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“If you were asked to choose the most fabulous character in English literature, who would it be?”
– Narrator #1
Well, for Halloween I reviewed a movie that involves Halloween and Christmas, and for Christmas I reviewed an Easter film, so it’s only fitting that for Easter I look at a film that features stories taking place at both Christmas AND Halloween, right?
…This blog is turning out weirder than I originally planned it.
“The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” came at the end of the 1940’s, a turbulent time for Disney, mainly due to World War Two. Most of Walt’s animators were drafted to fight, the US Army was using the place to store equipment and they all but strongarmed whomever was left to hold a pencil into creating propaganda and training films to bolster the USA into giving the Germans and that old fickelgruber Adolph what-for! (Sorry, I tend to slip into an old-timey newsreel announcer voice when talking about the 40’s).
As such, there were many ideas for potential animated films tossed around but never fully developed due to budget and time constraints. Most of them were made into individual shorts that were packaged together to form a film, sometimes with a narrative of sorts to tie them together. There’s a good chance you’ve probably seen at least one of these shorts on tv or on video. Remember “Peter and the Wolf”? That’s from a version of Fantasia featuring mostly contemporary tunes called “Make Mine Music”. How about “Pecos Bill”? It’s the finale of a pseudo-sequel to the previous film titled “Melody Time”. “Mickey and the Beanstalk”? The second half of the double feature known as “Fun and Fancy Free”. The movie I’m looking at today is the very last of these aptly titled “package films” before Disney returned to the full-length fairy tale formula the following year with “Cinderella”.
Animated adaptations of both Kenneth Grahaeme’s “The Wind in the Willows” and Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” were planned by Disney as far back as the 30’s, but what made them decide to bring the two together I haven’t been able to figure out. It’s an unusual choice, but somehow it works. They’re both fine shorts on their own, but together they make a decent film that balances lighthearted fun with darker tones. Much, MUCH darker tones. Oh yes, this is one of those Disney films that’s earned its reputation for scaring generations of children, myself included.
Seeing how this is the 1940’s we get our opening credits with a peppy if not particularly interesting chorus singing over it. They’re simply stating the title of the movie over and over to the tune of a song we’ll hear much later in the film. Moving on.
The movie opens in a library where I assume all the books that magically open by themselves in the opening of every classic Disney movie are kept, because both stories featured here begin and end with their respective books coming out of the shelves and doing just that while the narrators postulate on them. Either that or this is part of the Haunted Mansion’s library.
Now you may have noticed before that I said narrators. That’s not a typo, there are in fact more than one narrators in this movie, and oddly enough they don’t clash with each other at some point like you’d expect. They do provide the tenuous connection between the two stories, however, that being who’s the most fascinating literary character, Ichabod or Mr. Toad? Our first narrator, none other than Sherlock Holmes himself –
Basil Rathbone, one of the most classy and dignified actors of his time, submits to us his candidate, a toad – J. Thaddeus Toad of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” to be precise – and he begins to tell us of his exploits.
Now here’s where I have to confess something. I normally make it a point to read the original stories that certain Disney films were based on and compare the two, just for fun if anything.
As of this review, I have never actually read “The Wind in the Willows”.
…Or rather I DID try to read it, but much like The Hobbit I was bored senseless.
To be fair, I was a small kid when I discovered that book at my library, but at least with The Hobbit I made to where Bilbo meets Gollum before giving up. With Wind in the Willows I couldn’t even get past the first chapter! From what I’ve gathered Toad isn’t even the central character of the story; it’s about Mole leaving his home for the first time and meeting him and Rat and Badger and a bunch of random stuff happening to him. The part with Toad and his motor mania getting the better of him, the part that everybody remembers regardless of whether or not they’ve picked up the book? That doesn’t happen until long past the halfway point, and it isn’t the main focus of the story. And unfortunately due to my limited knowledge, you’ll have to make do without a thoroughly detailed comparison of the book and the short for this review.
Well don’t everybody celebrate all at once!
