October 16, 2008

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

directed by Alfred L. Werker
cartoon sequences directed by Hamilton Luske
screenplay by Ted Sears, Al Perkins, Larry Clemmons, Bill Cottrell, and Harry Clork
based on the story by Kenneth Grahame (from the collection Dream Days (1898))

This is another pendant to the Disney animated canon, an only-partially-animated feature from the days before they wholeheartedly made live-action movies. I already saw Victory Through Air Power, but that was out of chronological order. This one comes first.

It’s just a behind-the-scenes tour: TV-special fodder from before the TV era. In 1941 the concept was apparently still novel. A dorky title card at the end of the opening credits feels the need to explain, lamely: “This picture is made in answer to the many requests to show the backstage life of animated cartoons. P.S. Any resemblance to a regular motion picture is purely coincidental.” Oh ho ho is it then.

In the opening scene, Robert Benchley’s wife – not, of course, his actual wife – insists forcefully, but for no apparent reason, that Benchley pitch Walt Disney the idea of making a cartoon of Kenneth Grahame’s story “The Reluctant Dragon.” She seems to believe that they will be able to “sell” the story to Disney somehow, even though the rights are certainly not theirs. Frankly the premise makes very little sense.

Benchley resists, but you know how onscreen wives can be, so the next thing you know he’s on the Disney lot, under the watchful eye of a priggish young nerd, being led to his meeting with Walt. He ends up slipping away on his own – he can’t bear the nerd, and he sees a pretty girl walking by – you know the drill. He proceeds to wander around the studio and learn all about the aforementioned backstage life of animated cartoons.

Every department that he stumbles into is awfully cheery about interrupting their day to put on a little informational show for Robert Benchley and then help him escape from the pursuing nerd, who is, we learn, universally despised. Given that the film is pure Disney PR, why, we might ask, does Disney portray itself as employing this hateful wet blanket? Luckily, his impact on the studio’s image is counterbalanced by the movie’s insistence that Disney also employs a great many PRETTY LADIES. Cheerful ones, who don’t mind at all when Robert Benchley makes wisecracks about how hot they are instead of paying attention to what they’re saying. Such ladies make up a large part of the workforce at Disney, apparently. So we can’t begrudge the company its one irritating eunuch.*

Benchley finally meets up with Walt in a screening room, just as a new cartoon is about to be shown. Punchline? The new cartoon is The Reluctant Dragon. Disney’s already made it. Get it? Then we watch the short, which makes up the last 20 minutes of the movie.

Walt always had a penchant for talking about the technical side of his business. He thought it was interesting stuff and he liked sharing it; he clearly believed that “behind the scenes” had entertainment and educational value. We tend to take it for granted, but on consideration there’s something noteworthy, and praiseworthy, in the fact that his TV introductions frequently featured him holding up models or sketches from the development process of the cartoon you were about to see, sometimes launching into extended educational sequences about the subject matter, or about animation. The Disney product gets criticized by some as slick and impersonal, but I think Walt had a sincere desire to get his viewers to see his shiny product as the result of fascinating and intricate human labor. “The Making Of” has PR value but it also has aesthetic value; the value of seeing an artwork as a creation, full of intention and skill, rather than just as an experience.

Animation is one of those artforms that particularly resists being felt as a truly human creation. The method and materials involved are so far removed from everyday experience, and the illusion so strong, that even if we tell ourselves we are watching a series of photographs of painted sheets of acetate pinned in front of a painting laid flat on a table and filmed from a camera suspended overhead, we can’t do anything, perceptually, with that information. The most delightful part of The Reluctant Dragon is when the camera operator gives Benchley the standard demonstration of how successive images create movement by showing him a few cels in Donald Duck’s walk cycle, and then Donald wakes up and takes over the demonstration himself in fully-animated motion, holding still in the poses as best he can. “First my foot is up here, see?… Then it’s down here, understand?… When I do it faster, I’m walking!” The phony demonstration is a celebration of the strength of the illusion: whenever the film is rolling, we’re on Donald’s time, and we can’t hope to conceive of the technical process any better than he can. From his point of view, “animated” just means “sped up,” and in the moment, that’s about the best we can do too.

This I think is why the Disney product manages to seem irredeemably slick even though he was constantly inviting viewers to consider the dirty work. You can see it, but you don’t believe it. Not in the middle of a cartoon, you don’t. Another highlight of this movie is seeing Clarence Nash talking normally and then launching into the Donald voice, but as with Jim Henson and Dan Castellaneta, he might as well be dubbed, because there’s no way that what I hear Donald saying is actually coming out of that guy’s mouth. Whether or not Robert Benchley is actually seen producing the Donald voice is a legitimately open question. If it’s for real, my hat is off to him.

The Reluctant Dragon short itself is reasonably attractive and reasonably charming, for a short. By far the most memorable thing about it is the mincing dragon himself, whose “reluctance,” ahem, is so spectacular that the critic for the Times assumed the dragon was a “she.” Simpler times, those. Also interesting to note that, in contrast to my attitude above, the Times review had no patience at all for “a lot of shop talk,” and was pleased only by those portions of the film that had been drawn, ahem, and ahem again, “out of Disney’s own gay fairy book.”

Oh, it’s immature of me to find that amusing, is it? I suppose you’re going to say that this isn’t funny either, are you? Be that way, see if I care.

* Sad that I feel the need to answer this seriously, but I do: The nerd is in fact a model employee; his only flaw is that he is too dedicated to have a little fun, and too rigid in his ways to realize that Mr. Benchley is running wild. And we see that his supervisors are dutifully on his case, reprimanding him for the latter fault (and in a vague way, the former) – all part of the healthy process of molding an enthusiastic entry-level twit into one of Disney’s own. Nothing to be ashamed of there!


  1. I didn’t think Robert Benchley was making his own Donald voice, only because it sounded so much like the Clarence Nash version.

    I’m surprised that the Times didn’t care for the behind-the-scenes stuff! The “rainbow room” color mixing part was a highlight, and the Donald walk sequence impressed me with the naturalistic motion involved in his “waiting with a foot up” stance – in other words, how much animation went into his static position.

    Posted by Beth on |

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