(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

One of the new titles offered on Disney+ is the six-part documentary The Imagineering Story, directed by Leslie Iwerks. The overall documentary is meant to capture the heft and sweep of decades’ worth of creative pioneering courtesy of the men and women who design the Disney theme parks. Largely, it’s a worthy show to watch (and if you’re less aware of the history of the theme parks, you might learn a good deal while being entertained), but one of its earliest moments is both unsurprising and a little vexing. 

When narrator Angela Bassett discusses how Walt Disney shifted his priorities from animation to the parks, she offhandedly mentions that he was “tired of fighting with labor unions”. It’s an interesting way to elide very serious troubles Disney experienced, serious troubles that are important to acknowledge here in relation to this week’s Out of the Vault pick: The Reluctant Dragon.

The Pitch

At first glance, The Reluctant Dragon wouldn’t appear to have anything to do with the devastating animators’ strike of 1941, aside from the coincidence that the two events occurred in the same year. The 75-minute feature is, in its own way, an early example of the package films of the 1940s that Walt Disney and his animators would produce as a way to keep the lights on while producing government propaganda for World War II. 

There is a shoestring plot (and frankly, calling it that might be an insult to shoestrings), with different animated segments buoying the action. It features a handful of short animated tangents that break up the live-action portions. But the way that the Walt Disney Studios are portrayed in the film was at extreme odds with the scads of protesting animators picketing the studio in 1941, accusing Disney of unfair wages. 

Here’s what made The Reluctant Dragon so special, or was meant to make it so special, upon its release in the summer of 1941. Just a few years after the earth-shattering success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney was drawing back the curtain on his studio lot and letting a camera crew give the audience a tour of his dream factory. Everything from the recording booth to the drawing board to the high-tech (for the time) location where the multiplane camera was utilized to capture shots of animation would be on display. Even now, nearly 80 years later, there aren’t any films in the Disney canon quite like The Reluctant Dragon

In essence, that’s what this film has going for it in the present: you have never quite seen an oddity like The Reluctant Dragon before. Fans of feature animation would do well to check this film out, just to see how the sausage was made back in 1941. And even though this was a largely cheaply made film (at least relative to features like Snow White or Fantasia), The Reluctant Dragon does not skimp for technical wizardry of its own. The film begins in black-and-white (even during a scene where the sound recording for the first Casey, Jr. scene in Dumbo, which hadn’t yet been released, is depicted). But when our hapless touring hero enters the multiplane-camera facility, he’s awash in Technicolor from that point forward. It’s just a tiny example of the flash and style present in this small wonder.

The Movie

So…how is it? This is a fascinating question that’s almost impossible to answer. The premise of the movie is so shaky and so utterly unnecessary — that well-known writer, performer, and man-about-town Robert Benchley is going to attempt to sell Walt Disney the Kenneth Grahame children’s book The Reluctant Dragon to turn into an animated short — that it’d be better if we didn’t have to watch Benchley waffle his way through each scene.

Benchley’s seeming unwillingness to go to the studio, or to bother Disney with his wife’s request, makes for a lot of unnecessary business. His attitude is hard to pin down, and it’s even more baffling once Benchley finally runs into Disney. The impresario and entrepreneur is about to head into a screening room where he’s showing off a short film based on…The Reluctant Dragon. So the shoestring plot is resolved without Robert Benchley doing anything, to the point where we didn’t even need a plot. 

Though Benchley is suitably curious about the art of animation, it’s the highlighting of that art which is vastly more entertaining than his bumbling through. Robert Benchley himself gets a good deal of shtick, often built around the fact that he’s aware of the basics of Disney animation without grasping how any of it gets accomplished. When Benchley is backgrounded, turning into a genuine audience surrogate, his presence works. Watching the original voice of Donald Duck, Clarence Nash, at work, for example, is fascinating. It’s less so when Benchley tries his hand at doing a Donald voice, struggling with creating an air pocket to sound like the inflamed duck. 

The same goes for the aforementioned sequence at the multiplane-camera facility. Watching the men (and yes, sadly but truly, most of the people working at the animation studio in high-tech jobs like that were men) at work is fascinating. Getting to see the massive multiplane camera technology, in which different animation cels were placed at different planes to communicate depth of motion and dimension, is genuinely incredible. Really, any of the sequences where you watch how animation goes from being a flight-of-fancy idea to something that’s all but living and breathing are high points, sandwiched between Benchley’s slapstick.

The various animated shorts are, to a degree, charming. The final section, nearly 25 minutes long, is dedicated to the genuine adaptation of The Reluctant Dragon, a pleasantly colorful and bright adventure about a dragon who’s far too kindly to adopt the typical stereotypes of the magical creature. On its own, The Reluctant Dragon seems like the progenitor of the kind of short film that Disney would make in package films like Make Mine Music and Melody Time: slight, to be sure, but no less inviting in a small way. Barnett Parker, who voices the dragon, brings an effete charm to the role (his final in a series of smaller parts).

The Legacy

When The Reluctant Dragon opened, it did so amidst a ton of controversy surrounding the aforementioned animators’ strike. Disney himself, along with a group of his animators, embarked upon a trip to Latin America, the very same journey that would eventually produce package films like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Though the strike was eventually resolved, it heavily impacted the studio’s future and how Disney perceived his animators. Or, more appropriately, the strike changed how he became aware of how they perceived him, as a boss instead of just the avuncular paterfamilias of a makeshift family.  

And at the box office, The Reluctant Dragon fared no better, failing to hit it big compared with the other big Disney film of 1941, Dumbo. Off a reported budget of $600,000, the film made just $960,000. It could’ve done worse, of course, but no one was hoping for returns that low. Matters weren’t improved by the fact that the film’s premiere was met by picketing protesters, in the middle of the contentious, five-week strike. (Yes, it’s true: this movie opened just three weeks after the animators went on strike.) Over time, The Reluctant Dragon has largely been afforded the status of a curio, the kind of thing best known among animation experts as opposed to the casual viewer. 

Before it arrived on Disney+, the full feature film had only been made available a few times on home media over a 30-year span. The film, not just the climactic short, was available on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection in 2002, as part of a set entitled “Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio”. And a few years ago, it was included as a special feature on the double-feature Blu-ray for The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Fun and Fancy Free.

Now, of course, you can watch The Reluctant Dragon to your heart’s content on Disney+. (It should be noted here: the fact that this film doesn’t include the “outdated cultural depictions” note on the streaming service is kind of weird! Benchley talks about “coolies” at one point, while also pocketing a figurine of the black centaurette from the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence in Fantasia. Not that a compare/contrast should be necessary, but just because this film’s not as racist as Dumbo, for example, doesn’t mean it’s not problematic in its own way.) 

More than anything else, you should check this movie out if you want to better grasp how the animation of the 1930s and 1940s from Walt Disney Studios came to life. This movie is, without even realizing it, a paean to the art of hand-drawn animation and its craftsmen, from ink and paint to camera techniques. The context of the film may be missing from the service currently, but the film itself is a compelling and charming window into a very specific and important period of Disney history.

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