Toad (Eric Blore), the richest animal living in the countryside, is a slave to fads and always ready for an adventure regardless of the cost. His wanton ways attract many fair-weather friends, but the three closest to him are the frugal Angus McBadger –
– the kind and gentle Mole –
– and a water rat simply called Rat, which always confused me because he looks nothing like a rat.
In the middle of afternoon tea, Rat receives a letter from a postman – a human postman. A human postman that’s drawn to the real-life scale of an actual human. This is another thing I find strange about The Wind in the Willows; in nearly all the adaptations, the animals act and wear clothes like humans but retain their natural size and co-habit the world with human beings and nobody questions it. Am I the only one who found this weird?
Then again, this does take place in England, the one country where nobody seems to give a damn about unusual happenings, no matter how fantastical. Polite marmalade-eating bear taking up residence with a family of four? How quaint. Werewolves running around the park? It’s only some hooligans causing trouble. Young virgins losing blood after the eccentric foreign count moves in next door? Nothing odd going on here. Flying cars and kids disappearing into train platforms carrying owls and magic wands? Just your average Monday. I’m surprised that none of these films have had weather forecasts that go like this –
Anyway, the letter, sent by McBadger, requests Rat and Mole’s assistance immediately at Toad Hall, the classiest home on the riverside and the real prize among Toad’s possessions. Badger has appointed himself Toad’s bookkeeper, and he’s quickly discovered that the damages Toad has caused through his manias are sinking him deeper in debt. After managing to shoo a mob of humans demanding recompense (and no doubt resisting all temptation to maul the lot of them regardless of their offerings of tasty woodpeckers), Badger tells Rat and Mole that Toad needs to be taken in hand for his recklessness before he loses Toad Hall, and he puts the job of staging an intervention on them.
Toad, meanwhile, is in the midst of his latest mania, gallivanting through the countryside on a gypsy cart with a Cockney horse named Cyril Proudbottom (J. Pat O’Malley). They sing of all the big adventures they’re going to go on in “Merrily On Our Way to Nowhere in Particular”, which is just as much fun to sing along to as it is to watch.
Also, you might recognize O’Malley’s voice from a lot of Disney’s animated films made during Walt’s time, most noticeably in the ensemble cast of both Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book. He makes Cyril a very likable character, rough around the edges but honest and loyal, “a bit of a trotter, a bit of a rotter” as he describes himself.
The song ends when they bump into Rat and Moley. Toad invites them to join his wild ride which Moley is all for, but Rat has to act the part of the responsible killjoy and starts reprimanding Toad for his carelessness and immaturity. Toad responds accordingly.
Rat and Mole resort to dragging Toad off the cart and end up pulling off his pants. Toad then proceeds to gallop away madly in his underwear, no doubt making headlines in the New York Post (though technically it would be The Sun seeing how this is England).
Toad doesn’t get very far, however, as he catches his first glimpse of what’s soon to be his next mania – a motorcar. Within seconds Toad is obsessed. Rat and Mole find him bouncing around making putt-putt noises and assume the worst has happened.
After getting him back home Rat and Mole are forced to lock him in his room until he gets over his motor mania cold turkey. They don’t count on Toad sneaking out via bedsheet ladder (classic maneuver) and the next morning he’s found driving a motorcar that is apparently stolen. This case of Grand Theft Au-Toad is so big that the hullabaloo surrounding it makes the front page, and this really got me to questioning the human-animal logic in this movie again. Are the animals second-class citizens in this world? Is that why the idea of a toad possibly stealing a car that big a deal? Are there animal equal-rights lobbies going on? Are there any humans that are racist – er, species-ist towards animals and lord their gigantic five-fingered superiority over them? That would explain why the Prosecutor at the trial barely lets Toad’s friends get a word in their defense and acts like an all-around dick.
Wait a minute, that voice…that condescending know-it-all tone…the Prosecutor is the narrator from the “How To” Goofy cartoons! Sweet!
