August 4, 2014
Disney in the 1940s: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
It’s been interesting to look at Disney’s package films in the context of today’s releases. Combining multiple shorts into a single feature would require a thematic connection. There was the travelogue atmosphere to Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, but the later ‘40s releases lacked the same connective tissue. A perfect example is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which combines two stories originally planned as separate features. The title makes it sound like the two characters will be hanging out together, but they don’t even meet for coffee in a highway diner. The only similarity is that both are based on famous written stories. Brief live-action segments have the camera drifting among stacks of novels before settling on the title. It’s a clever way to bring the different tales into one product, though it’s just a device to sell it as a coherent whole.
It’s hard to separate my love for the classic attraction Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from discussing the adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows. The ride creates a similar tone and includes characters from this movie, but it isn’t a straight retelling. Winnie the Pooh has replaced the Florida version, and that makes sense given that Toad is hardly a household name. He remains at Toad Hall at Disneyland, though I expect many riders have never seen this film. Would his popularity be different if the story was its own feature? I’m not so sure, especially given the shift that followed this release towards long-form stories beginning with Cinderella in 1950. Given the slower pace of much of this film, I wonder if Toad could have carried the audience for much longer than 35 minutes.
The title character is an elusive playboy who parties and gets into mischief. He’s basically Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek. Toad’s loyal friends Angus, Ratty, and Moley are forced to pick up the pieces and keep him out of trouble constantly. His latest affliction is “motor mania”, which brings an insatiable obsession with cars. His pals confine him to bed and lock him in his room; they’re essentially performing an intervention for a drug addict. Toad must go cold turkey and sweat it out or his addiction will consume him. Unable to live without another fix, he escapes out his window and is subsequently arrested for stealing a car. He’s an odd protagonist for a kids’ movie. Should we admire his antics like a classic anti-hero? His fun-loving horse Cyril Proudbottom drives Toad to greater adventures, and they make a silly pair. Even so, I found myself identifying with his straight-arrow friends. This probably relates to following the rules quite a lot during my childhood.
The saving grace is the final act, a madcap heist to capture the deed to Toad Hall. He’s turned the castle into a den of weasels that are letting it fall into disrepair. It’s like Jesse’s endless house party in Breaking Bad. The inspired sequence has Toad and his friends trying to snag the deed from a sleeping Mr. Winkie, dodging knives, and scrambling to escape the weasels. The deed becomes a hot potato that briefly ends up in everyone’s hands during the chaos. Toad even employs a classic paper airplane trick to keep their pursuers on their toes. His skills with throwing them are a lot better than mine. The near-constant action of the second half matches the energized craziness of the ride and involves all types of vehicles. In this type of world, it’s easy to see how Toad got his motor mania. The result is pretty forgettable, but it’s fairly entertaining given the limited running time.
The Wind and the Willows is narrated by the great Basil Rathbone, who portrayed Sherlock Holmes in numerous films. He passes the reins for the American story to Bing Crosby; let the singing begin! There’s little to tie the two segments together. We venture from mid-century England back to colonial America. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a familiar story with many variations. This version of Ichabod Crane is a tall and goofy guy, but he also brings the charm with the ladies. Brom Bones is his more athletic rival for the affections of Katrina van Tassel, but his chances are limited against Ichabod. All is not as it seems, however. Neither Ichabod nor Katrina is being very honest, and he’s destined to face off with a supernatural villain that could mean his end.
Despite the 1790s setting, this film connects to the 1940s through Bing Crosby’s singing. Along with narrating and voicing Ichabod and Brom, he belts out several memorable tunes. The standout is “Headless Man”, which Brom sings to freak out the superstitious Ichabod at a Halloween party. It’s a clever bit of theater from the guy, who sees Katrina slipping out of reach. There’s a similarity between Brom and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Both are strong and square-jawed yet can’t seem to connect with the girls. Brom seems nicer on the surface, but there are hints that he may be closely aligned with the Headless Horseman that terrorizes Ichabod. There’s also an unfortunate scene with Brom where he’s pursued by a less-attractive woman at the party. He ends up tossing her in the closet, and it’s played for comedy. This moment reminds us that we’re still in the ‘40s.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is known for being one of Disney’s scarier cartoons, and I was freaked out by the Headless Horseman as a kid. Of course, I was afraid of a lot of things at that age. This memory made me wonder if my five-year-old daughter Elise was ready. She’s a daredevil, but sometimes a certain moment scares her. My worries were unfounded, and she handled the scenes like a champ. For me, the cackling laughter of Ichabod and his horse right before the Horseman arrives was still creepy today. There’s also a subtle hint that our hero was killed. That’s a pretty daring move for a film that’s primarily geared towards kids. There’s no happy ending for anyone, unless you’re rooting for Brom. He’s either very lucky or played a hand in the ultimate result.
The highlight of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the final sequence that begins with “Headless Man”. The tone shifts dramatically, and the lighting and shadows are solely designed to scare Ichabod. The Horseman animation stands out because his gliding movements contrast so sharply with the scrambling of his victim. What’s odd is the way that the set-up has little connection with the Horseman's arrival. If we didn’t know about the story’s background, there would be few hints that trouble was around the corner. It feels like a light-hearted yarn about two guys battling for a girl’s affection. The jarring shift makes the end more effective and delivers quite a punch. It’s still an uneven result on the whole, but the finale reveals the potential for Disney animation going into the next decade.