Sunday, May 25, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 5th October 1949

Well here we are folks. The final movie in the "package film" era. (Hooray!) Like Fun and Fancy Free, Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a movie made up of two smaller movies, each based on a popular book. The first story is Wind In The Willows, based on Kenneth Grahame and the second story is Sleepy Hollow, originally written by Washington Irving. Essentially what we have here is an English classic and an American classic.

Both stories were originally planned to be their own full-length movie, but it was decided throughout their development in the 1940s that they would be better served up as smaller portions and smushed together.

Unlike Fun and Fancy Free, there aren't any live actors tying the stories together here. Instead we open on a library, and a narrator introduces us to the stories.

The first book off the shelf is The Wind In The Willows. This version of the story, edited for time, doesn't begin with the characters meeting each other for the first time. We start the story with Rat and Mole going to visit Badger (in this version a Scottish badger called "MacBadger" - groan) who tells them that Toad has gone off the rails again, and they're going to have to intervene before his vast estate - Toad Hall - goes into ruin while the wealthy Toad goes bankrupt.

Toad meanwhile, couldn't care less about finances and real estate. He's travelling the countryside in his new wagon, led by his new friend Cyril the horse.

Rat and Mole appeal to Toad, but he'll have none of their sensible ideas. Suddenly a new-fangled motor car flies by and Toad instantly develops a new obsession.

Before Toad can get himself into any more trouble, Rat and Mole drag him back to Toad Hall and lock him in his room. The passion of Toad cannot be locked away however, and Toad escapes and goes on a spree.

Toad gets himself into quite a bit of trouble, and this results in a surprisingly lengthy court case where he in put on trial for stealing and destroying a motor car.

Various witnesses recount the events of the night in question, and one of the key witnesses is a bartender named Mr. Winkie. (An original character not from the book)

Winkie ends up lying to the court so that Toad will be imprisoned. In jail, Toad is sad and repentant. Suddenly a masked lady appears to visit him. It's Cyril in disguise! He gives a washer woman disguise to Toad and aids in his escape. Toad hijacks a train and rushes to freedom, with police in hot pursuit!

When Toad finally catches up with Rat, Mole and Badger, he learns that Mr. Winkie and his gang of weasels have taken over Toad Hall. They go on a mission to get it back. A madcap rescue mission later, and the title deed is back in Toad's hands and the weasels are evicted.

The animals all live happily ever after... or so they think. Just as they are celebrating their victory Toad and Cyril are off flying in an aeroplane: a brand new mania!

After the crazy antics of Mr. Toad we open up a different book and hear about the legend of a little northern New York town called Sleepy Hollow.

In this small insular little town not many people come and not many people go. But a new man has come to be the local school teacher: the lanky, ugly, greedy and deeply superstitious Ichabod Crane.

The ladies of the town are all enchanted by this newcomer and his charms. The local "alpha male" - a man by the name of Bromm Bones - is not amused.

In between teaching the children and wooing the women with his singing, Ichabod feels like he has found his niche in Sleepy Hollow.

But then he meets Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the richest man in town, and he instantly falls in love with her... as does every other man in town. Not only is Katrina beautiful, but the heir to a very wealthy estate! Ichabod would love to get his hands on her AND her money.

So the courting begins, with Ichabod in direct competition with Bromm. Katrina takes a liking to Ichabod and invites him to her family's Halloween party, where everybody dances. Bromm, jealous of Ichabod for dancing with Katrina, has the bright idea that he can swap the village wallflower for the beauty, but his plan fails.

At the end of the party, Bromm decides to tell a ghost story, knowing how notoriously superstitious Ichabod is. He recounts the local tale of the Headless Horseman. Legend states that this gruesome spectre appears at Halloween and chases down anyone foolish enough to be out with a sword to chop off their head. Ichabod is suitably scared by this tale.

The ride home from the Van Tassels' farm is long and lonely for Ichabod, and the thought of the Headless Horseman is ever on his mind. Every little noise spooks him.

Just when he convinces himself that it's all in his imagination, who should appear...? The real Headless Horseman!

The hunt is on! The terrified Ichabod frantically tries to reach the bridge, which legend says is where the horseman's power ends. The horseman follows close on his tail, swiping with his blade and nearly missing the schoolmaster's neck.

Finally Ichabod reaches the bridge. He is safe. But then the Headless Horseman throws a flaming jack-o-lantern at him! Ichabod Crane is never heard from again...

Bromm and Katrina are married, and the townsfolk forever remember Ichabod Crane as the man who the Headless Horseman claimed on that fateful night.

IRVYNE: Both of these stories are well-told and have some great characters, but they both fall just a bit short of greatness. One of the problems with The Wind In The Willows, is that this version seems severely edited. I grew up watching the 1987 Rankin-Bass cartoon version (which is wonderful and has some amazing songs - look it up if you can, although I don't think it's ever been released on D.V.D.) which was a much more complete version of the story. With the 1949 Disney one, it feels like they've just selected a couple of chapters to highlight and they've not bothered telling the rest of the story. I can't help but feel it would have worked better as a full-length feature.

