselves on being such “pioneers” in the industry, they could have given us so much more.
** out of ****