A wide variety of wondrous stories fill the Disney library. The one type of story that fills more of those catalogs than any other is by far that of magical fantasy. Filled with powerful and courageous beings and hallmarked with majestic castles, these types of stories have enthralled the minds of so many well before Walt drew his first cartoon or built his first theme park. Today, we begin taking a look at Disney’s take on one of those most fascinating aspects of the fantasy stories: the Dragon.
The Reluctant Dragon
In true Disney fashion, Walt’s studio decided to take the most recognizable fantastic beast and show it in a way few had ever seen it, including me. Though I have watched many Disney cartoons, movies and television shows in my lifetime, this was my first time viewing The Reluctant Dragon. I have seen many of the Disney films in my lifetime, but preparing for this series brought me somewhere new. And as someone who is fascinated by the history of Walt and his team, it was not a disappointment.
The film is mainly a behind the scenes look at how Walt Disney Productions brought their cartoons to life. This is told through the journey of comedian Robert Benchley as he wanders the studios in an attempt to find Walt himself and sell him the story of The Reluctant Dragon. As Benchley slips his studio escort and wanders through the lot, he takes us to see some of the steps involved in creating a Disney film. Following along we see artists learning how to draw animals, how sound effects and vocals are recorded, how cartoons are shot, and eventually how the finished product comes along. Each section is accompanied by a brief short to show you what comes of the work each team is doing. Eventually, the comedian finds Walt Disney himself waiting in the screening room. Before Benchley can pitch the story to him, a film starts. To Benchley’s inevitable surprise, the animation team had already made The Reluctant Dragon.
The original story for The Reluctant Dragon was written by Kenneth Grahame, most famous for Wind in the Willows which would later be made by Disney animators (and Imagineers for the fan favorite Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride). His version of a dragon challenges our general conception most people have about the creatures. Though he is big and green, he also drinks tea and recites poetry. A young boy, who is well researched in the ways of knights and dragons, discovers our titular character after hearing about him from a scared townsperson. Though the man was scared, the boy bravely approaches the beast and discovers our dragon’s true, peaceful nature.
Meanwhile, the uproar of the town draws a notorious dragon-slaying knight to the area. With dread, the boy warns the dragon about the knight and the beast steadfastly refuses to engage in combat. Seeing as that would not stop the knight, the boy then beseeches the knight to meet the dragon. As the three sit down for a picnic, the knight and the dragon bond over their love of poetry. When faced with the societal need for knights and dragons to battle, as is the way of course, the two combatants concoct a plan. As the plan unfolds, a raucous battle is staged for the townspeople and they manage to keep from actually killing each other. They even manage to enjoy a spot of tea along the way.
The extended short is funny and quite action packed, despite not having any actual fighting. But, sadly, this film is kind of forgotten today. A release marred by confused audiences and an animator’s strike may be to blame for this film being lost amongst other classics. The extended short has found its way into a few compilations over the years but the full length feature may be harder to locate. The feature is available on Amazon Digital and I highly recommend it if you are interested in the early world of Walt Disney Studios. There are more in depth resources to be found but The Reluctant Dragon provides a great little stepping stone into that world.