The first third of the film is in black-and-white, the remaining two-thirds are in Technicolor. Most of the film is live-action, with four short animated segments inserted into the running time: a black-and-white segment featuring Casey Junior from Dumbo; and three Technicolor cartoons: Baby Weems, Goofy's How to Ride a Horse, and the extended-length short The Reluctant Dragon, based upon Kenneth Grahame's book of the same name. The total length of all animated parts is 40 minutes.
Studio operations toured by Benchley in the film
The loose plot of the film features Robert Benchley trying to find (or, rather, avoid finding) Walt Disney so that he can, at the insistence of his wife, pitch to him the idea of making an animated version of the book by Kenneth Grahame. Dodging an overly officious studio guide named Humphrey (played by Buddy Pepper), Benchley stumbles upon a number of the Disney studio operations and learns about the traditional animation process, some of the facets of which are explained by a staff employee named Doris (Frances Gifford)
- The life drawing classroom, where animators learn to caricature people and animals by observing the real thing.
- A film score and voice recording session featuring Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, and Florence Gill, the voice of Clara Cluck
- A foley session for a cartoon featuring Casey Junior from Dumbo. Doris demonstrates the sonovox in this scene, which was used to create the train's voice.
- The camera room, featuring a demonstration of the multiplane camera. Upon Benchley's entering the camera room, the film turns from black-and-white to Technicolor (a la The Wizard of Oz), prompting the droll Benchley to (breaking the fourth wall) examine his now red-and-blue tie and his yellow copy of the Reluctant Dragon storybook and comment, "Ahh...Technicolor!" When Doris arrives to show him around the camera room, she asks Benchley if he remembers her. His answer: "Yes, but you look so much different in Technicolor!" Donald Duck from the short Old MacDonald Duck appears on the camera stand to help explain the mechanics of animation and animation photography.
- The ink-and-paint department, including a Technicolor-showcasing montage of the paint-making process. Doris presents a completed cel of the titular character from Bambi.
- The maquette-making department, which makes maquettes (small statues) to help the animators envision a character from all sides. Some of the maquettes on display included Aunt Sarah, Si, and Am from Lady and the Tramp and Captain Hook and Tinker Bell from Peter Pan; both films were in development at this time, but would be delayed by World War II and not completed until the 1950s. Also on display is a black centaurette from Fantasia, which Benchley steals. The employee on duty makes Benchley a maquette of himself, which many years later was purchased and owned by Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones.
- The storyboard department, where a group of storymen (one of whom is portrayed by Alan Ladd) test their idea for a new short on Benchley: Baby Weems. The story is shown to the audience in the form of an animatic, or a story reel, using limited animation, and is considered among the Disney studio's best (if unsung) works. Alfred Werker, loaned out by 20th Century Fox to direct this film, later became the first outside film director to use the storyboard, which the Disney staff had developed from predecessive illustrated scripts during the early-1930s.
- The room of animators Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, and Norm Ferguson. Benchley watches Kimball animating Goofy, and Ferguson animating Pluto. He and the audiences are also treated to a preview of a new Goofy cartoon, How to Ride a Horse, the first of the many how-to parodies in the Goofy series. RKO releases How to Ride a Horse as a stand-alone short on February 24, 1950.
- Humphrey, who has been one step behind Benchley the entire film, finally apprehends him and delivers him in person to Walt Disney, who is in the studio projection room about to screen a newly completed film. Disney invites Benchley to join them; to Benchley's slight embarrassment yet relief, the film they screen is a two-reel (twenty-minute) short based upon the very book Benchley wanted Walt to adapt, The Reluctant Dragon.
The cartoon starts with an introduction by the narrator of the story. One of the main characters, The Boy, who is reading a book about knights and bloodthirsty dragons, is introduced. His father comes rushing by, claiming to have seen a monster. The Boy reassures his father that it was only a dragon, to which the father panics and runs to the village in fear.
The Boy then goes to the Dragon's lair, where he is confronted not by a ferocious beast, but a shy, poetry spouting creature. The Boy, though surprised at seeing what a nice creature the Dragon is, befriends him. When he arrives back at the village, the Boy discovers that Sir Giles the Dragon slayer has arrived. He runs to tell the Dragon that he should fight him, only to be left disappointed when the Dragon announces that he never fights. The Boy visits Sir Giles, and it is revealed that Sir Giles is an old man. The Boy tells Sir Giles that the Dragon will never fight and they decide to visit him.
Sir Giles and the Boy visit the Dragon while he is having a picnic. It turns out that Sir Giles also loves to make up poetry, so The Dragon and Sir Giles serenade each other. The Boy then asks if he could recite a poem of his own. From this, he uses his chance to get a word in edgewise to shout at them to arrange the fight. The Dragon leaves but is persuaded back out of his cave when he is flattered by Sir Giles. Sir Giles and the Dragon eventually decide to fight, but as Sir Giles and the Boy leave, the Dragon has second thoughts. The next day, the villagers have gathered to watch the fight. Sir Giles arrives waiting for the Dragon.
Inside his cave, the Dragon is too scared to fight and cannot breathe fire. An insult from the Boy leads to the Dragon getting angry and eventually spitting flames. The Dragon jumps for joy as he is now ferocious. The fight ensues, with Sir Giles chasing the Dragon around with his sword and into the cave, where they drink tea and make noises to make it seem they are fighting. Out in the open, they charge at each other, creating an enormous cloud. Inside they dance, and Sir Giles reveals that it is time for the Dragon to be slain, but only for pretend, to which the Dragon gets excited. Sir Giles places his lance under the Dragon's arm, then the Dragon jumps out of the cloud and performs a dramatic death scene. The story ends with the Dragon being accepted into society, to which the Dragon recites a poem:
- "I promise not to rant or roar, and scourge the countryside anymore!"
Initial release and reaction
The film was released in the middle of the Disney animators' strike of 1941. Strikers picketed the film's premiere with signs that attacked Disney for unfair business practices, low pay, lack of recognition, and favoritism. At one theater, sympathizers paraded down the street wearing a "dragon costume bearing the legend 'The Reluctant Disney'". Critics and audiences were put off by the fact that the film was not a new Disney animated feature in the vein of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio, but essentially a collection of four short cartoons and various live-action vignettes. The Reluctant Dragon cost $600,000 to make, but only returned $400,000 from the box office, hence the film failed at the box office.
- The segment with Donald explaining how cels are animated was repurposed for an "Under the Hat" spot aired on Toon Disney, and again for the "Animation Magic" featurette on the Beauty and the Beast: Platinum Edition DVD.
- Scenes from the live-action part were used for the featurette "How to Speak Atlantean", one of the bonus features for the 2002 Disney DVD release of Atlantis: The Lost Empire.