Monday, March 21, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (17/50) -- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad may be the most uneven film in the Disney Animated Feature canon. There are worse films, to be sure, and certainly there are better ones, but I’m almost positive that none of them go from “meh” to “pretty good” as sharply as Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Ich-y and Mr. T was created one year before Disney would bootstrap itself into profitability with Cinderella, and many Silver Age techniques can be seen employed here. However, the IT crowd still clings to many shortcuts and cheap-isms that hallmarked the previous five package films, making for a wild ride of sorts (heh heh heh).

The film begins in what appears to be someone’s study, as Basil Rathbone’s ear-buttering timbre explains that English literature has produced many memorable characters throughout the years (Robin Hood, King Arthur, Frodo Baggins, etc.), and that his favorite is a toad. J. Thaddeus Toad, to be precise, from Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel The Wind in the Willows. A disembodied hand, or perhaps friendly poltergeist, pulls the book from its shelf, and Rathbone begins to read the first of the film’s two narratives.

Fun bit of trivia: The Wind in the Willows was the first book I ever read with over 200 pages. My third grade self was rather proud.

Mr. Toad’s portion of the movie tells of four animals making their way in the Victorian England countryside: a badger, a water rat, a mole (whose names, respectively, are Badger, Rat, and Mole), and J.T.T. himself. Toad is a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur who fritters away his money on various fads and pleasure-seekings. Badger and co. desperately plead with him to control his “manias,” but Toad spots a motor car for the first time and succumbs to the mother of all manias. Toad declares he simply must have a motor car, despite not having any more money for it, and is soon arrested for attempting to steal a car.

The movie then becomes Twelve Angry Men for a spell, during which Toad is tried and witnesses are presented. Toad insists that he traded the car for a deed to his estate, Toad Hall, but his key witness testifies that Toad instead sold him a stolen car belonging to some weasels, and Toad is locked away. Toad eventually breaks out to find that his key witness and the weasels were in cahoots, hoping to steal Toad Hall away (court appeals, real estate—sounds like this book was written as a bedtime story for aspiring bookkeepers). In a climactic ending, the group breaks into Toad Hall and steals the deed back from the weasels, proving Toad’s innocence.

For a movie about talking animals, Mr. Toad is far less fun or bouncy than it should be, owing to a surprisingly slow pace. Several sections drag out interminably, and only during the ending sequence where Toad, Badger, Rat, and Mole retake Toad Hall does the film’s energy pick up. The movie alternates between Rathbone’s narrations and the characters’ onscreen antics, which gives the film a jarring, hurry-up-and-wait feel to it. It’s a shame that Disney couldn’t make an entire film out of The Wind and the Willows; surely the added screen time could help the picture feel less congested.

Aside from an especially manic ending, Mr. Toad's portion of the film is not quite as fun as it could be.

After Rathbone concludes his story, the wonderfully dulcet tone of Bing Crosby pipes up (this movie is not wanting for pleasant voiceover talent), who asserts that we ‘Mericans have some pretty good characters too. He rattles off a few (almost all of which were covered in Melody Time) before finally settling on Ichabod Crane, the poor, unfortunate soul who met his end (or did he?) in Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Crosby thrusts us right into the story, as we follow Ichabod’s first visit to Sleepy Hollow. The town Man’s Man, Brom Bones, thinks the guy is a joke, but everyone else is absolutely smitten by Ichabod’s charm. Despite the fact that he looks like a vulture’s carcass warmed-over, the womens of Sleepy H. can’t help but throw themselves at “ol’ Icky,” and he soon feels right at home in his new hamlet.

Now I ain't sayin' he a gold digger...

Yes, it turns out that Ichabod is not the nice guy his nerdy appearance indicates, but is instead a cunning womanizer, who preys on ladies’ affections to fill his larders with food and pockets with money. Brom, too, is not quite what he seems; rather than a thuggish, John Hughes-ian jock type, Brom is a regular dude, no more cruel or unkind than anyone else in town (indeed, from the way he acts, he could very well be called Bro Bones *ba dump tish*). Everyone goes about their merry business, until the movie’s best argument against pining after women waltzes into view.

Her name is Katrina, and she is the kind of girl who likes to watch boys compete over her; a woman whose feminine wiles and callous man-ipulation have doubtlessly inspired many an emo song. Anyway, Katrina rides into town on a horse made of sex appeal and cotton candy (I’ll stop now), and everyone in town is smitten with her. Naturally, both Brom and Ichabod pursue her affections, and the movie has a good time playing Unstoppable Force And Immovable Object between the two characters.

