The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

The Reluctant Dragon was Disney’s fourth feature film, flanked by Fantasia and Dumbo, and the first to extensively use a combination of animation and live action.  It was also a box office flop.  We, however, found it to be full of wonderful nuggets and goodies and we sincerely hope you do, too.  And just to make it more confusing, The Reluctant Dragon is also the title of one of the four shorts included in this feature-length film.

We’ve covered a lot more of the content of the movie than we normally would.  This is because The Reluctant Dragon is unknown, even to some Disney enthusiasts, and also not readily available for your viewing pleasure.

In the opening credits, we see this is a video response (way ahead of youtube):

The film opens with a woman, Mrs. Benchley, reading a children’s story (written by their nephew) to her husband entitled, The Reluctant Dragon.  She tells him he should sell it to Disney.  So off to Walt Disney he goes.

Benchley–A Waste of Man

Mr. Benchley is met by a studio lackey who is to be his escort (a punk kid who spouts off mildly interesting factoids about the studio–like supply usage and soil composition–and sports a Hitler’s Youth-esque uniform). Benchley continually ditches his escort.  Poor kid can’t get a break. Benchley keeps making his way into areas he doesn’t belong.

His first interruption of studio goings-ons is prompted by seeing a robed woman–young and beautiful–enter a room and a man walk out.  Benchley learns from this man that this is where some of the artists work on their life drawing skills.  Benchley eagerly enters the studio where he is greeted by the instructor.  He asks the instructor if Disney knows about this; intimating that there’s some hanky-panky going on.  Yes, Life Drawing 101 is just a code name for the Orgy Room.

We never see the robed woman again, or any nude models.  Benchley finds instead a group of young artists drawing cartoon elephants, with a live elephant as their model.  The instructor shows Benchley some of the students and their work; about which Benchley offers his expert opinions.

Our humble protagonist sees one of the drawings and blurts out, “Coolie elephant.”  This ‘coolie’ elephant was being drawn by a ‘coolie’ young woman, of course, named Lotus.  Lotus doesn’t speak proper English and says things like “I tink round tummy kind a cute.”  There’s also “Asian” music playing while they’re looking at this drawing.  Really subtle.

For those of you who don’t know, ‘coolie’ is a derogatory word for Asian workers.

Benchley also speaks something that he seems to believe is in Chinese to Lotus and then explains that it “Means ‘goodbye’ in Chinese.” Thanks, Benchley. This woman is either of Chinese descent or of non-Chinese descent. Either way, he is proving himself to be a giant turd munch.

[Note to Disney: It is so easy to not be racist.  We can’t believe you fail so miserably.  Again and again.]

Upon the class’ instructor saying that one guy drew his elephant “too dumb”, Benchley proceeded to bestow upon the class the wealth of his bulbous ignorance.

“You can’t draw an elephant too dumb for me. Just look at her, look at that great big head. You wouldn’t think the brain inside it was no bigger than an English walnut, would you?  Why, half the time the average elephant doesn’t know which way he’s going.  The elephant, by the way, is the only animal in the world that has a tail on both ends, which probably explains why it doesn’t get anywhere. Now these sketches that you’ve been making here bring out my point. Do you mind…”

At this point, Benchley picks up a student’s drawing to illustrate his point to the rest of the class.  Way to go, Instructor Benchley.

The student caricatured Benchley by putting his face on an elephant’s body; a point he realizes after he’s made fun of the elephant’s dumb features.  Benchley saves face by saying that even that would be an improvement to the animal’s looks.  Nice save.

After causing a ruckus in a few more rooms, Benchley makes his way into the Technicolor room.  Oooooh! At this point, the movie switches from black and white to full color.

After checking to make sure no one was looking, he then checked the colors of his undergarments.

While watching someone animate Donald Duck, Benchley is being watched, too, as Donald forms his own opinions about him.

Donald, a keen judge of character, clearly has as much contempt for Benchley as Benchley has for elephants.  Donald explains to him, rather condescendingly, how he walks through the magic of animation. To be fair, Donald is condescending to most everyone.

Benchley just laughs and says, “He kills me, only I can’t understand a word he says.”

Maybe you should try speaking “Chinese” to him.

A woman from the Technicolor department, whom Benchley repeatedly hits on, takes Benchley around to a few of the other interesting rooms.  As the lackey tries to find him, Benchley dodges at every turn.  He tells her, “Apparently, I’m a fugitive from a lecture tour.”  No, you’re just a jerk hiding from a boy who’s trying to do his job.

Technicolor Lady then takes Benchley to the Rainbow Room, where, sadly, they do not meet LeVar Burton.  There are, however, only women working there.  Apparently, rainbows are women’s work.

Benchley: Yeeeeah, work that test-tube! Note: Don’t drink the Italian soda.

While looking at a moving image of Bambi (also not yet out in 1941), Benchley remarks that he’d like to take him home, to which Bambi, instinctively and appropriately, responds by running and hiding in the background; peering out nervously. To which our good friend replies, “Well, I certainly have a way with animals.”  Yes, yes you do.

By the way, Bambi is NOT a reindeer, and you’re an idiot.

Technicolor Lady introduces Benchley to a sculptress in a studio full of busts, miniatures, etc. Benchley tells the sculptress working on a bust that “when you start work on these things, you sometimes don’t know how they’re going to turn out.” What would they do without you, B.?

Our dear Mr. Benchley, then instinctively gravitates to a maquette that, well, it was a shock to us.  Here it is:

“Well, here’s a cute little number.” – Benchley, actually said this.

