This heartwarming film from 1941 is not your average Disney film yet it contains the same beloved qualities of one. There is not a lot of action or plot, but Walt Disney surely knew what he was doing when he made this one.
We open with the Benchley couple, relaxing at their pool. Mrs. Benchley has just completed reading a book called The Reluctant Dragon to her husband. She comes up with the idea that Walt Disney might want to turn this book into a film. After a back and forth conversation of the wife wanting to go and the husband not wanting to go, Mr. Benchley basically says they are “not going and that’s final.”
In the next scene, we see the Benchleys in the car which is a humorous follow-up scene to his protest. Mrs. Benchley decides she is going to leave the premises (which is honestly beyond confusing and frustrating after she pressured him to go).
The curious Mr. Benchley arrives at Walt Disney Studios and we soon see the famous Dopey Drive and Mickey Avenue signs lining the street (see Fact #2 below). A young lad by the name of Humphrey begins to lead him around the property, explaining everything they are seeing. Benchley quickly becomes bored of Humphrey and begins to wander around. He quite literally crashes into an art class and witnesses the drawing of a model elephant.
He also stumbles into a room where an orchestra is practicing. He is overwhelmed when he sees Florence Gill. He assumed she would be singing an operatic piece…instead, she steps up to the microphone and some unusual bird noises come out. We also meet Clarence Nash (!!!) the voice of Donald Duck. Their interaction is heartwarming and, for lack of a better term, absolutely magical.
Next he walks into a sound room where work is going on for the recording of the Casey Junior Circus Train Song. (At this point, we have assumed that they are in the middle of preparing for their film Dumbo which was also released in 1941.) We see an unbelievably awesome scene of how the train’s sounds are created as well as the background noises such as the storm.
We see a couple of miscellaneous, cool scenes following this. One happens to star the amazing Donald Duck who appears to be yelling at Mr. Benchley, instructing him as to how he walks. There is a fantastic mixing of colors to show how part of a scene from Bambi was colorized. At one point, an animator creates a bust of Mr. Benchley for him, which he carries around with him throughout the rest of the film. (This reminds me much of the 1966 musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum where the character Senex carries around a bust with him through much of the film – parental guidance required for that one.)
Animators then discuss a frightening short called Baby Weems – this was most likely my least favorite part of the film. It is just disturbing, in my opinion. However, we do witness the short through choppy images instead of a moving animated picture which is neat. Mind you, during this time, Humphrey is searching all across the Walt Disney Studios buildings for the wandering Mr. Benchley.
Next we see an incredible Goofy short called How to Ride a Horse. Words cannot describe how enjoyable this is. The Goofy shorts are some of my personal favorite Walt Disney productions. They are hilarious and good to watch when you are in any kind of mood. They always contain the classic qualities we know and love about Disney.
An unhappy Humphrey runs into Goofy and brings him to Walt Disney. My heart literally jumped for joy seeing our beloved Uncle Walt sitting among his treasured animators. Much to Mr. Benchley’s surprise, Walt invites him to sit with them and watch a new short which he just made…The Reluctant Dragon. The short which follows is adorable and a ton of fun to watch. He is not your typical dragon. To summarize, this kid meets a dragon who has a passion for poetry, and he wants to save him from killers. He introduces the dragon to a man named Giles who is a poet. They get along famously and everyone lives happily ever after. This is one short which is worth watching rather than my explaining each detail.
The last scene of the film shows the Benchley couple in the car, driving home. He has explained to her that Mr. Disney already had the idea to make a short out of the book, to which Mrs. Benchley replies that he was too busy “shilly shallying” and he should have taken action beforehand.
Mr. Benchley is played by the actor Robert Benchley who appeared in a bunch of films from the 1940s. Nana Bryant plays Mrs. Benchley. Bryant appeared in a ton of films including 1938’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and 1950’s Harvey. We also see a plethora of voice actors and some of Disney’s most valued animators. The film was directed by Alfred L. Werker and Hamilton Luske. Werker directed a ton of films from the 1930s and 1940s while Luske directed a bunch of Disney films including Cinderella and Lady and the Tramp.
1.) How to Ride a Horse was the first of several of these Goofy shorts where he does not actually speak.
2.) The Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive signs were made for this film and were supposed to be removed after the making of it. They still stand.
3.) Sadly, most of the “animators” in the film were actors hired to portray said animators. This was filmed during a strike by half of the actual animators, so although they look like a happy family, it was quite the opposite.
4.) This is the first full length Disney film where voices are credited.
5.) The bust of Robert Benchley was made in advance despite appearing like it was just made. It gradually destroyed as the film was made.
From beginning to end, The Reluctant Dragon is an enjoyable film. I love that they intertwine animation with live action to make the characters, both human and animated, blend together. Despite seeing some voice actors, Disney surely kept the magic alive through its production. Unsurprisingly, I teared up at times such as the scene where Walt Disney appeared on screen. Even seeing Clarence Nash brought a tear to my eye as this brought up a ton of wonderful memories I’ve had through the years. I would highly recommend seeing this for individuals of all ages. There is a little something for everyone from your passionate Disney fan to your child who loves dragons.
My Rating: 4/5
You’ve got to be mad to breathe fire, but I’m not mad at anybody.