Anyway, it’s obvious Toad is going to need an idiot-proof plan to get himself out of trouble. Let’s see what it is:
Toad calls Cyril to the stand to testify in his defense. The Prosecutor questions him relentlessly, but thankfully Cyril is able to turn it on his ear with my favorite bit of dialogue in the movie.
Prosecutor: How did he get a motorcar?
Cyril: The only way a gentleman gets anything – the honest way.
Prosecutor: And what IS the honest way?
Cyril: Ha ha, thought you wouldn’t know THAT, guv’nor!
Cyril continues with the testimony in something I call rhymespeak, which doesn’t really need an explanation as to what it is. A lot of the early Disney films did this; characters that talk normally begin speaking in rhyme out of nowhere, and not as part of or leading into a song either. It’s a strange practice that I’m glad eventually died out. The one explanation that I can give for it being here is maybe Cyril wanted to have some fun with the stenographer.
Cyril tells them that he met up with Toad after his escape and they were walking into town when the alleged car, driven by a pack of shifty-looking weasels, drove past them to a tavern. For Toad, it was love at first sight…or maybe something else entirely.
Toad went in and offered to purchase the car from whoever owned it, not knowing it was stolen. The bartender, a fellow named Winkie, told him to name his price. Since Toad didn’t have any cash on him, however, he drew up a deed to Toad Hall and gave him that in exchange (which causes Badger to do his best Redd Fox impression as a reaction). The prosecutor asks Toad if he’s REALLY that stupid to do something like trade Toad Hall for a hot rod.
Toad produces one more witness – Winkie himself. The two wink at each other, Toad declares Winkie to be the epitome of honesty and it seems Toad’s innocence is assured.
And then, just as Toad’s about to walk out the door, Winkie smiles and tells the court that Toad tried to pawn off a stolen motorcar on him. The court is thrown into an uproar, Toad is arrested, and despite his friends attempts at an appeal, he’s taken to the Tower of London (wait, the Tower of London? For stealing a car? A FREAKING CAR?! I’ve known men who’ve abused their wives and have gotten off with less than that!!)
Christmas eventually comes and Toad is still languishing in prison. He ponders over his foolishness the friends he’s ignored and hurt, vowing to change his mania-obsessed ways for good if he could only see them one more time. The jailer then comes in and tells him that his grandmother has come to see him for the holiday.
Toad’s happy to see a familiar face after so long, but Cyril isn’t here for a friendly visit. He’s brought Toad a miniature version of his disguise which he can use to escape. The narrator tells us that this new plan pushed all thoughts of reform out of Toad’s mind and his new mania of breaking out of jail completely took over (thanks a lot, Cyril).
The entire police force goes all out in searching for Toad (and I’d like to remind you that the worst he had done was supposedly STEAL A FREAKING CAR), even siccing the dogs from Bambi on him (insert “recycled animation saves the planet” joke here). When Toad reaches the railroad, he commits an actual theft by STEALING A FREAKING TRAIN to escape. The police commandeer the next locomotive in the station and a bullet-charged chase ensues.
After one too many close calls, Toad leaps into the river. The police speed by and it seems that Toad’s in the clear – until he realizes that his ball and chain are keeping him underwater and he’s seconds away from drowning. We pan away from Toad flailing in the water (because not even Disney at its darkest was THAT dark to show a real drowning) over to Rat’s house on the riverside where he and Mole are sharing Christmas dinner together. They take a moment to remember Toad in their prayers when he appears on their doorstep, having escaped from drowning….somehow…
Toad and Rat help the “poor old lady” to the fireside, and Toad reveals himself. Mole wants to help Toad avoid the police but Rat’s convinced that Toad is guilty and is ready to send him back to the big house without a second thought. When there’s a knock at the door, he bullies Mole into opening it and letting the cops take away Toad (geez, with friends like Rat…)
It’s only Badger, however, and he’s made a huge discovery – while passing the supposedly abandoned Toad Hall, he found the weasels and their ringleader Winkie throwing a raucous party inside. Rat gives a rather forced apology to Toad for not believing him.
