World War II had cut off Disney's foreign income and Pinocchio and Fantasia had failed to turn a profit for the studio. Walt had two animated films in production, Dumbo and Bambi and needed some much needed revenue to put into those features, particularly the latter. Meanwhile, Walt Disney had become a household name and fan mail arrived at the studio in truck loads. The most common request was for a tour of the Walt Disney Studios. However, Walt couldn't have groups of people parading through the animation studio every hour disrupting production and Walt had yet to enter the live action business, so The Reluctant Dragon was the solution to the problem.
The film serves as a tour of the Walt Disney Studios and a lesson in how they made their animated films. It premiered on June 20, 1941, in the middle of an animators strike at Disney. It is reported that animators lined up outside of the premier picketing against Walt. Sadly, audiences in 1941 expected a full animated feature from Disney and were disappointed with the film. It failed to make a profit. Today, it serves as a nostalgic retrospective of what the Walt Disney Studios was like during it's first golden age. The film also served the purpose of building up hype for Dumbo and Bambi.
Similar to MGM's The Wizard of Oz, Disney's The Reluctant Dragon starts in black and white and eventually transitions into Technicolor. The film opens with comic actor Robert Benchley playing in his pool while his wife reads him a children's book titled The Reluctant Dragon. His wife tells him that the book would make a great Disney film and forces her husband to visit the studio to see Walt. On his way, Robert ditches his tour guide and enters the model department, where animators are examining a live elephant for production on Dumbo. He next stumbles into the music room where an orchestra is recording music for a Donald Duck short. Robert is treated to a performance by Clarance Nash and Florence Gill, the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck respectively. His tour guide finds him and continues the tour, but Robert gets side tracked into the foley room, where he gets to witness foley artists making all of the sound effects for an exclusive scene of Casey Jr. from Dumbo that doesn't appear in that film. After that, he ends up in the camera room, where the film switches into Technicolor. After an overview of the multiplane camera, they show Robert how they film each cell one at a time to make a Donald Duck cartoon. Eventually, Donald Duck takes over to explain the process as he comes to life on celluloid. He then enters the ink & paint department where we see Disney's paint lab mixing their own paint and ladies applying color to cells. A cell of Bambi is displayed and the tiny deer runs away in fear of Mr. Benchley. We then see the maquette department, where you can catch a glimpse of characters from 'Peter Pan,' which was in development but wouldn't be put into production until ten years later. An artist creates a bust of Robert Benchley for him as a souvenir. Next, he finds himself in a story room for a short called "Baby Weems," which the story men present to Benchley in storyboard form. The sequence is delightful and sadly, the short was never put to full animation. From there, he ends up in the animation department, where Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, and Norm Ferguson are animating a Goofy short. Then they preview Goofy's latest short, "How to Ride a Horse." After the short, the guide finally catches up to Mr. Benchley and escorts him to the screening room, where Walt is waiting for him. Before Robert can hand Walt the book he brought to show him, Walt screens their latest film, a 20 minute short called The Reluctant Dragon.
The titular short tells the story of a knight, Sir Giles, who goes to fight the village dragon and a small boy who befriends him. However, the flamboyant turquoise dragon has no interest in fighting and would much rather have tea and recite poetry. The knight turns out to be a fan of poetry as well and they become friends so to please the village, they stage a fight and Sir Giles pretends to kill the dragon. After the short, Robert Benchley's wife scolds him on their car ride home for being so late to bring the story to Walt's attention. In retaliation, he speaks like Donald Duck and says "Aww phooey!"
As an entire film, The Reluctant Dragon would have little appeal to someone who is not a die hard Disney fan. Since I do fall into that category, I enjoy the film greatly. It serves as a great time capsule for the studio. The film in it's entirety has only been released to DVD once, as part of the 'Walt Disney Treasures - Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studios' 2-disc set. That set was released in 2002 and was limited to 125,000 copies, which are sold out. The short, "The Reluctant Dragon," has a much wider appeal. Literally anybody can sit down to watch it without prior knowledge of other Disney films and enjoy it. The characters are fun and the short is full of humor. That short has been released on its own several times, and is currently available as part of the Walt Disney Animation Collection, packaged with other shorts with a similar theme. The full film is also available on iTunes.