Walt Disney Productions (1941), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (2007), single disc, 74 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital Mono, Rated G, Retail: Disney Movie Rewards and Club Exclusive.
A fantastic tour around the Walt Disney Studios at its pre-War height, dealing with what Walt and his team do what they did best: the making of classic animated movies. Fans will have seen excerpted clips from this theatrical outing before, but probably not in this original form unless they own the out of print Walt Disney Treasures: Behind The Scenes At The Walt Disney Studios. Recently made available as a Disney Exclusive title, it’s time to reveal how the magic was made!
The Sweatbox Review:
Those Disney Movie Reward Codes found in the majority of Buena Vista-released DVD and Blu-ray titles really are good for something, y’know! While many might let those inserts sit in the cases on their shelves, it couldn’t be easier to set up a Disney Rewards account, keep tabs on the codes, and pick up some unique items in return for those loyal customers who purchase Mouse House title after title. From posters and pins, to movie merchandise including figures and more, there’s a bunch of enticing stuff to add to your wish list, but for many it’s a chance to grab at least a couple of the Disney Exclusive titles: classic treasures from the archives that are only available through this outlet, or the Disney Movie Club, which comes with its own strings attached. Although titles come and go from the line-up, the occasional rotation means there’s always something from the Movie Club exclusives worth trying to nab when it makes the Rewards list, from Donald In Mathmagic Land, the Duck Tales movie and Richard Todd-starring adventures of old, to such rarities as the first season of Zorro, the long-delayed So Dear To My Heart and this enchanting trip through yesteryear, The Reluctant Dragon.
Any Disney fan worth his or her salt will know that all that archive footage we see of Walt in documentaries and “making of” programs comes from a very small collection of films produced at the Studio promoting the making of animated cartoons. The guys creating the thunder for Dumbo, Casey Junior’s sound-effect whistle, the explanation of the Multiplane Camera – these are just some of the extracts from the live-action feature The Reluctant Dragon. Made in 1941, just before the Studio Strike burst the bubble at the supposedly happy campus the world knew as the Mouse Factory, it was Disney’s first attempt at live-action photography, as well as the unofficial first in line of the Package Features that made up most of the output from the Studio during the War-stricken and cash-strapped 1940s.
To simply call the film “documentary” isn’t accurate at all, and actually does it a disservice. A response to the public’s thirst for finding out how Disney cartoons were made, the feature followed several other short subject attempts to reveal Disney’s tricks of his trade: A Trip Through The Walt Disney Studios, from 1937, promoted the making of the Studio’s first full-length feature Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs to exhibitors, while the 1938 How Walt Disney Cartoons Are Made was a more “audience friendly” adaptation, released to the public to capitalise on the upcoming promotion for Snow White. With the shorts proving of interest – and with Walt about to release a number of animated features to the market – the idea of a full-length documentary-like film was encouraged by Disney’s then distributor RKO, though with Walt having no knowledge in making live-action films, filmmakers from the Fox lot came over and helped out with its making!
The eventual film, named The Reluctant Dragon for reasons we shall soon see, was always intended as a “factual entertainment” piece and as such was developed with the inclusion of several animated segments in mind, which like many of the Package Feature sequences would also find a life in later re-issues as stand-alone featurettes. This single disc release, previously released in the prestigious Walt Disney Treasures line some time ago along with those previous shorts and some other supplementary television programs, features the original 1941 theatrical version of this live-action classic in its entirety.
Walt had been eager to produce a live-action film as well as a feature that would allow a greater depth and exploration of Studio techniques, also acting as a stopgap between his initial trilogy of films (Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia) and the next two in the pipeline (Dumbo and Bambi), keeping a Disney production in the theaters. Although The Reluctant Dragon is a hybrid film made up of live-action and animated segments, it is not a combination film as the later Package Features Melody Time or Song Of The South would be, although this outing could legitimately be seen as the first in that line. Featuring a bevy of Hollywood actors posing as Studio employees, the film does actually include some real animators, and the main titles have the added touch of caricatures of the artists involved, levelling the criticism aimed at Fantasia, which didn’t name anyone apart from Walt himself in its original premiere release.
Running just short of 74 minutes, the film opens with humorist Robert Benchley and the reading of Kenneth Grahame’s book The Reluctant Dragon, a short story about a young boy’s friendship with a rather anti-fire breathing dragon. Benchley soon finds himself at Disney’s with the idea of pitching the book to Walt as the subject for an animated cartoon. On his way to Walt’s office (and hounded by an over-zealous personal assistant played by Alan Ladd), Benchley often loses his way, finding himself sitting in on an art class for Dumbo with various recognisable Studio artists, and an audio recording for what appears to be the much earlier released 1936 short Mickey’s Grand Opera. The Reluctant Dragon was shot during the time that Dumbo was in production, so a lot of the tour takes in the departments involved in that feature. Visiting the Sound Department, Benchley next has a chance to catch some animation of Casey Junior that didn’t make it into the final film when he witnesses a sound dubbing session (an often excerpted sequence that has been a bonus feature on some Dumbo releases).
After this first 25 minutes or so, Benchley comes across the Camera Department and the film leaves its first two black and white reels behind (“Oh, Technicolor!”). We get a peek at the then new Multiplane Camera in use – one of Walt’s requests was to show off his pride and joy – and Donald Duck shows us how he was animated for the cartoon Old MacDonald Duck, which was later released in the same year. Benchley continues his impromptu visit by stopping off at the “Rainbow Room” (with those amazing shots of all the colored pots of paint) and seeing one of the first glimpses of Bambi frolicking in the forest. Also during this sequence, keep an eye out for an early maquette version of Captain Hook from Peter Pan, in production at the Studio in the early 1940s, but delayed for release until after the return of the fully animated feature with Cinderella in 1950.
