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Disney Sundays: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

There’s enough substance to both stories in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad to make for a great double feature. They’re both amazing stories with interesting characters and environments for the shorts adapted from them to actually be expanded on. But at the same time, at roughly a half hour each, they seem perfectly paced and when contrasted against each other back to back, make for a fantastic film.
This film takes the basic idea of Fun and Fancy Free: creating a feature out of two shorts, but omits the biggest thing which held that film back, the awkward live-action transitions. Thus the film feels more whole without the need for a framing device apart from introductions by narrators Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby.
The two shorts are adaptations of classic works of literature. The first is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows which is set in a pastoral English countryside filled with anthropomorphic animal characters during the Edwardian era. The eccentric and thrill-seeking Thaddeus Toad Esquire has bankrupted his estate through his chasing after numerous fads and copious spending. After he trades Toad Hall to a band of weasels for a stolen motorcar, his friends Rat, Mole, and Angus MacBadger must clear his good name.
The Wind in the Willows is a story that has always fascinated me largely because of the anthropomorphic cast, my first exposure to animals portrayed as so human. It’s an odd little story but a very endearing one at that. The characters are a lot of fun and the world for the most part pleasant. This short is really good at capturing the social commentary of the book, with Toad being a perfect ludicrous millionaire jumping on board the latest mania bandwagon. He’s a character very much akin to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster or real life figures like Howard Hughes. He’s also quite funny in his insanity. So is his horse Cyril, who feels lifted directly from Only Fools and Horses. In fact to reference another British sitcom, their whole environment reminds me of Last of the Summer Wine. There isn’t a whole lot to the other characters. MacBadger is irate and despairing, Rat is stuffy and proper, Mole is clumsy and kind, Mr. Winky has the most delightfully malicious smile and accent; but they are entertaining. The animation is also very good, creating a rich atmosphere through the artwork that makes you believe in this world, even when aspects like the human characters (yeah, how does that work?) don’t. I love how the short portrays Christmas, if only briefly. It’s very homely and warm, maybe a reason why these characters would later show up in supporting roles in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. And the animation compliments the comedy very well, particularly the physical stuff. The action-packed climax is one of the most fun sequences I’ve seen in a Disney film yet, with a very welcome fast pace and absurdity that’s ideal for the tone of this story. And Basil Rathbone makes for an excellent narrator throughout.
                The following short adapts Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, set during the late eighteenth century in the Dutch settlements of what would become New York. Ichabod Crane, a lanky and odd new pedagogue (schoolmaster) comes to the town of Sleepy Hollow where he becomes unexpectedly popular due to his generous nature, intellect, and choral skills. He soon falls in love with Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the wealthiest farmer in the county and attempts to court her, in competition with local hero Brom Bones. But Sleepy Hollow is an old town with plenty of folklore and ghostly tales, and just when he’s about to win Katrina at a harvest ball, is told the story of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a soldier who haunts the area decapitating people, a story which may be more true than he’d like to think.
                Sleepy Hollow is a much more well-known story than The Wind in the Willows and for many, this is where they know the story from. Everyone thinks of this Disney version, and that’s perfectly fine. The original short story is one of my favourite works of fiction, the ultimate I think in terror storytelling, so I would always recommend that above all else; but this is a surprisingly great introduction to the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman and easily the best filmed version yet. The story, what can I say, it’s everything the story should be. It’s moody, supernatural, thrilling, chilling, suspenseful, and eerie. But being Disney, this version adds in more comedy and music which for a story as dark as Sleepy Hollow, should not work. However, it turns out to be a lot of fun. Disney realized they needed to entertain kids early on in the short to off-set the horror of the climax, and it works wonderfully, especially in how it delegates a lot of slapstick to Brom. In the original story, Brom becomes a practical joker and rival to Ichabod, and often gets the upper hand. In this film he’s made more a fool of, largely so you can sympathize with him later on. But in changing that aspect of his character, I really appreciate how much it stuck to the accuracy of others. We’re often compelled to root for Ichabod as the underdog, but this film does a good job to remind us he’s just as much attracted to Katrina’s wealth as Katrina herself, and therefore is not really a virtuous spirit. Both the book and the film emphasize he’s more than a little greedy and selfish, thus making him a little deserving of his later encounter. I’m not going to spoil anything as though I’m sure most of you know the story, the climax and how this film presents it is brilliant. I love the build-up which is phenomenal in the book, but here we get some added details and red herrings that build tension. Starting with Brom’s song, and speaking of, the music is terrific. The whole short including character voices are narrated by Bing Crosby, one of the greatest vocalists, and he performs the expositional songs with aplomb. “The Headless Horseman” song is really catchy and effectively foreboding. Up to that point the short is whimsical and comedic, but now it takes a frightening turn. And everything after that is a rush of suspense and terror as each minute sound threatens to be haunting. There are even a couple jump scares! The climax has its comic moments sure, but they’re levied by how imposing a scary villain the Headless Horseman is, from his appearance to his maniacal cackle. This short scared me and many others as children, and for me, that’s what made the story itself so much more fascinating. Admittedly the ending is kind of sugar-coated, quickly trying to convince the audience both Ichabod and Brom have happy endings. I understand the need to do that because once again, this is Disney, but it takes a little away from the creepiness of the original story. However it’s quick and not enough to taint the rest of the tale. In fact Disney’s Sleepy Hollow is one of my favourite shorts of all time in how perfectly it manages to relate the story while adding a unique flavour. The animation and action looks terrific, being slow when it needs to and fast when it needs to, and they make the slapstick and comedic reactions effective. As odd as he may look next to the other characters, this is the most literal appearance of Ichabod Crane ever rendered, and Brom will clearly serve as a later template for Gaston. It has a couple problems and is not as gripping as the short story, but I absolutely love it and will continue to re-watch it every Halloween.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad combines two disparate classic stories and turns out a thoroughly exciting feature film. What I like about both these adaptations is that they stick very closely to their sources where they need to, while changing and adding just enough. Both are on their own fantastic versions of fantastic stories. They aren’t ideal, but as long as you remember it’s Disney putting out The Wind in the Willows, it’s Disney putting out The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and are expecting at least some of the trappings of that studio, you’ll certainly enjoy yourselves. You may even be surprised how well they convey aspects of the original books, particularly the horror in the latter. This is the last of the package films and in my humble opinion, they couldn’t have gone out any stronger!

Next Week: Cinderella (1950)

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