Uh, what? Let’s just regroup. Disney put this out in public view in 1941! When was this ever appropriate?!  WTF Disney?!

Meanwhile, the sculptress was finishing her bust caricature of Benchley and presents it to him saying, “careful–the, uh, head is a little soft.”  Benchley, for his part, accepts this gift, saying that he can shoot darts at it.

In another room, Benchley meets a group of men working with a storyboard.  They relate to him the cartoon, which then, in the movie, is the cartoon itself–Baby Weems.  Baby Weems is a baby who is born a super-genius and speaks fluent English, unlike Benchley.  Baby Weems loses all the media attention when he reverts back to being a regular baby after a super high fever.  What an awesome cartoon idea!

News of Baby Weems’s illness was spread “to the far corners of the Earth.”  We’ve included some screen shots of said spreading:

Apparently this is how they see Africans doing long distance communication.

It’s okay, the Chinese believe that American microphones are shaped like cowboy hats.

This is Walt’s dad. He seems pretty excited about Baby Weems…and also about being on a trampoline.

Benchley aids an animator, working on a Goofy short, by reminding him, “Don’t forget that other button, now.”

Awesome quote from Goofy’s How to Ride a Horse: “The outside of the horse is good for the inside of the man.” Yep.

Meanwhile, the poor lackey gets chewed out by his superior because he can’t find Benchley.

Finally, after leisurely perusing at least nine different apartments, our Mr. Benchley gets caught by the SS boy and is taken to Walt; who’s in a screening room with some other men.  Apparently, screening is men’s work.

What does Benchley say to Disney, the man who’s been waiting for him for an hour?  “You certainly are a hard man to find.”  To which Walt replies, “Shut up, dick weed–I mean, am I?”

Benchley proceeds to show Walt his booty of “things the girls [women in their 30s and 40s] whipped up.”  And what reappears?  The zebra/topless African caricature centaur thing.

See how they’re all smiling?

“How did that happen to get in there?” Well, Benchley, you were told the figurines weren’t for sale, and you took one anyway.  That’s how it got in there.

What are they screening?  THE RELUCTANT DRAGON!  Should be the reluctant title.  Wait, isn’t this the story Benchley’s come to pitch? All will be revealed, young grasshopper.

The Reluctant Dragon

The protagonist is a small ginger lad.  He meets a dragon and a man named Sir Giles.  Strangely, he meets both of them while they’re bathing…oh, my!

This dragon is misunderstood and doesn’t do all that terrorizing and stuff for which other dragons are known.  This dragon creates poetry and has tea and cakes.  Sir Giles, known as a dragon killer, also likes poetry, and the three of them become fast friends.

Meanwhile, the townspeople have whipped themselves up into a frenzy, salivating at the expectation of a dragon/knight clash.  Not wanting to disappoint, the boy and Sir Giles plead with the dragon to give the townspeople a show, which would involve harm to the dragon.  The dragon says, ‘uh, no.’

They then concoct a plan to fool the townspeople by play fighting, thereby sparing the dragon’s life. They play fight and the dragon learns to breathe fire and that’s about it.  Good story.

What we found interesting about this short:

The dragon is clearly effeminate and male.  The dragon’s deportment, voice and some of his other qualities and interests led us to wonder if they were suggesting a homosexual dragon…interesting.

The dragon is also adamantly non-violent, but for his own sake, at least that’s how the cartoon portrays it.  Thus, his non-violence isn’t about an unwillingness to hurt others, but cowardly self interest.  An interesting statement on pacifism as the U.S. was keenly watching the events of WWII and debates were raging over the extent of U.S. involvement.

The portrayal of effeminacy and non-violence could be suggesting that, if you’re non-violent, you “fight like a girl” or you’re not really a man.

The film ends with the wife, driving Benchley home, and telling him that while he was “shilly-shallying” about the studio, someone else had already gotten the ball rolling and they’d made it into a cartoon.

The Reluctant Disney

Somewhat ironically, for a movie geared around celebrating the animation process and those who work on the films, The Reluctant Dragon came out amidst protests and strikes by Disney’s staff.

They were complaining about unfair business practices, low pay, lack of recognition, and favoritism. Disney again proves himself to be The Man.

Some Cool Stuff

One gets to see the behind-the-scenesiness of the studio.  Like:

  • The sound effects area
  • Charles Nash (Donald Duck) and Florence Gill (Clara Cluck) performing a duet by quacking and clucking.
  • Room full of great paintings with Donald Duck’s face.

    Whistler’s Duck

Potent Ponderables

  • Why are they trying to sell the rights to their nephew’s story?  It’s not theirs!
  • What kind of gall does this guy have, making Mr. Disney wait while he’s gallivanting about enjoying himself?  You’ve come to pitch your story, now you make the boss man wait?  Guess whose brain is the size of an English walnut?
  • What cartoon was that zebra African woman centaur thing for?…
  • Could the reluctant dragon be a metaphor for the U.S. in 1941?

This would have been a lot better if they’d cut the uncouth and insipid Mr. Benchley (who, along with many of the cast, was an actual, regular Disney employee) and presented a simpler fare, one where Walt or someone else would guide the viewer through the various stages of animation at Walt Disney studios.


Rating:  8/17
Rating versus Joe versus the Volcano: Thumbs up. (Despite it’s terribleness it’s still entertaining.)

Rating:  13/24
Rating versus Joe versus the Volcano: Thumbs down.