With personal tour guide Ladd hot on his trail, Benchley stumbles into a story conference room where several “artists” (including actor Ladd again!) insist on trying out their new short Baby Weems on him. A departure in style for Disney at the time, and never really intended for a fully-realized release, Baby Weems is perhaps The Reluctant Dragon’s standout moment. Completely told through storyboards, the sound and editing is so snappy that it zips by just like a full-blown short and certainly predates the “limited animation” techniques that would identify several studios’ work in the 1950s, most notably Hanna-Barbera’s TV output and especially that of the UPA Studio. Designed exclusively for this feature, it would have been fun to see a completed cartoon, but one wonders how it could ever be bettered than the treatment it receives here. An expertly handled sequence and great fun.
Across the hall to the Animation Department and Benchley bumps into Ward Kimball, who’s completing work on a series of Goofy drawings. After witnessing the sequence in pencil test, we are treated to a completed Goofy cartoon – the classic How To Ride A Horse (which was also issued as a separate short, but one that did not turn up in The Complete Goofy set, perhaps as its “official” release is within this feature). Finally, Ladd the personal assistant catches up with Benchley and escorts him to Walt’s projection room. Here we find Disney ready to roll a new featurette which is, to Benchley’s surprise, a fully completed 20 minute animated version of…The Reluctant Dragon! As a punch line to the film’s running gag, it’s a rather long and drawn-out joke, but it is a fun and breezy cartoon in its own right, remaining perhaps the most seen and easily identifiable segment from the movie. It was later issued as a featurette using the main titles from the feature, leading to much confusion over the years as to whether The Reluctant Dragon was in fact a short or a feature. Answer: it’s both! But as a snapshot of Walt’s Studio in its heyday, the feature The Reluctant Dragon is a fascinating albeit highly slick and simplified look at the mechanics behind the techniques when animation was in its Golden Age and Disney’s films were second to none!
Is This Thing Loaded?
The Reluctant Dragon was previously issued, of course, as part of the Behind The Scenes At The Walt Disney Studios collection, which added the two previously mentioned short subjects and three similar television programs (The History Of The Animated Drawing from 1955, The Plausible Impossible from 1956, and Tricks Of Our Trade from 1957) to the line up, as well as several fitting extras to that release including a history of the Studio, an additional short, Back Stage Party, a look at the creation of Baby Weems, a couple of production and Studio galleries, and a 1946 radio program that featured the Studio’s artists discussing the animation process, all making up a sturdy, fully rounded look at Studio life. As a stand-alone release, none of those exclusives have made it over to this disc, perhaps understandably so given the limited edition nature of the Treasures.
Being a Disney Exclusive, the main title for The Wonderful World Of Disney’s incarnation in the 1970s play as a disc introduction (not attached to the main feature itself), but can’t be counted as a bonus in its own right, and the silent, static menus, which can be described as perfunctory at best, offer up eight chapter indexes. While the Baby Weems featurette, stills gallery or even an archived theatrical trailer would have made welcome additions, the total lack of anything leaves the main reason for springing for this version as either a way for those who missed out on the earlier release to catch up on one of Walt’s most overlooked films, or for those wishing to preserve their collectors’ tin and have a more easily accessible copy of the main feature to hand.
Repeating, for the most part, the cover art for a previous VHS release, which shows Walt and Benchley thumbing through Kenneth Grahame’s book while the animated characters dominate the sleeve behind them, The Reluctant Dragon on DVD adds the pre-requisite Disney Movie Club Exclusive badge on the front but looks as standard as any other Disney DVD elsewhere. Disc art is basic, no frills text on a plain disc, while an insert uses the front artwork on one side and offers up a selection of other Disney Exclusives on the other. So, nothing too special, but as a cheerful disc for first timers or a backup for those with the tin, it does the job.
Ink And Paint:
With a running time of not much more than 70 minutes, The Reluctant Dragon was never going to stretch to a dual-layered disc, though it’s given plenty of room to breathe here, not looking at all too shabby in the slightest. If anything, I’d say this was the same transfer as seen previously: the feature again zips in and out (un-noticeably) between full-frame and a very slight windowboxing, which preserves the entire filmed image and allows for the overscan effect of screen displays – very welcome so that the picture is not further cropped.
This is real collector’s material – priceless to the fan, but not a money-spinner on the whole – and as such the remastered but not restored progressive print does show its age, but wears it exceedingly well. There’s a certain feeling that this kind of content should have the odd blemish and scratch, and the inserted animated scenes make for intriguing comparisons to the digitally spruced up classics appearing on other discs. There is no visible artefacting or degradation of material due to compression or digital mastering and, in short, the film looks just as it should!
As with the video, the audio is just what you might expect, and even though this is a Dolby 2.0 Mono track, there’s the very occasional hint of wider spread music. Walt took a great deal of care over the audio presentations of his productions and the mix shows it – not a word is lost due to overloud sound effects or music, while those elements are also clean and free of distortion. Extremely well recorded at the time, and reproduced with an amazing clarity, there is nothing wrong with the soundtrack on this disc. Over the previous release, a contemporary dubbed Spanish track has been added, and the same English subtitles appear as before.
For anyone with the more recent Disney documentaries Frank & Ollie, The Hand Behind The Mouse or The Man Behind The Myth, seeing where it all started with The Reluctant Dragon is a must. It’s a trip like no other, as those with the earlier Treasures release will know, and if you can find any copies of that release you shouldn’t need any encouragement to grab it. But this is a nice alternative way to see one of Walt’s earliest forays into live-action Studio production picture making, and anyone interested in animation as an art form should take a look. Ostensibly available for next to nothing via whichever Disney Exclusive outlet you happen to be a member of, there are worse things than this lovely little film that you could put your points towards.