The Reluctant Dragon (1941) poster

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)


USA. 1941.


Director – Alfred L. Werker, Screenplay – Larry Clemmons, Harry Clork, Bill Cottrell, Al Perkins & Ted Sears, Based on the Story by Kenneth Grahame, Photography (b&w) – Bert Glennon, Photography (Technicolor Scenes) – Winton Hoch, Music – Franck Churchill & Larry Morey, Art Direction – Gordon Wiles. Production Company – Walt Disney Productions.


Robert Benchley (Himself), Frances Gifford (Doris), Buddy Pepper (Humphrey), Nana Bryant (Mrs Benchley)


Robert Benchley relaxes in his pool while his wife reads him the story of The Reluctant Dragon. She then pushes him to go and see if they can get Walt Disney to make a film out of the story. She drops Benchley at the studio gate where Walt Disney agrees to see him. However, on his way to the appointment, Benchley wanders off through various areas of the studio where he sees how Disney put their films together.

Disney Studios had an acclaimed run throughout the 1930s, beginning with their Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse shorts. They then broached feature-length animation with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which led into the studio’s peak period of creativity producing hits like Fantasia (1940), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942).

The outbreak of World War II created problems for the studio. With the US’s entry into the war in 1941, this meant that many among the studio’s pool of staff were recruited to go and serve. Similarly, it meant that with the Europe embroiled in war, many theatrical outlets were no longer available. Even though it came out several months before Pearl Harbor and the US’s entry into the War, The Reluctant Dragon saw Disney start down a path making a series of reduced films ie. features that were portmanteaus of multiple stories or made up of odds and ends like this is, and turning to South America, which was untouched by the War, as a potential source of revenue with a series of specifically South American themed films. The films of this period included Saludos Amigos (1942), Melody Time (1945), Make Mine Music (1945), Song of the South (1946), The Three Caballeros (1946), Fun & Fancy Free (1947) and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).

Unlike the other films, The Reluctant Dragon is not a portmanteau. It does have a couple of different tales told within its time but most of the film has a single plot that consists of humourist Robert Benchley being persuaded by his wife to go to Disney Studios and get Walt to make a film out of The Reluctant Dragon (1898). This was a story by Kenneth Grahame who also wrote The Wind and the Willows (1908), which Disney later filmed as one of the episodes of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. (There seems a certain irony given Disney’s fanatical control over and litigious willingness to wring blood out of a stone when it comes to their intellectual property in years since that the plot here has Benchley attempting to get a film made without his even owning the rights to the story).

Walt Disney meets Robert Benchley in The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
Walt Disney (front left) meets Robert Benchley (front right) in the screening room

Most of the film consists of live-action scenes where Benchley goes to the studio and wanders away from his uptight guide (Buddy Pepper) and into various departments – the modelling department, voice recording, scoring, the ink mixing department, the screening room and so on. The scenes are initially in black-and-white but burst into Technicolor after visiting the ink department. We do get a brief interview with Clarence Nash who explains how he voices Donald Duck and very briefly get to meet Walt at the end who anticlimactically explains to Benchley he has already filmed The Reluctant Dragon and then screens it for him.

In between this, we do get a couple of animated segments. There is the main telling of the story of The Reluctant Dragon, which runs for just short of 20 minutes, but emerges as nothing earth-shattering. There is also the story of Baby Weems, which feels like it had been plotted out as a full short but where Disney were either understaffed or didn’t consider it worth fully animating and so it is served up as a series of a series of illustrations with voiceover.

There is also a brief animated slapstick piece where Goofy tries to demonstrate how to ride a horse with constantly catastrophic results. In between these, we get some Breaking the Fourth Wall Gags such as Donald Duck coming to life in the animated cels to demonstrate various aspects of animation to Benchley. It is all very lightweight and lacking in much substance. Benchley plays with lazy smugness where he seems to be taking little of the show seriously, which switches you off when it comes to regarding him as the identification character. That said, the show is an interesting quasi-documentary tour inside the Disney factory of the era.

Trailer here

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