Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Disney Films: The Reluctant Dragon- The Feature Film That Really Wasn't

I said in my last Disney review that Walt was an innovator and pioneer years ahead of his time. It was a pretty unique gift. Well, once again, Disney's gift was his curse. Only this time, there would be no lasting artistic legacy like there was with Fantasia. The fourth film that Disney released was almost entirely forgettable:

This film (and I use the term loosely) wasn't so much a cohesive story as it was a collection of shorts bound together by a simple, but completely unrelated plot. (Actually, this particular formula would rise from the dead in the form of direct-to-video animated sequels in the 1990s and early 2000s.) The shorts are kitschy, and only mildly entertaining. The live-action loose plot woven throughout involves real-life newspaper columnist Robert Benchly attempting to sell the story "The Reluctant Dragon" to the Disney studio (mostly because his wife pestered him to do so). The rest of the plot is basically a tour of the Disney studio, with stops in the sound, ink and paint, camera, storyboard, and animation departments, among others. It's kind of interesting, if you like that sort of thing (and I do).

The four shorts included are a black and white version of "Casey Junior" from the forth-coming film Dumbo, a story-boarded version of a short called "Baby Weems", a Goofy cartoon titled "How to Ride a Horse", and a 20 minute short on the titular dragon.

There are a few points of interest in the film for animation buffs and Disney-philes.

The "How to Ride a Horse" short would set the benchmark for a long legacy of Goofy "How to..." cartoons, which have been fan favorites for years, and still continue to be produced to this day (mostly for the Disney Channel, or as DVD extras).

 How to Ride a Horse...if you're completely inept.
Various other Disney films and characters make appearances: A brief animation segment is seen of Bambi. Artists in the life drawing room are learning to animate elephants for Dumbo. Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, gives a brief tutorial on how he voices the famous character. And maquettes (tiny statues for the animators to use as a reference) are being sculpted for various characters from Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp.

I must preface my next point by saying that it's important to remember that this was a different time and, while racism is wrong no matter what the era, it was very commonplace and accepted at that time. With that being said, there are two blink-and-you'll-miss-them cultural insensitivies in the film. The first is a passing reference to a drawing of an elephant with distinct Asian features. Benchly refers to it as a "Coolie elephant". The word was a derogatory term for Asians in general and Chinese in particular. The second is a maquette of the now-infamous black centaurette from Fantasia (which Benchly absentmindedly pockets). The character, an African-American caricature from the "Pastoral Symphony" segment, was originally included in the release of Fantasia as a servant to the more Caucasian centaurettes, and was shown in the film (with her horse body striped like a zebra) pouring wine for Bacchus.

 This character and a handful of others were edited from Fantasia in later editions.
Other than that and a visual of a few animators and one cartoon character smoking (which was also common and accepted at that time), there's really no objectionable content here. Unless you count Benchly being henpecked by his nagging wife as objectionable.

The actual titular short, that of the reluctant dragon, is rather...odd. I found it mildly uncomfortable to watch. The plot is pretty self-explanatory. There's a kingdom, there's a brave knight, and there's a dragon. Said dragon is reluctant to, well, do anything, really. He doesn't breathe fire or kidnap damsels. He drinks tepid tea and writes tepid poetry. And the knight? He's pretty impotent, too. A doddering old man in the golden years of his life who also enjoys tea and poetry. They're brought together by a young lad who reads stories of brave knights fighting fire breathing dragons. And when the expected fight doesn't happen, the boy is mildly annoyed but ultimately accepts it.

In all honesty, this cartoon was a huge step backward in Disney's pursuit of animation as legitimate story telling. It's the kind of childish drivel that has been peddled to youngsters for decades, even through today, and quite frankly, it's insulting to kids. A lot of producers of children's animation assume that kids are stupid and will watch anything. But kids are smarter than animation studios often give them credit for, and they want good entertainment just as much as adults do. This short is nothing more than a patronizing "kids will watch anything" story with a plot weaker than the tea the main character constantly slurps down.

This dragon is a menace. Or at least his poetry is.
When I said that Disney's innovation was ahead of it's time, though, I meant it. Because had this "film" waited another decade for the technology to catch up, it would have made a great Wonderful World of Disney special on television. As it is, the "film" hardly merits the name, and would have been much better suited to the medium of television. Although the studio tour itself is mildly interesting, the stories are weak, the characters are one-dimensional, and the entire film is completely forgettable. Which is probably why hardly anyone remembers it.


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