Monday, September 24, 2018

Walt Disney, part IV: The happiest place on Earth


An odd little prepackaged voyage through Walt's then-new studio in Burbank, The Reluctant Dragon doesn't accomplish much, though I certainly don't begrudge its existence.  At least, not as a bonus feature on the Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad blu-ray.  As a theatrical feature film, on the other hand...

Directed by Alfred Werker and Hamilton Luske
With Robert Benchley (Robert Benchley), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Benchley), Frances Gifford (Doris), Buddy Pepper (Humphrey), Clarence Nash (Clarence Nash and Donald Duck), Florence Gill (Florence Gill and Clara Cluck), various other Disney employees and, for some reason, Alan Ladd (various Disney employees), and Walt Disney (Walt Disney), plus Billy Lee (the Boy in "The Reluctant Dragon"), Claud Allister (Sir Giles in "The Reluctant Dragon"), and Barnett Parker (the Dragon in "The Reluctant Dragon")

Spoiler alert: moderate, and not really applicable

The strangest thing about The Reluctant Dragon, the hybrid animated/live-action feature released by the Walt Disney Studio in the June of 1941—not counted in the Disney canon, for fairly obvious reasons—is not that it is essentially a branding exercise, verging on propaganda.  It's that the propaganda part, which encompasses the live-action part, is somehow the best part, whereas the presumptive draw of the thing, the forty minutes of actual Disney cartoons peppered semi-arbitrarily throughout, add up (in the end) to a real, active drag on the fun of watching Disney advertise itself while nevertheless insisting that its audience pay for the privilege of being advertised to.

Not that an advertisement for Disney which Walt expected people to pay money for isn't pretty weird already, given that the last two bona fide animated features Walt made had already failed to live up to those particular expectations, at least to an extent sufficient for them to actually turn a profit.  And so we're treated to yet one more demonstration of Walt's bizarre hubris, though, this time, with a twist, Dragon being a sort of fictionalized documentary, focused upon just how goshdarned awesome and expensive Disney's brand new Burbank complex was, and how Walt had filled it with a whole host of smiling, friendly, happy Disney employees, all of it presumably filmed in the very moment that the debacle of Fantasia was financially gutting a company already badly reeling from the serious underperformance of Pinocchio—and, Dragon, of course, could only have been released into the midst of about a third of those smiling Disney employees getting laid off, and a third of the remainder going on strike.  The studio's last hope, Dumbo, would not be ready till later in the year, and to some extent, Dragon was nothing but a cash grab ("here's a cartoon, sort of! please give us money!").  Yet the particular form it takes makes it look not so much desperate as delusionally insane.

We'll discuss these unfortunate events shortly, in the context of the canonical feature affected by all these dark tidings.  But in case you were wondering: yes, Dragon also lost the studio money, returning $400,000 on a budget that somehow hit $600,000, though it's kind of hard to see how this little trifle cost (for example) the equivalent of one-fourth of an animated masterwork like Fantasia.  But, for now, the employees (and the actors playing employees) are still smiling; and yet if you don't see, say, Art Babbitt or Bill Tytla around, but do see various members of the clique Walt would christen "The Nine Old Men," that might not have been a mistake, as such.

So: our framing narrative takes as its subject one Robert Benchley, playing himself; we find Robert cavorting in a pool in the manner of the manchild one imagines the popular comedian portrayed in any number of venues, while his wife scolds him for not listening to her recital of their nephew's new children's book, The Reluctant Dragon.  (Author Kenneth Grahame was not related in any way to these actors, but do try to keep up.)  Mrs. Benchley insists that Robert pitch the story to Walt Disney (curiously, without their nephew's consent or even his awareness), and, reluctantly indeed, Robert is driven down to the Burbank compound, whereupon the film gets incredibly irresponsible, suggesting that anybody, at any time, could just walk onto the Disney lot and accost Walt with their ideas, or even somebody else's ideas, making me wonder if any starry-eyed kids ever got roughed up by Disney security on account of this movie.

