Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Reluctant Dragon ( 1941 )

After the immense critical and box-office success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, Walt Disney Studios was bombarded with requests from his fans to show how these cartoons were created. The brass at RKO Pictures were also keen to see how the cartoons that they were distributing were made, and so Walt Disney decided to create a film that combined a series of short cartoons ( in the same vein as Fantasia ) interspersed throughout a Technicolor live-action segment that featured a host giving a guided tour of the Disney Studios. This host was none other than the delightful satirist Robert Benchley. 

The idea was clever and, with the films relatively low budget ( $600,000 ) it was expected to bring in a substantial return, but once audiences saw the final production, many felt they were cheated. This was due in no small part to the film's misleading title - The Reluctant Dragon. Having enjoyed the richness of Disney's previous features, audiences were simply not expecting the casual documentary style film that followed. 

The Reluctant Dragon was in no way different than any of the behind-the-scenes segments which later appeared on television during The Mickey Mouse Club, and it gave us a most entertaining look at the process involved in the making of a Disney motion picture - even though it uses actors in the roles of animators, musicians, and cameramen ( with the exception of an appearance by one of the Nine Old Men, Ward Kimball ). Frank Faylen, Nana Bryant, Frances Gifford, and Alan Ladd are some of the actors playing Disney personnel. Keep your eyes peeled for a young John Dehner in his feature film debut too.

Three animated sequences act as interludes on Benchley's tour and these include Baby Weems, a Goofy short - How to Ride a Horse - and one of our all-time favorite cartoons - the titular Reluctant Dragon, which tells the tale of a dragon who prefers picnics to fighting. 

The cartoon begins with an intellectual young boy discovering that a real dragon was seen in his village. He ventures to take a peek at the fabled creature only to find himself greatly disappointed. He was imagining a fierce beast with fire flaming out its nostrils, instead he meets a silly blue creature that doesn't look at all monstrous ......worse yet, it's a tea-drinking poetry spouting coward! 

"Punk poet! Punk poet!"

An even greater disappointment to the boy comes when he visits the knight, Sir Giles, who does not look or act at all like the knights in the books he reads. In place of the strong hero is a Quixote-like old man with frightfully skinny legs. 

Sir Giles and the Dragon get on capitally during their first encounter for Sir Giles is also a great admirer of picnics and poetry. They begin to exchange verses they wrote ( Radish so Red, Ode to an Upside-Down Cake ) when the boy reminds them that they are supposed to fight. The town expects it of them. And so they agree to stage a battle that will have the knight declared victor. 

Critics of Walt Disney's animated cartoons often claim that The Reluctant Dragon was one of the weaker shorts, but we feel just the contrary. It holds up marvelously well after numerous viewings and features some preposterously cute animation. 

Radish so Red
by Sir Giles

"Radish so red, radish so red, 
plucked from the heart of your warm little bed, 
sprinkle with salt on top of your head, 
~ crunch! ~ delicious."

Sir Giles is the epitome of the veddy-British stereotypes with his curling mustache, skinny neck and ever-present monocle. He's an upper-crust gentleman, a true knight who wouldn't dare fight an unarmed dragon, while the dragon itself is just what one wouldn't expect a dragon to be - a sissy. 

The Reluctant Dragon was based upon a story by English author Kenneth Grahame, whose "The Wind in the Willows" Disney also cartoonized in 1949. Two British ex-pats Barnett Parker and Claude Allister voiced the part of the Dragon and Sir Giles ( Allister would later do the part of Rat in The Wind in the Willows ).

When The Reluctant Dragon was first released on VHS it was paired with another one of Disney's rarer animated classics - Morris the Moose ( 1950 ), which is worth taking a look at too. 

This post is our contribution to the One of Our All-Time Favorite Cartoons Blogathon, be sure to head on over to Movie Movie Blog Blog to check out all the other great posts on the cartoons of yor. 


  1. Very good blog entry! Funny how movies made by Disney and others, which weren't regarded well when first released, have stood the test of time.

    1. Tastes change over time I suppose, but quality does not, and this cartoon is a little gem.

  2. "The Reluctant Dragon" is a particular favourite of my son's. Therefore, we have watched it many, many times (!!) and lines quoted from that particular short have made it into family lore.

    John Dehner is so young and so tall!

    1. Isn't he ever! I always associate Dehner as Cy Bennett ( Doris Day's boss on her show ) and its amazing to see how many films/tv appearances he made outside of that role.

  3. This sounds wonderful! I've never heard of it before. It looks like it's available for online viewing (yay!), so I'll be checking it out. Thanks!

  4. I agree that the actual cartoon short holds up quite well. Was this broadcast as part of a Disney TV series? I know I have seen it, but not in a theater and not on video.

    1. It was released on DVD and I believe TCM aired it last December apart of their Vault Disney series. I'm sure it also must have been included in Disney's television series sometime during its run.