Humorist Robert Benchley visits the Disney Studios to sell Walt on the idea of animating the story of The Reluctant Dragon. While evading an officious young studio guide, Benchley stumbles into various studio activities and departments, including an art class, a sound effects session, the multiplane camera studio (at which point he notices the film has switched to Technicolor), the paint lab, a storyboard session for the "Baby Weems" segment, a movieola screening of the Goofy cartoon "How to Ride a Horse", and finally catches up with Walt in a screening room just as he's previewing the studio's latest film... The Reluctant Dragon!
Robert Benchley ... Himself
Frances Gifford ... Doris (Studio Artist)
Buddy Pepper ... Humphrey (Studio Guide)
Nana Bryant ... Mrs. Benchley
Claud Allister ... Sir Giles (segment "The Reluctant Dragon") (voice)
Barnett Parker ... The Dragon (segment "The Reluctant Dragon") (voice)
Billy Lee ... The Boy (segment "The Reluctant Dragon") (voice)
Florence Gill ... Herself (Voice Artist)
Clarence Nash ... Himself (Voice Artist) / Donald Duck (voice)
Norman Ferguson ... Himself (as Norm Ferguson)
Ward Kimball ... Himself (Goofy animator)
Jimmy Luske ... Jimmy, Baby Weems model
Alan Ladd ... Al, Baby Weems storyboard artist
This little classic spends just short of an hour touring the Disney Studios in the company of Robert Benchley, the humorist who acts like a big kid in a candy store (and is thus the perfect guide for something like this).
We see how the cartoons are made, moving from the recording studio - where the real-life voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck sing an aria - through to clay models of the characters to be animated - the sound effects dept. (we see the full Casey Junior sequence, some of which ended up in 1941's 'Dumbo') - the scenario department (we see a whole cartoon - Baby Weems - in storyboard format) - the animation department (we see a cartoon feature on riding a horse, and see Donald Duck showing us how he walks) - and much more. There's also a neat segue from black and white to Technicolor.
'The Reluctant Dragon' is a book which Benchley hopes to pitch to Disney, only to find the film has already been made; the last 20 minutes of this feature is the cartoon about the (rather camp) dragon, and a classic bit of Disney work.
The whole movie is engrossing and a fantastic overview of the state-of-the-art work being done by the Disney Studios at the beginning of the 40s.
At the time this film was made, Disney was primarily known for his animation but was positively itching to branch out into live-action. This is his first venture into "traditional" filmmaking. The story concerns comedic actor Robert Benchley (whose "How To" film series inspired many classic Goofy shorts) who, at the urging of his wife, searches the Disney studio top to bottom trying to sell Walt on the idea of making a movie about Kenneth Grahame's "The Reluctant Dragon" (Grahame's masterpiece "The Wind in the Willows" wouldn't become a Disney film for many years yet.) On the way he meets voice actors, musicians, animators (one played by Alan Ladd) and even Donald Duck and Goofy. When he finally finds Walt, he is shocked to see that his story has already been produced as one of Disney's most charming animated shorts.
Needless to say, this film is pretty dated in the age of "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo" (I refuse to put the Dreamworks' "S" word in the same category as these two features) but the interesting thing is how many of these tried-and-true practices remain in effect to this day.
Surprisingly, this live-action film is ideal for animation fans. Not so much for the "How does it work?" element, but just the thrill in being immersed in that world. From sound effects recording to paint application. And Benchley's funny, let's not forget that.
I happened upon this film during a late night when nothing else was on TV, and couldn't have been happier that I came across it.
In this, we're taken behind-the-scenes of Disney studios circa 1941, and given a humorous (and, I'm sure, highly fictionalized) tour of the studio and its various departments. While I've always been a fan of Disney's animation, I'd never been given a glimpse of the animators themselves, and I always thought that they deserved to be as well known as the Warner Brothers stable of talent. Well, here they're given a chance to hog the spotlight (as Disney himself doesn't show up until the final few moments of the film) and show off their talents.