Sleepy Hollow is another story altogether. It actually follows Washington Irving's book pretty closely, but it has very odd pacing and in the last couple of minutes it turns into an entirely different movie. Most of it is silly, goofy and playful. It finishes as a cartoon horror movie, with the protagonist being killed by a bloodthirsty ghost. (Well, we assume as much, anyway) It has to be said that the character of Ichabod isn't very likeable. It's stated clearly that he's only really interested in Katrina because her father is rich. I actually think Katrina is much better off with Bromm, even if he is a bit of a bully to the other men.

Most of Sleepy Hollow feels like a decent Silly Symphony, told all in mime over narration. The Headless Horsemen sequence though, is fantastic. It's easily the most memorable and classic scene in this entire movie. I'm sure over the decades many children have been given nightmares by the sight of the Headless Horseman brandishing his black sword!

Both stories have a very different style, but the use of colour to convey the mood - especially in Sleepy Hollow - is excellent. There are also some very moody camera angles using the multiplane camera. Mary Blair's artistic influence is especially evident in Sleepy Hollow. The character design is very good, moreso in Wind In The Willows. Sleepy Hollow's characters are all fairly basic-looking, but they fit within the style. Overall, it's a nice-looking movie but not amongst the best the studio has produced.

There are five songs in this film. The first is the titular song that is played over the opening credits. I almost feel like Disney put his most bland songwriters to work on these opening songs. This one's inoffensive, but uninteresting. Wind In The Willows only has one song, which is sung by Toad and Cyril, titled "We're Merrily On Our Way." It's written by Frank Churchill, but it's not one of his best.

Sleepy Hollow is entirely narrated by famous singer Bing Crosby, who also sings the songs. (He even manages to get some "bobba-bobba-bom" in there!) This is similar to how Dinah Shore narrated "Bongo" in Fun and Fancy Free. The whole story is pretty much in mime. There's a song for Ichabod Crane, a song for Katrina and the Headless Horseman song. All three of them are fairly catchy and good fun. It's very odd though, how jolly and bouncy the Headless Horseman's song is. Was that Disney's way of countering the inherent scariness of the movie?

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is definitely one of the more successful package features. Both of the short movies are quite entertaining and well-produced. Neither of them really have anything much to be remembered by though, with the single exception of the fantastic Headless Horseman sequence right at the end of the picture. Those final 6 or 7 minutes are worth the price of admission alone. The rest is good without being really great.

PASCAL: I love Moley! He's so cute and innocent!

IRVYNE: I've gotta say, Badger's Scottish accent was just woeful!

SHENZI: Terrible! "MacBadger: The new burger at McDonalds!"

HAKU: The horse's accent wasn't great either.

WENDY: Wind In The Willows did seem a bit edited. It's like, "Here are these characters who've had all these marvellous adventures, and now we're only going to show you one of them." I loved Mole's Mission Impossible act though.

SHENZI: I like the other animated Wind In The Willows. (The Rankin-Bass one) That was a classic Sunday lunchtime movie!

PASCAL: There was a stop-motion T.V. show too. I loved that show.

IRVYNE: Did you notice how many females there were in Wind In The Willows?

SHENZI: I did... Zero.

WENDY: That's not including Toad and Cyril in drag. I suppose we can blame Kenneth Grahame for that one. It's not Disney's fault. They did take some liberties with Sleepy Hollow though. In the book it's assumed that it was really Bromm who was pretending to be the Headless Horseman, and he frightened Ichabod away.

IRVYNE: In the Disney version, it's definitely a real Headless Horseman. Ichabod even looks down into his empty neck!

ANNA: In a T.V. series I watched, Katrina is a witch who puts Ichabod to sleep, and then he wakes up in the present day.

IRVYNE: And of course, let's not forget Tim Burton's adaptation! I love that movie!

PASCAL: At least the Disney one had a slightly happier ending!

IRVYNE: I do wonder how it went over with audiences in the '40s. Would parents have been dragging their kids out screaming in terror?

ANNA: Did you notice Ichabod wears the same outfit the whole way through the movie. Obviously teachers don't get paid much. Hehe.

HAKU: Nothing's changed. On a technical note, I noticed an early reverb effect just before the horseman appears. I imagine that would have been quite technical for its day.

WENDY: I liked this movie.

IRVYNE: It hasn't really been promoted much in the Disney universe since its release, with the exception of the "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" attraction at Disneyland. My favourite part of the movie is definitely the Headless Horseman scene. It's about as close to horror as Disney gets... Well, except for maybe The Black Cauldron, but that's another story for another time.

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