Together the four of them come up with a plan to sneak into Toad Hall, steal back the deed, and prove Toad’s innocence (which in turn will also exonerate him of breaking out of prison and train theft, as is the case with all false imprisonment stories). While passing under a bridge, Toad nearly blows their cover by whipping out a shotgun and nearly shooting one of the weasel guards, something which Basil Rathbone does NOT let us forget for several long minutes (someone’s been taking supercilious lessons from Rat). They enter the manor via secret revolving wall and find Winkie and the weasels sleeping off their hangover. The only way to get the deed is to lower the smallest of them, Mole, down to Winkie.
As is expected, Winkie wakes up and what follows is another fun chase throughout the house for the will. The animation is so energized that it’s no surprise it was re-used again in The Jungle Book. There’s a lot of great gags and visual humor thrown into these few minutes. Toad even gets the clever idea to throw around a bunch of paper airplanes to trick the weasels into chasing after them thinking it’s the deed. When that plan runs out, he swings around on the chandelier and rescues his friends from the weasel’s treachery.
The four barely escape thinking they’ve lost the deed, but Toad surprises them with it. By New Year’s Day, Toad’s back at home with his name cleared and his three friends raise a toast to the new and improved mania-free Toad…that is until they discover him and Cyril flying a biplane into the sunset.
Basil Rathbone wraps up the story and is immediately followed by the voice of Bing Crosby’s rebuttal as to whom the greatest literary character may be – after all, England has its fair share but so does the US. Actually, most the characters that both Bing and Basil name leading up to their stories are coincidentally ones that Disney had or eventually would adapt into feature films, shows or shorts (Robin Hood, King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett, to name a few). Huge coincidence, isn’t it?
Bing’s soothing voice takes us back to the post-colonial days of America, where Manhattan was nothing but a bustling seaport and upstate New York was a quiet place of green forests and mountains where nothing ever happened (so not much has changed in that regard). One of those little hamlets is Sleepy Hollow, a place steeped in tales of superstition and ghosts, at once inviting and cozy but also dark and foreboding.
Bing then introduces us to our protagonist, Ichabod Crane.
Ichabod is the town’s new schoolmaster and he creates quite a stir as he enters town, politely acknowledging the townsfolk but rarely looking up from his book while they sing about how odd he is and WAIT JUST A DARN MINUTE…
…Nah, too easy.
It’s also here that Bing introduces us to Ichabod’s main rival for the story, the buff and charismatic Brom Bones whose two hobbies include getting drunk with his buddies at the local tavern and picking on the new bookworm in town and…
I guess I should take a moment to talk about Bing Crosby’s narration in relation to the action on screen. He not only fills us in on the story, he sings all the songs and does the voices for Ichabod and Brom. His breezy laid-back tone fits with the lighter half of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and what’s more, they know when to use him and when to let the action on screen speak for itself. As much as I like Basil Rathbone’s narration for The Wind in the Willows, he pipes in a lot, sounds a bit snobbish at times, and like I said before, he seems to harp on Toad a bit too much whenever he does something dangerous. The words of Washington Irving’s original story are difficult to deliver naturally but Bing pulls it off without a hitch.
Ichabod proves to be a strict teacher, not above the old maxim “spare the rod and spoil the child”, but plays favorites with those whose mothers are excellent cooks. He also gains something of a reputation as a real ladies’ man for doing activities with them like singing lessons. The scene where the women he’s teaching fawn over him to the point of swooning even after Brom plays one of his jokes on Ichabod is pretty funny. Still, it’s interesting to note that the movie (and the original tale now that I think about it) show that Ichabod isn’t exactly the nicest guy. He’s not above disciplining kids, uses his status in town to get free meals, and his fantasies of marrying the wealthiest girl in town mostly center around inheriting her father’s wealth, even going so far as imagining him out of the picture. Still, I’ve always liked this Ichabod. I think I can relate to him because when I rediscovered this short, right around high school, I saw that Ichabod and I were both bullied nerds dreaming of hooking up with the hot popular kid.