Not only is this a good chance for you to see how some of your Disney favorites were brought to screen, the linking device with comic Robert Benchley is charming throughout, and the attitude is more than a little self-deprecating (playing up the notion that one is indoctrinated into the "Disney way of life" in working for the Mouse, Benchley's guide is portrayed as a militarily-garbed, wormy little walking Disney Rule Book). The animation itself is great (as is usual for Disney of this vintage) and the live-action work is funny in a way that most Disney live-action works aren't. All of this adds up to a most rewarding, and highly neglected, classic from the Vaults of Disney.
After filming the live-action sequences of "Fantasia" and hurting for a "feature release" following the financial fiascos of the aforementioned feature, presumably Disney rushed this into production (with most of it live-action, it not only cost less than a fully-animated counterpart of equal length, it took much less time to complete).
It purports to tell the story of how Disney animated cartoons are made, but, courtesy of a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie, it turns out to be more fiction than fact.
Various processes - like sound recording, paint-mixing, cell-photographing, multi-planing, etc - are all upended for the sake of humor (in one instance, a complete cel of Donald Duck comes to life, in another instance, the sound effects crew creates an "unplanned" cacophony by knocking over all the equipment).
More to the point is that the sequences are not just staged, but they employ professional actors (such as Alan Ladd!) portraying Disney animators and other staff (although in certain instances, actual animators such as Woolie Reitherman and Ward Kimball make appearances).
The "Baby Weems" sequence is often commended by many for being innovative and the forerunner of the UPA-style that would dominant the art of animation in the 1950s, but the fact is that "Weems" is nothing more than a sleek, streamlined version of a "leica reel" (a film which combines the pre-recorded soundtrack with the animators' storyboard sketches, as a way of assessing how story pacing and timing are before *before* any time and effort are spent creating fully-animated sequences). The story is cute, the drawings are more fully- rendered than they would be in a genuine Leica reel so they are nice to see, but "innovative"? I don't think so.
The Goofy "How-to" sequence is okay (I never cared for the "How-To" series, but I know a similarly-themed version in "Saludos Amigos" with Goofy trying to be a Gaucho is funnier).
The title short - "The Reluctant Dragon" - is cute and funny. I don't think it rates as a classic, but because it is such a rarely-viewed piece it needs to be watched by all Disney-philes.
Considering its historic value, this movie is hardly a waste of time. It's just not one that deserves repeated viewings.
* Portions of this film had to be redone because of objections by the Hays Office. The dragon was originally drawn with a navel which had to removed before the film could be passed.
* Some of the maquettes shown are from early versions of Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955).
* The Donald Duck parodies of Old Master paintings were originally made for an unproduced cartoon in which Donald is a guard at a museum. The film was being developed by Frank Tashlin during his brief, uneventful stay at the studio. The paintings were later used for promotional print stories.
* The Mickey Avenue/Dopey Drive signpost was built specifically for the movie, and was supposed to be removed afterward. It wasn't, and it still stands at the Disney studio.
* This is the first full-length feature for Disney where the voices are credited.
* Features How to Ride a Horse (1950), the first of the Goofy "How-to" cartoons. When narrator John McLeish was brought in to record the narration, he was asked to read it in a very straightforward manner, as if for a serious documentary about horse riding. He was shocked when he was told that the narration he recorded would be used in a Goofy cartoon.
* Film debut of John Dehner'.
* Maquettes in the model department include Jiminy Cricket and the drunk cuckoo clock from Pinocchio (1940), characters from Fantasia (1940) including Chernabog, a black centaurette that Robert Benchley takes with him, and the Knight from The Reluctant Dragon (1941).
* In the sound effects department the workers are creating sound effects for a piece of film with the train Casey Junior. Casey would pop up in Disney's next film, Dumbo (1941). Likewise in the art department, the animators are making sketches for "Dumbo". Bambi also makes a minor appearance in this film, a year before Bambi (1942) was released.
* How to Ride a Horse (1950) was the first of several "How-To" films made in which Goofy doesn't speak. These were made during a period when Goofy's voice artist Pinto Colvig was temporarily unavailable.