The comic timing in the courtship scenes is razor-sharp.

Ichabod eventually gains the upper hand, though, and is invited to a party where he will inevitably propose to her, gold-digging his way into a comfortable living (the movie makes no effort to hide his ulterior motive). Brom, in a last stroke of effort, notices Ichabod’s superstitious nature, and weaves a tale about a horseman who patrols the back roads of Sleepy Hollow, no doubt because he enjoys the cool night breeze on his headless neck. On his way home, Ichabod encounters the horseman, and after a furious chase, disappears forever; whether he died or merely decided he’d move the Cleveland instead, the movie does not say.

In contrast to The Wind and the Willows, which felt like a full-length feature hastily shoehorned into a 30 minute short, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow feels exactly as long as it needs to be, telling the story as best it can while still padding the film with comic relief. Sleepy Hollow also opts to have Crosby narrate the whole thing, which helps sell the story’s appeal; even when characters speak, Crosby takes over for their voices (there is a portion where Ichabod croons to several women of the town in The Groaner’s signature manner).

Sleepy Hollow even looks better. While The Wind and the Willows looked more like a Donald Duck short, with characters squashing and stretching every which way, Sleepy Hollow’s visuals appear to be a not-too-distant cousin of Cinderella; humans are realistic while looking slightly cartoony, and the comic timing hints at what the silver age will bring.

It's definitely not as polished as the Cin-city, but it's definitely a step-up from the other package films.

If it wasn’t already apparent, I enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” FAR more than I did “The Wind and the Willows,” which saddens me. I read “The Wind and the Willows” when I was in grade school, and remember enjoying it quite a bit. The concept even sounds more fun: a madcap toad gambols about in several high-priced toys, causing vandalism and collateral damage before finally learning to straighten up and fly right (emphasis on the “fly,” haha). As it stands, though, “The Wind and the Willows” is short, ploddy, incredibly concerned that we understand the legal system of Victorian England, and overall a rather half-baked attempt at adapting what is otherwise a rather charming story.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed “Sleepy Hollow,” and I think most of it came from the characters. As I mentioned above, Ichabod is an anti-hero at best, which helps make Brom’s potential d-bagginess less of an issue. These two combined with Katrina, who is a total harlot, make for a story full of slightly despicable characters, which is a change of pace for Disney. The knowledge that every one of these characters “deserves” each other makes it easy to and soak in the story.

Then, of course, there’s the Horseman, who I would rank right under Chernabog on Disney’s Genuine Horror Animation Characters list. The Horseman’s laugh, jet black color, and sword-brandishing demeanor sell him as an actual threat to Ichabod, and if he weren’t used as a gag during several parts of the chase, I would say he is easily one of the most terrifying characters in a Disney feature.

Uh, yeah, you're boned.

Disney completists will want to rent The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but it is FAR from a necessary viewing (it’s not even the best Package Film. THE BEST PACKAGE FILM!). That said, the Sleepy Hollow segment is surprisingly entertaining, and worth a view during your next Halloween get-together.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “The Headless Horseman”
  2. “Ichabod Crane”
  3. “Nowhere In Particular”

Favorite scene:

  • Brom’s story of The Headless Horseman

Favorite character:

  • The weasels

The Jar Jar:

  • Cyril Proudbottom (the horse with buckteeth and what sounds like a bad Mel Blanc impression)

How I Watched It

This'll teach me to order some place only for Super Saver Shipping--while the disc looks just fine, the packaging looked faded enough that I had to check to make sure it was bootlegged (it wasn't, much to my disappointment). This is the standard edition of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad available for average every day purpose. Since this is a Gold Collection DVD, the transfer is pretty blocky and blah in places, with noticeable dirt and scuffs on the negatives, making me appreciate the Robin Hood and Saludos Amigos transfers (which I thought were pretty paint-by-numbers).

Aside from a pretty blah picture transfer, the DVD also comes with a few extras. Most of them are pretty unworthy: a Sing-Along, a DVD storybook of Mr. Toad, and a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride game (which I can only assume tries to ape the Disneyland ride). Rounding out the package is the Mickey Mouse short "Lonesome Ghosts," which casts Mickey, Donald, and Goofy as mid-30's Ghostbusters. The short itself isn't bad, and a decent idea to whip out at your next Halloween party.


  1. What IS the best package film to you?

  2. I have a fair bit of affection for Saludos Amigos (perhaps because I like Disney shorts, but mostly because it's the shortest of the bunch), but Ichabod and Mr. Toad probably works the best in terms of a pure narrative experience.

  3. I have it on DVD too...but with a differentstorybook.