The more I think about it, maybe that’s what ties these two different stories together after all; their heroes are less heroic and more anti-heroes. Their qualities are less than admirable and yet we root for them anyway because they’re still fairly likable.
Eventually Ichabod has a chance encounter with Katrina Van Tassel, only daughter of the wealthiest farmer in the county and never seen without her entourage of would-be boyfriends. Sure enough, her flirting has got him hooked and he sets out to win her heart just as she stole his.
There’s only one problem – Brom Bones also has his eyes on Katrina and seeing how he’s Ichabod’s mortal enemy, well, Icky’s got his work cut out for him.
Well, if it doesn’t work out, there’s always her twin cousin, and she can help you rack up those frequent flyer points!
Katrina is annoyed but polite towards Brom when he lavishes his attention on her, and encourages Ichabod through little ways like giving him her handkerchief when he gets splattered in mud and inviting him inside when he escorts her home (though the animation subtly shows that she’s most likely doing this on purpose to spite the jealous Brom). Still, maybe it’s my own unresolved issues from high school being projected on this, am I the only one who’s kind of rooting for these two to get together? I can’t be alone in getting pleasure out of seeing the popular good-looking jock be humiliated while the odd-looking nerd woos the pretty girl. The physical comedy here is just too good.
Even so, I’m at a crossroads when it comes to these characters – when you stop and think about it, the main characters are all jerks – Brom is a bully, Ichabod is a gold digger, Katrina’s a bitch, the only character who’s probably genuinely nice is the chubby little woman who fawns after both Brom and Ichabod (nameless in the film but called Tilda in the Encyclopedia of Animated Disney Characters), and her only crime is being overweight in an animated cartoon, which in those days meant she’s doomed to be alone forever.
It’s a testament to Disney in how they bring these characters to life through their animation that you end up liking them. The best example of this is the dance at the Van Tassel’s Halloween party. Ichabod glides around the floor with Katrina while Brom tries to switch her out with an overexcited Tilda and it’s comedy gold. The timing, the exaggeration of the animation, the music speeding everything up until the end, it’s perfect.
Brom gets his chance to one-up Ichabod later when he discovers how superstitious and easily spooked by ghost stories he is.
Growing up, I had a bunch of VHS tapes that had different random movies, tv shows and specials crammed together. One of these tapes had two Charlie Brown specials (The Great Pumpkin and one where the Peanuts go to summer camp that ISN’T “Race For Your Life Charlie Brown”) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I almost never watched it, because, well…I was a total pussy when I was a kid.
No, seriously, I was terrified of everything. Remember Chuckie Finster from Rugrats? I wasn’t as cowardly as he was but I came pretty damn close. Halloween was a day I took with a grain of salt because even though we got to dress up in cool costumes and eat candy til we got sick, I had to contend with ghosts and skeletons and things five-year-old me couldn’t stay in the same room as if they came on tv. So whenever I did get the strange urge to put on that tape and continue to Sleepy Hollow after sitting through an hour of depressing Charlie Brown animation, I would always have to stop it right after the dance scene because from that point on all lighthearted comedy went out the window to make way for the shit-your-pants scary stuff, starting with Brom’s song about Sleepy Hollow’s resident spectre, the Headless Horseman.
Now, I really like this song. It’s catchy, atmospheric and Bing rocks the hell out of it. When you’re five years old, however, and you see what looks like Brom and the entire party ganging up on Ichabod singing how he’s going to die tonight at the hands of a headless class-5 full-roaming vapor, you have one of two choices – get behind the couch or under the covers like the Headless Horseman himself was coming for you, or scream for someone to turn it off until the windows shatter (I tended to go for the latter).
From then on it’s Ichabod’s lonely ride home through the woods. We all know what’s coming, but as an adult, it’s not so much the Horseman himself that’s terrifying as the buildup to him. The dark forest atmosphere is very effective, with every tiny noise and shadow playing deep in to Ichabod’s anxiety. The colors that grow more intense as his terror mounts, the image of the hand-shaped clouds covering the moon, it’s wonderfully eerie.
