The 1940’s were a real tough time for the Walt Disney studio. Between housing the American military, a brand-new studio, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi failing at he box office, the cut-off European market during wartime, a massive studio strike, a goodwill trip to South America, and cranking out propaganda films by the bucketload, Walt was forced to put all other ambitious projects to the wayside. Brother Roy once referred to the studio as “Like a bear coming out of hibernation…we were skinny and gaunt with no fat on our bones. Those were lost years to us.” When World War II drew to a close. Certainly Walt must have been elated to finally stop making Donald Duck cartoons poking fun of Japan and Nazis, right?
Well, it’s easier to celebrate when you aren’t 4.5 million in debt (About $63 million by 2018’s standards). And as desperate as Walt was to continue working on Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland, there just wasn’t the funds to finance such lavish productions. Roy suggested raising capital by producing what we refer today as “package films”: full-length films comprised of multiple shorts and/or featurettes with a theme to connect them, however loose it may be. While stifling artistically and not quite up to the standards the public came to expect from Disney, they did raise the necessary funds to produce Cinderella and the proceeding films in 1950, kicking off the successful decade.
First came 1946’s Make Mine Music. Then 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free. Then 1948’s Melody Time. And capping it all off in 1949 cane arguably the most renowned, the cumbersomely titled The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Like Fun and Fancy Free, rather than be divvied into multiple shorts, it’s comprised of only two half-hour featurettes, making it relatively easy to review.
Merrily make munchies and mark your main monitor with mega mondo movie memories! Let’s review The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad!
The plot: In the first story, Basil Rathbone narrates the tale of J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq., from Kenneth Graham’s book, The Wind in the Willows. The eccentric Toad, frequently prone to obsessive manias of fads, causes a myriad of headaches for his friends Mole, Rat, and Angus MacBadger. His latest episode is over motorcars, which land him in a world of trouble when he trades the illustrious estate of Toad Hall for a stolen vehicle. The four friends have to outsmart a slimy barkeep and his gang of weasels to exonerate Toad and reclaim the Hall.
The second story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, is narrated by crooner Bing Crosby. The lanky, ravenous, womanizing schoolmaster Ichabod Crane wanders into the village, and already raises eyebrows among the locals, especially town hero Brom Bones. But when Ichabod lays eyes on the lovely and loaded Katrina can Tassel, he unwittingly finds himself a romantic rival to Bones. Ichabod seems to trounce Bones at every turn…until he discovers the schoolmaster’s deep-seated superstitious beliefs. And by hamming up a ghost story about a Headless Horseman known to ride late on Halloween nights, Bones might have unsettled the jittery Crane. Ghosts aren’t real…right?
How’s the writing?: It’s tempting to dock points for the dated dialogue or outdated nomenclature (“pedagogue”, while real and factual word, just might rub some people the wrong way today), but that’s like critiquing The Wizard of Oz for the Cowardly Lion for not looking like a real lion. But it does land the second segment in a bizarre limbo. The events of the film take place in 1790, the movie released in 1949, and here we are in 2018. Crosby’s narration is unequivocally a voice of the 40’s, and it permeates through the script. Granted, it didn’t have a huge budget, nor was it trying to be a historical drama, but unless you’re keenly aware of these facts, it’s likely to turn off the average viewer.
Still, the dialogue for Willows is well done, using its Britishisms to cheeky perfection. And both stories are told well enough (Sleepy Hollow does kind of drag leading up to the horse chase), so it’s a good movie to pass the time.
Does it give the feels?: Not really, no. For Willows, the characters aren’t given much time to really allow us to feel for them beyond the basics. Toad is given a moment in his cell where we see him genuinely repent, but it goes by so quick and is abruptly negated when his horse, Cyril, indulges him in another manic episode to escape from prison. But at least Rat and Mole are portrayed as genuinely kind, albeit strict, in helping their amphibious friend.
Sleepy Hollow is a whole different beast. The three main characters are wholly unlikeable. Brom Bones is basically a prototype of Gaston 40 years later. Katrina wittingly provokes both Bones and Crane to quarrel over her, and that’s after she’s shown teasing the town’s men purely for her own entertainment. Then Ichabod…ugh…Ichabod is a colossal D-bag.
Forget the altruistic nice guy that trumps the brawny musclehead to win fair lady’s heart we so often in other Disney animated movies. At first, Ichabod is shown to gallantly charm his way to women’s hearts, not in pursuit of romance, but food. He even goes so far as to show favoritism to students whose mothers who make lots of food. Moreover, Ichabod becomes infatuated with Katrina’s beauty on sight alone (While on a date with another woman no less! And she takes it alarmingly well, all things considered.), and he keeps dreaming of the van Tassel’s fabulous wealth. He even goes so far as to imagining taking her father’s place when he dies!
If I get the feels, it’s at most the feeling of deep-rooted aghast against the town of Sleepy Hollow.
Who makes it worth it?: As I said before, I’m much more partial to the residents of Great Britain than the American ones. They’re far more likeable, even downright relatable. Rat is stuffy, but his heart’s in the right place. Mole is a sweetheart, while subject to several fat slapstick gags. MacBadger is a cross old man, but he means well. And Toad and Cyril are loveable tossers just out for a frivolous good time, manias or no. As Rathbone himself says, “Don’t we envy him a bit? I know I do.”
Best quality provided: There’s much to enjoy here, and a lot of it has to do with the artistry. Everything is gently colored with a simplistic appeal, topped with animator Freddy Moore’s curvy animation style. Every human is rounded, cartoony, and expressive, even when restricted in their design, like Ichabod or Katrina. Watch the prosecutor in Willows with his almost Herschfeldian swoops and curves as he energetically interrogates MacBadger and Cyril.
Another marvelous quality is the Headless Horseman chase, where the ghost himself is designed spectacularly, with a manic cackle rivaling even that of Vincent Price’s. The only downside is his awesomeness gets lost a bit amid the cartoony hysterical reactions of Ichabod and his horse, which sadly detract a bit from his menace when he’s up against someone so rubbery. Still, he’s one of the coolest-looking Disney villains.
What could have been improved: Arguably the Willows featurette is the superior one, with the slow pace of the first two acts and the deplorable characters of Sleepy Hollow obstructing what is otherwise a classic story. I find myself hating watching women swoon over Bing/Ichabod’s crooning, only to see him nonchalantly step over their slumped bodies to eat a salad. I hate watching a sweet little woman, excited to just be invited to dance, giddy to be involved at the von Tassel’s Halloween party, only to be used as a pawn in Bones’ plot to humiliate Ichabod, simply because she’s fat and portly. I hate seeing Ichabod fawn over some random woman just because she’s pretty and rich. I hate seeing Katrina play her suitors against each other, only to choose one side over the other with seemingly no regrets. I love the artistry and the character design, but they’re buried under this sluggish plot and an abhorrent cast.
Verdict: I apologize that this review is kind of all over the place. But for all intents and purposes, it’s a good movie. Even the Sleepy Hollow segment, for all its flaws is still a great snapshot of Disney animation in the late forties. Still, I can’t ignore its glaring issues, so I’m gonna rate this movie a solid seven flaming jack o’lanterns out of ten.
Now if someone could tell me who the fridged-up mental case thought it was a good idea to make a Disneyland ride where you literally go to Hell when that has all of Jack, diddly, and squat to do with the cartoon?!