Each week, THN takes a look back at one of the Walt Disney Animated Classics. The ones that the Walt Disney Company showed in cinemas, the ones they’re most proud of, the ones that still cost a bloody fortune no matter how old they are. The really good ones get through more re-editions than a Spielberg movie, and that’s saying something. This week we say goodbye to the package movies with Two Fabulous Characters, ICHABOD AND MISTER TOAD.
Directed by Jack Kinney,Clyde Geronimi and James Algar
1949/ 68 Minutes
The last of Disney’s “package films”, ICHABOD AND MISTER TOAD basically uses up the last little odds and ends Disney had lying around during the World War Two.
The idea of adapting Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 book THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS actually began in 1938, shortly after the release of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. Disney wasn’t sure on the idea but acquired the rights to the book anyway, with the intention of making a full-length feature. By 1941 a basic script was complete and Disney brought in a load of animators from BAMBI to work on the project. However, the advent of WW2 put it on hold until about 1945. By that time, Disney had started work on an adaptation of Washington Irving’s THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, but the short story turned out to be too short to be a feature. Eventually the choice was made to pair the half-completed Wind in the Willows to the new Sleepy Hollow project, and this was the result, and actually, it ain’t half bad.
SYNOPSIS: A live-action/stop motion library is the framing device for the picture, as our Celebrity Hosts, actor Basil Rathbone and singer Bing Crosby, introduce and narrate “their favourite” literary characters and stories.
Rathbone starts us off with The Wind in the Willows and the exploits of J. Thaddeus Toad, Esquire. After running his estate into debt with a string of fads and “manias”, most recently cruising round the county in a gypsy cart, the long-suffering MacBadger implores Toad’s friends Rat and Mole to try and bring the anarchic amphibian to order. Alas, they’re completely ignored as Toad stumbles – or rather, is run over by – his latest craze, the motorcar. Despite being put under house arrest, Toad manages to acquire a motorcar from a gang of weasels, by trading Toad Hall itself for it, and having kindly barkeeper Mr Winky countersign the deeds. Unfortunately, the car was stolen, and the finger is pointed firmly at Toad, who is arrested and sentenced to twenty years solitary confinement. Toad then manages to escape prison and meets with his friends at Christmas. Rat is reluctant to help, but relents when MacBadger arrives to inform them Toad really did trade the Hall for the car and is innocent of its theft. As a result the Hall has been overrun by weasels, and their ringleader… Mr Winky. (Dun dun dunnnnnn!)
The four of them sneak into the Hall to steal back the deed to the estate, amid a wild slapstick chase sequence. Toad is cleared of the theft of the car, and is returned to his proper place at the head of Toad Hall. It’s not actually made clear whether he cleared his debts or not., but everyone seems happy enough… until Toad hits the house with his latest fad, a 1908 biplane.
Rathbone provides a rather charming, energetic narration to the tale; for a while you’re fooled into thinking he’s doing all the voices (I certainly was) and it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the tale.
Bing Crosby then steps in, as it were, to regale the Legend of Sleepy Hollow; from the way it’s done, it’s pretty clear the two hosts had nothing to do with each other. Anyhoo, Ichabod Crane is a new arrival in Sleepy Hollow, taking over as Schoolmaster. His somewhat odd behaviour and appearance earns him the ridicule of the town bully, Brom Bones (a clear template for Gaston). Despite his best efforts, Brom is continually bested by Ichabod, usually by accident on Ichabod’s part. Ichabod also proves quite a hit with the eligible ladies of Sleepy Hollow, until, that is, the arrival of Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the wealthiest farmer in the area, and a right little flaunt. Teasing her way through life, Katrina sees Ichabod as a refreshing change from Brom scaring off all the competition, and spends her days watching them vie for her affections. Brom is continually beaten by Ichabod, who has fallen not only for her, but for the barnload of cash he’d be due to inherit from her father. Brom finally hits on the idea of taking advantage of Ichabod’s strong belief in superstition, and tells the tale of the Headless Horseman, a local boogeyman who roams the area on Halloween night, searching for someone kind enough to let him “borrow” their head. The sequence, intended to instil fear and apprehension, is dulled somewhat by the swing-time crooning of Crosby.
See what I mean?
Don’t get me wrong, Crosby makes a fine narrator, it’s just that the song really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the picture. Not his rendition of it, anyway.
In any case, Halloween Night comes along, and Ichabod rides alone through the forest. Now, after the rather tame musical number, this sequence is a masterclass in animated horror, using a lot of the tricks shown of in Snow White, a symphony of suspense and misdirection, lulling Ichabod into a false sense of security before BAM! In rides the horseman, and a thrilling chase ensues, as Ichabod rides frantically towards the bridge, the edge of the Horseman’s domain.
What’s particularly interesting is the Horseman’s steed looks remarkably like Brom’s, and it’s left nicely vague as to what actually happens. It’s implied that Ichabod just up and left town, finding a doting wife and fortune elsewhere, while the inhabitants of the Hollow insist he was never seen again; a victim of the Headless Horseman.
1. Don’t trust anyone who hangs out with weasels.
2. Don’t let superstitions get the better of you. Touch wood.
3. Don’t get Bing Crosby to sing if you’re looking for suspense.
It’s hard to tell who the hero is with the Mr Toad segment; is it Toad or is it his friends? Toad is a bit of a prat, to be honest, but, then again, so is Ichabod, although they both have their charms.
There are no female characters in the Mr Toad half of the tale, and only two of note in Ichabod’s. One is unnamed and unloved by pretty much everyone; you feel rather sorry for the – how do I put this politely – curvaceous little lady. Katrina on the other hand is a bit of an anti-heroine, in that she does nothing but get the men to do everything for her; enticing them to fight for her affections.
The duplicitous Mr Winky doesn’t have much to offer, and the Weasels are pretty standard henchmen. The Horseman is brilliantly realised and is actually quite scary as a villain. The slapstick nature of the chase dulls things a little, but you can’t have everything.
Very solid supporting cast for Toad. Rat, MacBadger and Mole are very faithful to the story, and Toad’s equine partner-in-crime Cyril Proudbottom has a few good moments. Not much to report from Sleepy Hollow; it’s pretty much a three-hander. Four if you count the Horseman.
Two very good adaptations of much-loved stories, though there’s not much to link them. The framing device, with the hosts reading their favourite stories is a nice one, and looks to be the origin of the format used by WINNIE THE POOH.
Both segments are pretty heavy on the slapstick and there’s some really witty dialogue rolling around in there. A few unintentional laughs for the Headless Horseman song, because it’s so bad in context.
The Horseman’s appearance, in fact that whole sequence, is just brilliant. Slow-burning, suspenseful, creepy as hell, with Ichabod and the audience second-guessing every sound or half-seen spectre.
MORAL/ EDUCATIONAL VALUE
Aside from being reasonably faithful adaptations to two well-known and well-loved fables, there isn’t much there.
A few nice songs and that’s about it; the music is pretty average to be honest.
While both shorts were tweaked and re-released later on their own to moderate success, the film itself did pretty well and has picked up a large fanbase over the years. Characters from Wind in the Willows made cameo appearances (as did countless others) in 1983’s MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL – pretty much frame for frame, from the looks of it – and Toad makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT.
FINAL SCORE 46/53
Next week, our first scoreboard!
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