*Sound of book opening…*
Disney certainly used to love the classics. One of the best of their old-school features in my opinion is 1949’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which combines not one, but two classics: Kenneth Grahame’s novel, The Wind In the Willows and Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
The film is from a time when Disney Studios was struggling financially and the bank was breathing down its neck. It was right after the war, and Disney was no longer making cartoons for the war effort. To make up for its losses, the studio cobbled together bits from various works in progress into feature films. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was one such feature. Narrated by Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby respectively, the movie takes up just over an hour and is tightly and nicely packed.
The first segment is the Wind In the Willows bit, and it pretty much mirrors the book except that it cuts out all the episodic parts. It doesn’t rely so much on Basil Rathbone’s narration as the madcap action, and what a ride it is. Literally.
Mr. Toad has a weakness for life in the fast lane. If there’s a fad, he’s on it. If there’s a risk, he’ll take it. He loves wheels. He drives a buggy through town like a maniac. When he sees a car for the first time, he’s dead gone.
Toad’s friends try to stage an intervention, but Mr. Toad is a wiley fellow. He sneaks out of his house, gets arrested for supposedly stealing a car, and stands trial for grand theft auto. The story according to Toad’s horse, Cyril, is that Toad went into a tavern to try and and buy a car from some weasels, only he uses Toad Hall as payment, with the bartender, Mr. Winky as a witness.
The weasels and Mr. Winky deny the allegations, of course, and Toad is found guilty. He sists alone forlornly in his dank cell until Cyril busts him out, giving Toad a pink dress and nightcap to sneak around in. Problem is, Toad is really bad at maintaining a low profile.
There may just be vindication in store, though, because the weasels and Mr. Winky are sneaky fellows. The solution may just involve paper airplanes, too, which isn’t as random as it seems. Either way, it’s a wild and crazy time.
In Part Two, Bing Crosby is a one man show, which is understandable considering Washington Irving’s original story is straight narrative with basically no dialogue. It’s also only about seventy-five pages long, so a bit of filler is in order. Since it’s Der Bingel we’re talking about, the segment features plenty of crooning.
We’ve been to Sleepy Hollow before on Taking Up Room, but I’ll sum up the plot anyway. Ichabod Crane is the new schoolteacher in the Hudson River village of Sleepy Hollow, a place that is at once bucolic and sinister. However, Ichabod is more interested in making the rounds at the local tables and keeping on good terms with his students if their mothers were good cooks.
Into the placidity comes Katrina van Tassel, daughter of the richest farmer in the county and famous flirt. Ichabod is instantly smitten, but he has to jockey for Katrina’s affections with Brom Bones, a local tough who’s more mischievous than anything. Katrina does whatever she can to fan the flames of drama.
On Halloween Night, there’s a massive party at the van Tassel farm. Ichabod has a great time, but after dinner Brom trolls him but good, telling the story of the Headless Horseman. Our schoolmaster is so freaked he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
Yeah, we all know how this one ends. Disney makes Ichabod’s ride home both scary and comical, with Ichabod and his horse, Gunpowder, laughing at their own nervousness. Well, for a brief instant, anyway.
Ichabod and Mr. Toad were originally intended to be separate programs. Work began on the Wind In the Willows part in 1941, but World War Two, a writers’ strike and a strict loan limit put on the studio caused the project to be shelved, not to be resumed until 1946. Then Disney toyed with the idea of combining it with another story called “The Happy Valley” and a Roald Dahl tale called “The Gremlins.” This didn’t pan out, so Willows got teamed with Sleepy Hollow.
The film was praised by critics such as in the New York Times and Life Magazine, but according to Disney biographer, Bob Thomas, box office returns were dismal. Time tends to change things, though. When TV hit, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad found new life as the sections were split in two and broadcast as TV specials.
One of the things that struck me when I rewatched this film is how beautiful and detailed it looks. Mr. Toad’s Hall, for instance, could almost pass for a Monet painting. Same thing with the Sleepy Hollow scenes–there are visual brushstrokes and subtle motion even when a scene seems to be standing still. In the part when Ichabod rides through the forest, the clouds around the moon look like hands closing in. It’s really amazing–it takes real thought and care to put texture like that in a cartoon. The depth stimulates the brain, which is beneficial for children and adults alike, even if they’re not aware of it.
Contrast that with a lot of today’s kid shows. Unnaturally large body parts. Simple, flat color schemes. Very little detail. A lot of screechy voices. Even CG animation is pretty one-note. These shows might do well and the characters might look good on a backpack, but there’s no individuality or human touch to them. They’re too perfect.
Don’t get me wrong, there are good cartoon features made nowadays (Zootopia, A Whisker Away, Tangled, and Lilo and Stitch to name some of them), but it’s hard to beat the look of earlier Disney features, with all their layers and attention to the small stuff.
For more Classic Code Films, please see Rebekah and Tiffany at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Thanks for hosting this, ladies, and I hope you bring it back because it’s a great idea! Thanks for reading, all, and see you Thursday with the first of two entries in a surprise blogathon. More like a film fest, really. Anyway, have a good one…
Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. Wilmington, Delaware: Disney Electronic Content, 2017.