That doesn’t stop Ichabod’s animation to get more wildly expressive and funny, especially since Bing isn’t there and it’s up to the pantomime to do the talking. When he discovers the “galloping” right behind him is a bunch of reeds hitting a log, Ichabod’s slow descent from giggling relief to full-blown hysteria is a hoot to watch.
And then, just as it seems everything is ok…
The Headless Horseman, though he may not do or say much at least in the terms of a traditional Disney villain, is one of my personal favorites. His design is iconic. His laugh, spine-chilling. You feel every swing of his sword, you taste his bloodlust. It’s no surprise whenever he comes closer to decapitating Ichabod during the climax the colors turn a hellish red. This ghost is nothing short of demonic.
Speaking of, this chase really is one hell of a climax. The breakneck pace doesn’t let up for a moment, the angles are very cinematic, and Ichabod comes dangerously close to losing his head many times. Even when it seems the Horseman is out of sight, he’s always right ahead of him. I’m not going to mention the many, um, awkward positions Ichabod gets into with horse throughout because I don’t want to be a mood killer. There’s a good mix of humor, terror and atmosphere in these few minutes that few of the best horror films I’ve seen manage to accomplish in their entire runtimes.
Ichabod barely manages to cross the bridge that according to Brom’s story, will keep him safe from the Horseman’s power. It’s only when he looks back that he finds the Horseman has thrown his head at him, a giant flaming pumpkin.
The next morning, all that’s found of Ichabod is his hat near the bridge along with a smashed pumpkin. Brom and Katrina get hitched soon after, and rumors spread that Ichabod fled the town and married a wealthy widow in another county. Of course, the learned and logical people of Sleepy Hollow firmly belief that’s utter nonsense and the only real explanation is that the innocent if just a tad greedy Ichabod was spirited away by the evil vengeance-seeking Headless Horseman.
I have to admit this was a difficult movie to review because of how simple it is. It’s not exactly one of Disney’s more insightful or visually stunning films (apart from a few scenes), but it’s still a lot of fun. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad doesn’t get as much attention as other Disney classics, but it should. It has a legacy of sorts in the Disney theme parks, most notably with the dark ride Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but I only got the chance to ride it once at Walt Disney World before it was closed to make way for the Winnie the Pooh ride. Disneyland still has it though (lucky bastards), but if you’re planning on riding it, I should warn you the end takes a severe departure from the short and you wind up in, um…
Also, I highly recommend going to one of the Disney parks at Halloween, if not for the amazing park overlay, great fireworks, rare character meet and greets, and that it’s the only time you can go there in costume, then for the fact that the Headless Horseman leads the parade down Main Street. It’s good to see dear Headless get some attention on his holiday, especially seeing how it’s a day for all Disney villains to come out and play.
I’ve already talked about how well the shorts in this movie work together in spite of their initial differences, I suppose the best way to end this is to wrap up my thoughts about them individually.
When Disney bought the rights to The Wind in the Willows, none of the animators were exactly keen on making a “talking animal picture” because they felt it was beneath them and their talents. Me personally, I think it captures the spirit of the story and characters well and the animation is especially good considering the animators’ initial attitude towards it. Fans of the original story may complain that they omitted or revised too much, but I’m sure there are other adaptations out there they can enjoy.
As for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I find this to be the definitive film version. Everything from the animation to the music works. It brings on the right amount of laughs and frights, and I love watching it every Halloween. It’s no surprise that Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow borrowed from this a lot, it’s earned its iconic status.
Also, I know in the original Sleepy Hollow story, it’s more than hinted that Brom was actually the Horseman in disguise, but this one does such a good job of making the Headless Horseman so fierce that it’s hard to believe it’s just some bully pulling a prank. This Horseman was out to KILL. I’ve seen few Headless Horsemen before or after be as threatening, wouldn’t you agree?
Oh…um…this is awkward. How to end this, how to end this…
Thank you for reading. If you like what you see and want more reviews, vote for what movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
I’m surprised no one’s said anything yet about the long breaks between reviews. Luckily I have something in mind that might fix that…