How had I never seen or heard of this film before? If you’re like I was, you’ve only recently seen The Reluctant Dragon pop up on your Disney+ account, but you skipped over it because the title and image were totally unfamiliar. If you’re like I was, you watched it for the first time and were like, “that was soooo fun, I loved it!” And if you’re like I was, you took a deep dive into the history afterward and said “waaaaaait a second!” But if you’re not I like I was, let me explain it all!
Disney’s first attempt at a live action film gives the audience a tour through Walt Disney Studios to catch a glimpse at how animation is, er–was made. In the film, Robert Benchley aims to sell the rights to the story The Reluctant Dragon to Walt Disney, so he heads to the studio with book in tow to begin searching for Walt himself. Along the way he stumbles into the various animation departments where Disney staff jovially take him in and show him what they’re working on. The way the Benchley storyline disguises what would normally be a documentary showcasing the studio is clever and (I think) a bit before its time! Think of The Reluctant Dragon as a documentary in costume. What the viewer sees in each department is completely staged, often using actors rather than actual Disney employees, however, the effect is charming and you’re left feeling like you were given some behind the scenes Disney magic.
There are animated sequences in the film- a quick Donald bit, a longer Goofy number, the story of Baby Weems (not my fave), and the title track, The Reluctant Dragon, the tale of a dragon who prefers poetry over fire breathing- but most of the film is live action. We see Benchley explore a sound stage with the voice of Donald Duck, charm the ladies in the color room to see how cartoons are painted, provide critique to storyboard artists, and finally slip into a screening room where he runs into *gasp* the man himself! A (relatively) young Walt Disney.
If you’re watching this film now, you recognize that it’s old. You aren’t seeing new technology, but still you enjoy the black and white, the excitement over technicolor, the nostalgia. You’re watching it to feel some connection to the past, to see some of the bones of the Disney company. Through this lens you’re going to pick up on some historical errs, particularly with regard to the treatment of women i.e. the lack of women in creative positions, the racially problematic figurine Benchley pockets as a souvenir, and his flirtatious jest with Doris the studio artist (who was an actress, not an actual Disney studio artist). The sexism is (unfortunately) inherent in the time, these elements were less of a creative choice than just the way it was (ugh).
What I can tell you was likely a definite creative choice, was the whole concept of this film, and here’s what makes that so interesting. Just prior to the release of this film the Disney animation studio was fraught with unhappy employees looking to unionize. The company was full of unrest as Walt Disney opposed unionizing (which would ensure his animators received fair wages, a 40-hour work week, and screen credits), and fired animators who spoke in favor of the union. The Reluctant Dragon was released, and a month later the Disney animator’s strike of 1941 hit. The strike endured for 9 weeks until Walt agreed to work with the animators union. It makes one realize why Disney may have chosen to create and release a film placing a cheerful veil over the inner workings of the animation studio at the time he did. Everything is fine here, happy and magic everywhere you step! I really don’t want to have to say it, but it smells a bit like propaganda! More on 1941 Animators Strike here.
Okokok, happy and magic, happy and magic, set all of that other stuff aside, into the part of your brain that knows it happened but also knows that things have evolved since then, and should continue to evolve as we go along. I’m giving you a pass to just enjoy this film as a Disney relic.