The Reluctant Dragon is a bit of an oddity in the annals of Disney history. Released to theatres in 1941, it tells the story of a boy who finds a dragon which doesn’t devour maidens, doesn’t ravage the countryside, and most particularly does not want to fight knights. It’s a short film… except that it isn’t. DVD releases often show it as such — my sister tells me the “Walt Disney Animation Collection” edition contains the short with a couple unrelated shorts — but the theatrical release was anything but. You see, there’s The Reluctant Dragon, the animated short… and there’s The Reluctant Dragon, the feature film. And while the feature film contains the short in its entirety, it also contains a lot more. Fortunately, the full version has also been released a few times on DVD, including as Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio.
That alternate title tells you what the rest of the feature film is like. Comedian Robert Benchley has been reading the book The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame (who also wrote The Wind in the Willows, which in turn inspired half of Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad). He hits upon the notion of selling the story to Walt Disney himself, and goes to the Disney Studio to do so. Once in the studio, he keeps getting distracted by the work being done there.
Benchley sees voice actors at work, writers storyboarding, and animators drawing various pictures. This serves two purposes for the audience. First, it lets the viewer see just what all went into making an animated feature in 1941. It’s both informative and entertaining in this respect. And second, it allows Disney to throw a few other shorts into the film; in a way, The Reluctant Dragon presages the “package films” that made up many of Disney’s 1940s releases. Including the finished dragon story, there are three shorts in all. Baby Weems is told almost entirely through storyboard, with minimal animation; it tells the tale of an infant born with a super-genius intellect and understanding of the world around him, sought after as a consultant by all the world. The other short is How to Ride a Horse, the very first Goofy “How To” short; it’s a hilarious cartoon, especially for anybody familiar with horses.
The short film The Reluctant Dragon would be entertaining in its own right. But grouping it with the other shorts and giving viewers a studio tour makes the film so much more interesting. Anybody who is a fan of classic animation is likely to get a kick out of it.