THE RELUCTANT DRAGONOriginal Medium: Prose fiction
Adapted into animation by: Walt Disney Productions
First appeared: 1898
Creator; Kenneth Grahame
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The Reluctant Dragon is listed in many filmographies as Disney's fourth feature, after Snow White, Pinocchio and
Fantasia.. And yet, by some criteria it isn't a feature at all — despite the fact that it set the tone for Disney features during the 1940s.
The reason it might be considered a non-feature despite the fact that its 72 minutes easily qualify as feature length, is, those 72 minutes don't add up to a single story, as is usually characteristic of features. Instead, they're spread among several unrelated segments, not all of which were even animated. Two of them, in fact, could easily have been released separately, as regular cartoon shorts.
And the way it set the decade's tone is, it was the first of the compilation features (released June 20, 1941), not counting Fantasia, where the whole purpose was something different from telling stories, and a large majority of subsequent Disney features (exceptions were Bambi and Dumbo) were compilations until Cinderella put a stop to the run in 1950. Compilations, it seems, were less expensive to make than true features, and Disney was hurting for money at the time.
Of the two segments that could have been released as shorts, the first, Old MacDonald Duck, would have been a perfectly ordinary Donald Duck cartoon. But the other, How to Ride a Horse, marked a new direction for Goofy. It was the first post-Colvig Goofy appearance, that is, the first made after the departure of the man who gave Goofy his distinctive voice. In this and later such films, Goofy kept his mouth shut while a narrator (John McLeish, who did Pegleg Pete once or twice) gave a how-to lecture on the cartoon's subject.
Between those segments was Baby Weems, a departure for the studio itself, as it was told in the form of mostly-still storyboard drawings. It concerned a super-intelligent infant, who spoke in perfect sentences, apologizing for natural baby functions, from the moment of birth, sort of like Herky, at least if Herky had been inclined to apologize for anything. One can imagine Dexter showing such early ability, but it's a little harder to see the other super-smart kid in modern TV cartoons, Jimmy Neutron, doing so.
The only cohesive element in the movie was an attempt by humorist Robert Benchley, at his wife's behest, to get Disney interested in adapting "The Reluctant Dragon", an 1898 short story appearing in the collection Dream Days, by Kenneth Grahame (also the author of The Wind in the Willows, which later became a segment in Disney's feature Ichabod & Mr. Toad). The last segment of this film was, within the story, the result of this effort.
Grahame's story concerned a guy who, like Disney's earlier Ferdinand the Bull, is supposed to be ferocious but would rather kick back and recite poetry than live up to his supposed nature. Hearing of a dangerous dragon scourging the neighborhood, a boy (whose name isn't mentioned) decides to befriend it. He acts to blunt the wrath of Sir Giles, a knight on a quest to defeat it. Sir Giles, it seems, is also more fond of poetry than dragon-slaying, and is delighted to arrange a fake battle to please the locals. Afterward, the "reformed" dragon is able to take a place in the community, even participating in mock battles with the boy.
The Dragon's voice was provided by Barnett Parker, a veteran face actor who isn't known for any other voice roles. Sir Giles was Claud Alister, another with sparse voice credits, but who was responsible for Rat in The Wind in the Willows. The Boy was Billy Lee, who also lacks voice credits. Baby Weems was Leone Le Doux, who has few if any other acting credits at all.
The film consists mostly of Benchley wandering through the Disney studio and seeing this and that, leading into the animated segments. Because of this aspect, it was seen by critics and audiences alike as a cheap attempt to publicize the studio's product, sort of like a very lengthy commercial that they had to pay for. Not very many people were willing to do so, causing a poor return at the box office. Even in re-release, nobody got very excited about it. It's available on DVD today, but isn't one of Disney's brisker sellers.