Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Believe the Lie" - Disney Loose End #4: "The Reluctant Dragon"

As I stated a while back, Disney has a long history of making-of documentaries that, while informative and often fascinating, also tend to be a bit sugarcoated. It turns out that history runs back at least as far as what could be called Disney's first-ever making-of feature, and it is one of the very strangest Disney Animated Canon films of all.

When I was a little kid, I thought that "The Reluctant Dragon" was merely a rather lavish short based on a cute Kenneth Grahame short story that would air among other compiled theatrical cartoons on the Disney Channel. I had no idea at the time that it was part of a feature until I chanced to catch that feature once on the Disney Channel. (Yes, there was a time when TDC showed classic cartoons and weird and obscure old Disney stuff from their vaults. And they also showed things like "The Harlem Globetrotters Visit Gilligan's Island". Let's not let the Nostalgia Filter get too rosy). My recent viewing of the film for this review was only the second time I have ever seen it, and it sure is a thing.

What kind of thing is "The Reluctant Dragon"? Well, it is a film that purported to show it's 1941 audience how Walt Disney made cartoons in his shiny new Burbank studio. The one with the Mickey Ave. and Dopey Drive signpost (which according to some Disney historians, was made purposefully for the film just to make the studio look more whimsical and never came down). According to "Dragon", the Disney studio is about two parts Venture Industries, two parts Emerald City, two parts Zevo Toys, and four parts Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory (especially in that genuinely lovely paint lab scene). And while it is very hard to find information about the film, this much is almost assuredly true: the happy happy 1941 Disney studio depicted in "The Reluctant Dragon" was utter horsesh*t.

You see, almost everyone onscreen is an actor. Aside from the impossible-to-imitate Clarence "Duckie" Nash and Florence Gill, there is but one moment where actual Disney legends from the time are onscreen, and their presence is all but unheralded (that's Ward Kimball, Norm Ferguson, and Fred Moore in the "How to Ride a Horse" segment). There is, naturally, an awkward realty subtext here: "The Reluctant Dragon" was released during an extremely vicious studio strike. For those in the know, it's a little hard not to notice the tension in the scenes involving actual Disney artists, particularly the one incredibly brief scene towards the end where Walt Disney himself appears (in, appropriately enough, the legendary Sweatbox).

But never mind the lie that is this making-of "documentary" (and indeed, if you do not understand how animation works, this film won't exactly help, as all the various steps are parsed out to us in random order [soundtrack, then photography, then ink and paint, then character design, then storyboard... yeah.]) What treasures does this lost little lamb of a film hold for us Disney animation geeks?

Well, I was very wrong when I said back during the original Disney Animated Canon project that there was nothing interesting here aside from the off-screen drama. You get quick (or surprisingly long) glimpses at early versions of characters who would star in "Bambi", "Dumbo", "Lady and the Tramp", "Peter Pan", and others. You get a brief but interesting look at how the famous Multiplane Camera works (although exactly *what* we're looking at isn't explained
if you don't already know), and you get the sense that Disney was basically the absurdly ambitious James Cameron of his day. You see what could only be described as the world's first animatic during the "Baby Weems" sequence (which also may have introduced the very concept of storyboards to Hollywood at large, as theorized in this Antagony and Ecstasy review.) And you get the rather sweet "Reluctant Dragon" short itself, along with a less-heralded but very cute Goofy short.

Oh, and you also get a thankfully very few but still rather alarming instances of casual sexism, racism, and arguable homophobia (oh
wow, the Reluctant Dragon himself). Which sadly brings into focus the fact that the less you resembled what Walt Disney would consider "normal", the more... problematic your onscreen depiction would be. We... might have to get into this in a bit more detail in an upcoming review.

All in all, "The Reluctant Dragon" is a fascinating little anomaly hidden among the other, more loved Disney films. Definitely something worth digging up if you can find it. Join me next week, when I will tackle the most controversial Disney animated feature film of all, as well as the... probably least controversial one (but not necessarily in that order).

For more posts in this ongoing series, go here, or click the Chronological Disney Animated Canon tag below.

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