The Reluctant Dragon is a 1941 film by Walt Disney Pictures. While much of the film was shot with live footage, the film takes a behind-the-scenes look at how Disney makes their cartoons, via a tour around their then-newly built Burbank studio, and several animated segments are graciously scattered throughout.
The plot of the film is centered on humorist Robert Benchley, whose wife hectors him into visiting the Disney studio to try to pitch an adaptation of the Kenneth Grahame book "The Reluctant Dragon". The film then shows him going through several parts of the studio, including the life drawing class, a live recording of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck's voice actors (singing an Opera—in character, no less!), a sound stage working on a short centered on a proto-Casey Jr., the camera department (where the film makes a jarring switch to full blown technicolor) where we get a look at the famous Multiplane Camera (as well as a cameo appearance by Donald Duck), a trip through the ink-and-paint department (where we get a cameo of Bambi), the maquette department, a storyboard session (where we are presented the story of "Baby Weems", which is a very intriguing experiment in Limited Animation), an animators' room (with appearances by Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson) where we are presented an all-new Goofy cartoon short ("How to Ride a Horse"), and finally a screening room, where Benchley meets Walt Disney himself and is treated to the presentation of an animated short based on... "The Reluctant Dragon"!
The film was made for the purpose of economics. Due to the financial failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Walt needed a way to make some quick cash, and realizing how popular one of his previous documentaries centered on making cartoons was, he decided to make a film that delves very deep into the making of his studio's works. The film was also made as a way of getting good publicity for the studio during the rise of the disastrous 1941 studio strike. Unfortunately, it didn't work. Critics were strongly disappointed that the film was not another animated feature but rather a collection of shorts and scathed it as a "cheater film" — the fact that the aforementioned strike undermined the way the film presented the studio didn't help. As such, the film flopped badly, failing to make up even its budget of US$600,000. Watched today, in its proper context, it's a very interesting, and humorous film.
The actual "Reluctant Dragon" short from the end has sometimes been re-released as its own standalone subject or packaged with another short, but the entire, unabridged film is available as a bonus feature on the Blu-Ray bundle of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Fun and Fancy Free, and for digital download and streaming. The characters of the Dragon and Sir Giles would later make "blink and you'll miss 'em" cameos in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The Reluctant Dragon provides examples of:
- All Animals Are Dogs: The horse in the Goofy segment sniffs Goofy for carrots like a dog would rather than a horse.
- Animate Inanimate Object: Casey Jr. and all the vehicles in his segment, including a railroad switch.
- Animated Adaptation: The Reluctant Dragon cartoon is based on Kenneth Grahame's 1898 book of the same name (originally published as a chapter in his book Dream Days).
- Berserk Button: The dragon can't get angry enough to breathe fire until he's called a "punk poet".
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: When Robert enters the camera department and sees that the film is now in color.
- The Bore: Humphrey, the guide sent to take Robert to Walt. Robert finds him so boring that he constantly slips away from him, which is how he ends up touring the studio.
- Camp Gay: The dragon is so camp it's hard to believe they got away with this in the 1940's.
- Captain Obvious: When Robert sees some cows in the Casey Jr. animated segment, he feels free to point out that those are, in fact, cows.
- Commonality Connection: Sir Giles and the dragon bond very quickly over their mutual love of poetry, much to the annoyance of the boy who just wants them to fight.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The film prior to the camera department. An interesting example, as it was probably done to save Walt a few bucks.
- Disney Acid Sequence: The rainbow room, with the paint mixing, wouldn't be out of place in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
- Dragons Versus Knights: The dragon and a Knight Errant know they're supposed to be mortal enemies but are so similar in interests that neither has any real desire to fight the other (especially since the dragon knows how such fights usually end). Ultimately the two pull off a theatrical fake fight that appeases the villagers and allows the dragon to become an accepted member of the community.
- Early-Bird Cameo: Of Casey Jr, Bambi, and in the model department we get looks at models of Aunt Sarah, Si, and Am, and Captain Hook and Tinkerbell.
- Exploding Closet: Robert inadvertently opens one of these while trying to hide from Humphrey.
- Fake a Fight: Ultimately the case in the titular cartoon. The dragon has no interest in fighting Sir Giles as he doesn't wish to get hurt. However, Sir Giles finds a way to get the dragon to agree. During the fight, the two are shown goofing around rather than actually fighting during parts of the fight where nobody can see them, with the fight ending with Sir Giles thrusting his sword between the dragon's shoulder and the dragon playing dead.
- Faux-To Guide: "How to Ride a Horse", the first of the Goofy "How-to" cartoons.
- Framing Device: The whole film is one for the Reluctant Dragon segment at the end.
- HeelFace Turn: The dragon, at the end of the short, swears that he is now a reformed creature who will never pillage the countryside (not that he was doing that before, but anyway...)
- Horsing Around: The horse in "How to Ride a Horse" won't let Goofy ride him without a fight.
- Interspecies Friendship: One is forged between Sir Giles and the dragon, though they are reminded people want to see them fight to the death, but they happily work out how to please everyone.
- Is This What Anger Feels Like?: The dragon cheerfully saying, "Ooh, I'm mad, I'm mad!"
- Large Ham: The dragon gleefully eats the scenery at all times, but never more so than during his 'death' scene.
- Make It Look Like a Struggle: Sir Giles and the Dragon only pretend to fight for the sake of the villagers.Boy: If it looks like a battle, I'm sure it's all right!
- Mid-Battle Tea Break: During the mock battle, Sir Giles and the Dragon pause for tea inside the dragon's cave, while shouting and making noise to make it seem like they're still fighting.
- Monster Façade: The dragon only wants to frolic and write poetry, but the people of the nearby village hire a knight to slay him (because that's what you do with dragons). Sir Giles, who is a poet himself, befriends the dragon, but the two decide to stage a fight to give the people what they want. The dragon is apparently slain in combat but ultimately befriends the townspeople after agreeing to leave off pillaging and rampaging.
- Moody Mount: The horse Goofy tries to ride in "How to Ride a Horse". Sir Giles' horse counts too, judging from the sour expression he makes while watching Giles and the dragon fake-fight.
- Oblivious to His Own Description: As the animators sketch an elephant, Robert comments on how stupid elephants are and holds up one of the drawings as an example, unaware that it's a caricature of him as an elephant.
- Our Dragons Are Different: This one is a prissy, docile poet. Then again, so is Sir Giles.
- Rewind Gag: Used in "How to Ride a Horse". When the horse fails to make a jump, the film is rewound to try again, and the horse ends up running up a tree.
- Roger Rabbit Effect: Not the film itself, but when Robert falls into the pool and tries speaking with water in his mouth, the bubbles that are coming out are clearly hand-drawn animation. Also there's the scene in the camera room where Donald Duck talks back to Robert.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: After going all over the studio looking for Walt, Humphrey corners Robert and finally takes him to Walt; Robert finds him in the projection room, screening a film of the very story he was going to sell Walt.
- The Short Guy with Glasses: Humphrey, the studio tour guide.
- Sissy Villain: The dragon. Subverted, since he's not villainous at all, just a dragon who's had the misfortune to show up in a story where dragons are the bad guys.
- Stock Footage: The footage of Donald explaining to Robert how a walk cycle works has been reused in various making-of featurettes with someone else in the place of Robert.
- Suddenly SHOUTING!: After the dragon and Sir Giles exchange poetry rather than discuss the battle, the boy decides to recite a poem of his own.Boy: Tis evening / From the stars above / A soft, mysterious light / Brings thoughts of friendship, joy and love. NOW HOW ABOUT THAT FIGHT!?