The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi and James Algar
Two longer shorts again, each about thirty minutes long. The first is an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, in which Mr. Toad becomes obsessed with the new invention of automobiles in 1909 England. He’s too far in debt to afford one, so he attempts to trade his manor house for one (much to the consternation of his friends and his accountant). The attempt goes south, and he ends up being falsely accused of stealing the car and is sent to jail. Breaking out, he and his friends manage to steal back the deed to Toad Hall from the real villains and prove his innocence.
The second short is also an adaption, this time of Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” A new schoolmaster, an awkward, gluttonous man named Ichabod Crane, arrives in the town of Sleepy Hollow, and soon sets his sights on the daughter of the richest man in town, Katrina van Tassel. Local jock Brom Bones enters into a competition with Crane for Katrina, but everything he tries fails to separate the two. Eventually learning how superstitious Crane is, Bones narrates a ghost story during a Halloween party, telling Crane of the Headless Horseman and the bridge that will protect someone from his power. That night, Crane encounters the Horseman on the way home, and flees from him. He successfully crosses the bridge, but the Horseman throws his jack-o-lantern head at him, and Crane is never seen again.
Disney actually started work on Wind in the Willows as a stand-alone feature in 1941, just as animators were finishing up work on Bambi. However, following a strike that year by his animators, Disney lost his financial backing. He wasn’t able to secure any funding from the bank for new feature-length animation, only shorts, and they shelved work on Wind in the Willows. Five years went by, during which Disney began its long string of package films. Wind in the Willows was eventually pulled out of mothballs and restarted as a short. It took some time to find the proper material to pair it with for a package. It was originally going to be in Fun and Fancy Free with Bongo and Jack and the Beanstalk, but was instead held until “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was ready. Two popular entertainers, Basil Rathbone (then known for playing Sherlock Holmes in a string of movies) and singer/actor Bing Crosby, were cast as the narrators in order to provide a little box office draw. The movie was actually a moderate success with both critics and audiences, and the money from it was enough to put Disney over the hump financially and enable the completion of Cinderella.
Well, color me surprised. After almost a decade of increasingly dire packages of shorts, Disney finally managed to put together something halfway decent for the last of these collections. I was familiar with their version of Sleepy Hollow, but I couldn’t remember ever actually having seen the Wind in the Willows segment before now. I mostly knew of it from the old Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride attraction at Disney World (which rather infamously ended with Mr. Toad, and the park-going riders along with him, dying and going to Hell).
Much to my astonishment, then, I actually loved every minute of “Wind in the Willows”. I found it to be an incredibly charming and well-done bit of animation, and I could definitely see its potential to be the feature film that they’d originally planned. Not having ever read the book it was based on, I was initially surprised to see humans in the movie at all. I’d expected it to be entirely populated by animal characters. But I liked the way that they played around with size when it came to the human and animal characters interacting. It reminded me a lot of The Great Mouse Detective, though I’m sure that if I’d seen the movies in the proper order I’d be saying the reverse.
The animation quality itself is definitely a step up from all of the other package films. If I didn’t know better, I’d have assumed that this was released later in the 50s, as it fits in with the likes of Lady & The Tramp and other higher-budget movies more than it does the shorts that Disney had been releasing in the 40s. I particularly like the ending sequence in Toad Hall, which has significant amounts of action but never quite descends into full-on chaos.
As I said earlier, I was already familiar with Disney’s version of Sleepy Hollow. Or at least, I thought I was. It turns out that everything I remembered about it came from the final quarter or so of the short – namely, the Halloween party and subsequent appearance by the Headless Horseman. It turns out that there’s a lot that comes before that, and unfortunately it’s pretty much all bad.
Instead of being the spooky, Halloween-themed story that I remembered, Disney’s “Sleepy Hollow” is actually the story of a love triangle, and one in which neither of the two men involved is someone that you can root for. Crane himself is repeatedly shown to be a womanizer who’s after either money or food (and preferably both), who doesn’t actually care that much about his job as a schoolteacher. And his rival, Brom Bones…well, he’s pretty much Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Their contest over who’ll win the hand of Katrina Van Tassel (whom the narration outright confirms Crane is only interested in because her dad is rich) takes up the majority of the running time, and left me alternately annoyed and bored to tears.
Things started to look up a bit when they got to the Halloween party and the parts I remembered. But even this was tainted by a heavy dose of fat-shaming. Brom asks the one overweight woman there to dance solely for the purpose of forcing Crane to dance with her, and she’s treated as someone to be escaped from. Meanwhile, Katrina (the “prize” in this contest…ugh) is drawn skinny enough that you’d think she’d break in half with a strong wind, like the reeds from Crane’s ride home. Again, I have to keep reminding myself that this is the 1940s…but come on, Disney.
Really, the only part of Sleepy Hollow worth watching is the final eight minutes or so, when Crane rides home from the party and encounters the Headless Horseman. This whole sequence had great sound design and atmosphere, and the chase itself is as thrilling as I remember it being. But overall, it’s too little too late.
So once again, we have a Disney package film that’s very much a mixed bag. At least this time it was mixed for entirely different reasons than I was expecting, so there was a bit more surprise and novelty to the endeavor than the last couple of packages. Fortunately, we’re finally done with all of these shorts, and can get back to what people actually think of when it comes to Disney. Up next: Cinderella.
Animation: B (Some of the best animation since the package era began)
Main Characters: B- (I actually really like Mr. Toad as a viewer, though I would probably be frustrated and annoyed all the time if he was a friend of mine. Ichabod Crane, however, is the sort of protagonist I find myself rooting against)
Supporting Characters: B- (Everyone in Wind in the Willows is great, especially Mr. Toad’s horse. The only real supporting character in Sleepy Hollow is Katrina Van Tassel, and she’s a non-entity)
Villains: B- (The Horseman himself is actually legitimately scary. Brom Bones, however, is just a low-rent Gaston without the later character’s charisma or true viciousness)
Music: C (Nothing too memorable, though if I was going to include sound design in general for this category it would be much faster. The sound effects for Crane’s ride home are most of what makes that sequence so effective)