Robert, however, is given the full run of the place, and, as he is rather unenthusiastic about actually meeting Walt, quickly escapes his minder Humphrey, apparently a zealous recruit into Disney's youth paramilitary organization.  Now free, but still slow-witted, Robert bumbles about the studio in a way that has just enough narrative insulation that it doesn't feel stupidly transparent in its intent to simply move a camera crew from one point-of-interest to another.

It helps that the places Robert's little adventure takes him are pretty interesting, like the sound studio where he meets Doris, something like his guide to this industrial wonderland, if also a very obvious actress hired specifically for this film.  Nominally a Disney employee with all sorts of responsibilities, Doris's duties include pretending to be Margaret White, the electronically-modified voice for Dumbo's anthromorphic train, Casey Junior.  We see Casey Jr. up on a big projection screen for the first time (Dumbo! coming soon!), starring in a pleasant little black-and-white short still in the process of having its sound effects added in real time.  Or maybe it's supposed to be in color; hard to say, because the film's in black-and-white until Robert stumbles his way onto the multiplane stage, at which point—as Robert himself notices in dialogue—we transition, Wizard of Oz-style, to Technicolor.

This is part-and-parcel to Dragon's propagandistic weirdness, the way it never makes it clear at all what's pure fancy and what's at least based on reality—that is, as much as I am reasonably certain that foley work, even in 1941, was never this barbaric (or straightforward), I also know that this hulking device is really Disney's multiplane camera.  Hence, when Robert sees an elephant in an art class, hoping he'd get to spy a naked lady, it's rather funny... but, did they do that?  (I mean, they did, on camera, so yes?  I know they brought in animals.)  And when Robert wanders into the "rainbow room" and witnesses Disney's all-female painting staff don hazmat gear and mix paint, I have no clue if that's something they actually did, though I suppose the overdesigned elegance of their multi-hued set-up and the suspiciously model-like complexions of the Paint Department's "employees" suggests that any connection between this sequence and the Disney painters' reality is, at best, tenuous.  And yet I did learn that Disney painters painted the back of the inked cels, something that seems so blatantly obvious, now that I've seen it, that it calls into question my already low opinion of my own intelligence.

Whether it's actually particularly edifying or not—it is, on the margins, in that it offers partial, glimpsing answers to various questions you may or may not have about the Disney process, and the multiplane camera is awe-inspiring—Dragon gets by mainly on the basis of being genially funny and routinely whimsical, with Robert Benchley proving to be excellent at playing himself as a hapless dork enjoying his semi-guided tour of an animation studio, and with a lot of little reality-breaking gags that make for a enjoyably anodyne experience.  It is, at bottom, the lowest-impact rendition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory you could imagine (though Dragon predates it), albeit to the extent you kind of wish that maybe Walt would try to test Robert's morality with a tempting deathtrap or two.  The downside is that it really is only a collection of stuff, and Dragon never develops any actual story, or even stakes, beyond the invisible ones inherent to Robert's anxiety about meeting Walt.  It certainly never develops any momentum, feeling somewhat longer than its slim 81 minute runtime.

Then again, that might be because of the cartoons.

Dragon is also a vehicle for a quartet of Disney shorts—I already mentioned the Casey Junior preview (there's also a first look at Bambi in the painting segment with its titular character still a cute wee fawn, and cameos by not only Donald Duck, but by Donald Duck's voice actor Clarence Nash; perhaps unsurprisingly, watching a human being do a Donald Duck is faintly terrifying, and Florence Gill's Clara Cluck, even moreso).  But there are three legitimate, full-length shorts, as well.

