In 1941, writer Robert Benchley narrated a behind-the-scenes tour through Disney studios as he tried to pitch an idea for an animated cartoon called "The Reluctant Dragon." Near the end of his tour he discovered that the idea had already been turned into an animated short, and the roughly 20-minute cartoon is tacked onto the end of his tour, which included footage of the different departments in the animation offices, with actor Alan Ladd playing one of the animators. In reruns, though, all of the live-action tour stuff was dropped--perhaps because Disney, a serious historian and archivist, had second thoughts about the staged episodes incorporating actors rather than real people. Whatever the case, the cartoon itself isn't exactly a stand-alone giant.
That's why it's a little surprising that "The Reluctant Dragon" gets top billing on "Walt Disney Animation Collection Volume 6, which also includes the highly popular "Johnny Appleseed" (1948), the Oscar-winning "Ferdinand the Bull" (1938), and "Goliath II," a 1960 Oscar-nominated short feature that was the forerunner of the animation style and many scenes from "The Jungle Book" (1967). In my book, all three are better cartoons than "The Reluctant Dragon," with "Goliath II" perhaps the best of the bunch.
"The Reluctant Dragon" (1941)
Without the Benchley humor and backstage tour, we're left with a story that feels almost non-Disney. There are considerable more quiet moments with no Foley effects or background music, the pacing seems slower, and the points of the film seem belabored.
In it, a little boy (voiced by Billy Lee) reads tales of knights and dragons, and since he's sporting a page-boy haircut and apparently living in medieval times, he picks up his trusty American-style slingshot and heads off in search of a dragon. What he finds is a pre-Barney creature who behaves as if he were at the "Alice in Wonderland" tea party, preferring to teach other little critters how to make music and reciting his poetry to anything dragons are rumored to do. Enter another anachronism, the knight Sir Giles (Claud Allister), who has a monocle and dresses and talks like a 19th-century British explorer. Sir Giles is the local hero pressed to fight a dragon, and now the boy turns intermediary, trying to stop the fight from taking place.
It's not a bad cartoon, mind you, but the relatively crude animation and the cruder condition of the film--emulsion spots, dirt flickers and flecks, heavy grain--really don't make it feature material.
"Ferdinand the Bull" (1938)
This charming entry, though only eight minutes long, is considerably more interesting in its drawing and animation. The people are more distinctive--a wart on the chin of one of the men from Madrid is just one example of detail--and the drawing and text stay pretty close to the hugely popular children's picture book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson. In it, a little bull named Ferdinand would rather sit under the shade of a cork tree and smell the flowers than run and play and butt heads in the meadow with the other young bulls. Even when fully grown, Ferdinand is still a bit of a pacifist whose pacifier is still a bouquet of flowers. But one day a group of men from Madrid come to select a bull for the bull fight, and all the other bulls try to show how fierce they are. Ferdinand doesn't care, and goes to sit in his customary spot. But this time he sits on a bee, and that makes him go crazy. Naturally, the men cart him off to Madrid, where he torments a matador with his non-aggressive ways and is eventually taken home again. It's a slight story, all considered, but one that's rich with nuance and detail. Milk Kahl is the uncredited voice of Ferdinand, while Don Wilson is the uncredited narrator. And Disney folklore has it that the matador was modeled after Walt!
"Goliath II" (1960)
Reminiscent of "Dumbo" and "Tom Thumb," this sweet little story concerns the son of herd leader Goliath, who's only six inches tall. Naturally, his mother worries about him, and as we watch her try to protect him from all of the critters who try to eat him--like a crocodile who looks like the one from "Peter Pan" or Raja, a persistent tiger--it's hard not to think of the jungle friends who try to protect their "mancub" little buddy. Everything about this cartoon will remind you of "The Jungle Book"--the drawing, the characters, the story, the animation, the music--and one scene in particular seems a duplicate. As the elephants march in a line and music plays, it's a dead-ringer for the "Colonel Hathi's March" scene in the 1967 full-length feature. Sterling Holloway, who gave voice to Winnie the Pooh and Kaa in "The Jungle Book," narrates. And all it takes for little Goliath to finally earn his father's respect and a place in the herd is an episode involving the one thing that scares the bigger elephants: a mouse. This 15-minute cartoon short is a delight from start to finish, and Disney fans will find it all the more interesting because it appears to be a prototype.
"Johnny Appleseed" (1948)
Popular song-and-dance man Dennis Day gives voice to the American folk hero and also narrates in this 19-minute cartoon. Originally it was part of "Melody Time," but Walt Disney realized that it had stand-alone possibilities. It's probably one of the most religious of his cartoons, too, with Day-as-Johnny singing "The Lord is Good to Me" and giving thanks for nature's bounty, then, when his time has come to an end, leaving his "husk" behind and entering heaven with his seed bag and Bible. Day performs two more songs as well: ""The Pioneer Song" and "The Apple Song." It's based, of course, on the folkloric legend of real-life pioneer John Chapman, who introduced apple trees to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. He was a missionary, but as he spread the Gospel he also scattered apple seeds as he traveled what was then considered the American frontier. This tale is more celebration than explanation, but the music and graphics make it a winner. It's just that it stands out like a sore thumb in this collection, which otherwise is about misfits and rejects, creatures who go against their nature to be their own individual.
With the exception of the title cartoon, these are in pretty good shape. Even the older "Ferdinand the Bull" has less damage than "The Reluctant Dragon." The cartoons that look the best are, of course, the more recent "Goliath II" and "Johnny Appleseed," which both feature brighter colors and less grain. All are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Though the cover says this is Dolby Digital Surround Sound, the 2.0 feels more like Mono that's been channeled through the speakers rather than split-sound Stereo. It's a functional audio that again varies according to the cartoons. The newer ones are clearer, while there's a little hiss and distortion on the cartoons from the '30s.
Included is a collectible "litho" print (and I use quotes because it appears to be a standard printed four-color, box-sized cardboard artwork from "The Reluctant Dragon"), which is pictured above.
The best of the bunch, especially for young viewers today, is "Goliath II." Three out of four cartoons merit a 7, and since the fourth probably earns a 6, we'll call it majority rule and give the whole collection a 7. But it's certainly not because of the title entry.