Disney World is closed. So is Disneyland. Indeed, all theme parks and even most major studios are shut down for the foreseeable future. However, that doesn’t mean you still can’t take a tour of Walt Disney’s animation studios from the comfort of your living room. At least, their studio from the 1940s. For that is what The Reluctant Dragon offers. The Reluctant Dragon is the first in a series of collections of shorts, which were the only theatrical offerings from Disney through most of the 1940s.
Surprisingly, this film is mostly live-action and documentary style, telling the ‘story’ of Robert Benchley (played with enthusiasm by…well, Robert Benchley) who comes to Walt Disney Studios in hopes of selling his book about a reluctant dragon to Disney himself as a potential animated feature. However, he finds himself endlessly sidetracked throughout the studio and in the process, he (and we) get to see first-hand just how Disney movies were made, from storyboarding to sound recording to voiceover work and music and beyond.
These live-action documentary bits are actually quite fascinating and never boring. They offer a glimpse into Disney animation history as well as brief behind the scenes looks into the making of their most recent pictures, and as such, this is a good companion piece to Dumbo, Bambi and Fantasia, among others. Sure, the dialogue is corny and a bit dated, but I appreciate the educational aspect that the movie is going for.
Interspersed throughout are three animated shorts. The first, ‘Baby Weems’, is about a baby who is born as a super genius, who can talk and do complex mathematics and biology. Thus, she is toured all around the world to be gawked at by scientists and politicians alike, much to the dismay of her parents, who just want a normal baby. It is a cute short and unique in style, as it is shown mostly in storyboard form. The second short features Goofy, trying to learn to ride the most uncooperative horse imaginable, aided by a less-than-helpful narrator. This short is hilarious and worth watching – nothing more to say about it really.
The final short is about the titular dragon. A small boy, hearing that a dragon has been sighted near his father’s farm, goes to investigate, having read about the fearsome fire-breathing monsters in a book. To his surprise, this dragon is quite peaceful, much preferring composing poetry and playing the flute to ravaging the countryside and devouring fair damsels. However, the villages have enlisted the aide of famed Sir Giles the dragon killer, and a fight to the death seems inevitable. Can the boy find a peaceful solution that both the legendary knight and pacifist dragon can agree on? You’ll have to watch the short to find out! This short has the closest thing to a message out of the three shorts, celebrating a gentle spirit and cooperation vs violent conflict and assuming something is bad simply because we were taught that it was so.
There is a lot of fun to be found here and kids and adults alike can enjoy the colorful animation and delightful characters, as well as the more educational side of the story, which I personally found to be the most interesting. It doesn’t take anything away from the magic and beauty of Disney’s animation, but rather enhances respect and admiration for the hard work and creativity that went into the making of some of their most beloved classics. Be forewarned though: watching this movie may lead to your children trying to make ‘air-pockets’ so they too can talk like Donald Duck.