The first sets your expectations way too high: this is Goofy's first "How To" short, "How To Ride a Horse," which Robert sees (in his mind's eye, I suppose) when Ward Kimball starts flipping pages of animation at him, and it's easily the most delightful eight minutes of the film.  Somewhat self-explanatory, "How to Ride a Horse" showcases the premise of the series, purporting to offer handy explanations for how to perform various tasks, with a narrator blandly and sometimes-confusingly running through the steps of any given activity, whilst Goofy, being Goofy, fucks it up in humorous ways.  This one's about a horse, and its funniest moment arrives when Kimball and his animators seize upon the medium to do some "slow motion," with the narrator blithely describing the elegance and beauty of riding a horse, something definitely missing from Goofy ever doing anything, but especially in slo-mo.  Meanwhile, and I guess I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the way the narrator puts an audible ellipsis before emphasizing that he means "mounting" in the equestrian sense was a joke pitched to the grown-ups in the audience, and I, for one, laughed.  In terms of animation quality, it's very cheap (for Disney, anyway), but even here we get at least one gorgeous image, Goofy and his noble steed's shadow cast long across the landscape by a pretty little sunset. (8/10)

The next cartoon begins when Robert flees his little fascist handler into a story meeting, where he's accosted by a team of storymen who want his opinion of their latest opus, "Baby Weems"—and "Baby Weems" is as awful as "How To Ride a Horse" is good.  It serves as a demonstration of storyboards in general—Disney wouldn't use scripts until the Eisner/Katzenberg/Schneider junta demanded them four decades later—and it shows off the story reel technique, in which limited animation of still frames is used to get across the general structure of a short before it's committed to real animation.  And that part is, I suppose, instructive ("Baby Weems" is also pretty blatantly punched up far beyond what a story reel would consist of, but that's no crime); unfortunately, this story reel is bound to one really insipid story, about a baby genius who comes forth from his mother's womb already able to talk, and becomes a celebrity, and... that's the joke.  For at least eight minutes.  Of a slideshow.  Neither impressive nor entertaining, I get the idea that some people actually like this, and I can't begin to fathom their reasons. (3/10)

The last and longest short closes out the film, as Robert finally meets Walt, who invites him to watch his newest cartoon in the screening room.  It is, of course, "The Reluctant Dragon," magically brought to fruition during the hours (or days, or months) Robert has been idling on the lot (is the Burbank studio Purgatory? is Robert dead? I don't think that was the impression we were supposed to get).  Sadly, "Dragon" is not much less insipid than "Baby Weems": a young medieval boy, obsessed with tales of knights fighting dragons, meets just such a dragon, but he turns out to be much more of a dimestore Oscar Wilde—he's voiced and animated at maximum mince—more interested in poetry and tea parties than scourging the countryside.  Certainly moreso than devouring maidens.  The boy is disappointed, but does recognize this dragon, no danger to anybody, at least has a right to live, and arranges a meet-and-greet with the knight tasked to slay him, Sir Giles, who also has a bit of soft-hearted streak.  They agree to stage a grand "battle" to fool the townsfolk, and then the short goes on for another ten minutes, despite having no plot left.

It's not completely unappealing: the brightly-colored minimalistic backgrounds of the dragon's environs are neat, if cheap, while the dragon himself is reasonably carefully animated and well-designed, a cute, plump, theatrical beast in a mellow teal who couldn't be more harmless.  The humans fare much less well, especially the lad, who's overdrawn in every movement he makes, except facial expressions (he appears more convincingly made of wood than Pinocchio), and is therefore something of a pain to even watch exist.  Mostly, though, "Dragon" is just boring, its entire premise somewhat forgoing the idea of a conflict, leaving this long short with not much more than a few jokes that get old quickly, plus some well-animated, painterly fire (for about three seconds) and a lot more (passably-animated) smoke.  I can't imagine a worse way to climax a movie, even one like this. (4/10)

What you're left with, then, is just the basic idea that Walt was very proud of his studio, and wanted you to believe in its magic, too, which isn't contemptible or anything; and Dragon's pleasant enough that you tend to forget that its historical context soaks the entire project in sick irony (and that it prefigures the package films of the cash-strapped age to come).  Meanwhile, in some respects, Dragon is one of the most influential films Disney ever made: its live-action director, Alfred Werker, an outsider, was taken enough with the concept of storyboards that he spread the word about them, and they became a trend that caught on permanently.  And that's not exactly nothing.

But it's hard to believe anyone ever thought of this as a sound basis for a feature—audiences and critics in 1941 certainly didn't think so.  But that's okay: because Walt had one more desperate play to make, and this one was actually going to work.

Score: 5/10

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