Tuesday, March 03, 2009

2/26/09: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

Most Disney features fall into two categories: cartoon and live-action. But a scant few are hybrids, including some in which real people intermingle with animated characters (Mary Poppins, Pete's Dragon) and some that feature both separately (Song of the South). Made after Disney's enormous initial success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio—but predating Bambi—The Reluctant Dragon was Walt's first foray into the "hybrid" category, with separate animated and live-action segments.

The film begins like an ordinary black-and-white comedy, with real-life humorist Robert Benchley being henpecked by his wife to bring Disney the idea to make a cartoon out of Kenneth Grahame's famous children's book about a timid dragon. The reluctant Benchley goes to the Disney studios and ends up getting a tour of the facility (camera department, sound-effects room, color lab, etc.). Evidently, the movie was a response to the many fans who wanted to know more about how these animated pictures were done. Twenty minutes in, the movie suddenly drops the monochrome, a la The Wizard of Oz, and we are treated to some Technicolor cartoons, including a Goofy short and the 20-minute title segment, which are typically Disney delights. (The Benchley studio tour also changes to color as well—he looks better in B&W.) There's a great deal of self-deprecating humor from Benchley in the live-action segments, and the great Walt himself makes a brief appearance, as do Bambi, Casey Jr., Donald Duck, etc.

The most interesting thing about this 68-year-old film is how obscure it has become—few people outside of diehard Disney buffs even know about it, and even some Disney fans are likely clueless to its existence. Why is this? Well, probably because it's a mildly entertaining curio, paling in comparison to the studio's wonderful full-length cartoons of the day. (The film lost $200K of its $600K production costs.) While Dragon deepened my appreciation for all the massively hard work and imagination that goes into animating—the sketching, painting of cells, etc.—it was already deep to begin with. Presumably filmgoers were more interested in being spellbound by the magic of movies than by seeing how the magic is created. In its later showings on TV, the network dropped the live-action segments and just showed the cartoons. Rating: 3/5.

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