The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, 1949, 68 minutes.
Here we go! The last piecemeal package film of the 1940s. Disney’s last film in the era is a more successful follow-up to Fun and Fancy Free, as the film echoes that film’s format of two half-hour short films. This time we start out with the great Wind in the Willows, and ends with a Bing Crosby-led adaptation of Sleepy Hollow. It is an odd pair, but a successful one. Besides, on deck is Cinderella, so we can bear this one last film before Disney gets back on track.
The Wind in the Willows is arguably the crown jewel of Disney’s feature output in the post-Bambi 1940s. Not only is the animation in line with later films such as Alice in Wonderland, and The Aristocats, but it is also the first film since Dumbo to get a ride at Disneyland. As odd of a yardstick as it may seem for success, Snow White, Dumbo, and Pinocchio all have dedicated rides at the Magic Kingdom, and so does Mr. Toad. Not only is it a beloved ride, but it was there the day the park opened. Anyway, more about the film itself.
The film is a loose, though joyous adaptation of the classic story. Its climax in the mansion of Winky, the crooked barman, foreshadows similar chaotic endings to later films such as The Aristocats and Robin Hood. It is a hilarious, exciting finish to the film.
Mr. Toad, while jovial and fun-loving is the undisciplined, bratty heir to the Toad Family fortune. Because of his spending and gambling problem, his only remaining asset is his estate, Toad Hall. One lovely day he and his friends see London’s first motorcar, which catches Toad’s eye. He must have it. He then sells his home to get the car, and due to a mix-up, he ends up in jail. Months later, his trusty steed, Cyril helps break out of the joint so that he can clear his name and get out of prison once and for all. It is not the sweeping, intense journey of Pinocchio, nor is it the coming-of-age masterpiece that is Bambi, but this is the company’s best storytelling in years. Its animation is a step up from the previous five films, and the short is a delight.
The Mr. Toad half of this film is better known, due in no small part to the Disneyland ride, but it is also the funnier, more conventional of the two shorts. While Disney had intended to produce both films as extended, hour-plus standalone features, Wind in the Willows is the more characteristic of the two halves of the film. Its atmosphere is reminiscent of 101 Dalmatians, and The Aristocats, and it has a definite feeling of Disney to it.
The Ichabod half, however, is dark. I do not just mean in mood, but in palette. The film’s animation features a stylized, gothic aesthetic, and even the daytime scenes feel like they take place at night. Bing Crosby does a beautiful job splitting duty as the narrator and singer of the film, making up the only speaking role. The film has several musical numbers, each by Crosby. They are each quite good, though the introduction to Ichabod’s character is the best song.
Ichabod Crane is the new schoolmaster in the small New York town of Sleepy Hollow. He is a playboy, seeing different women every night, mostly for food, until he is made aware of Katrina van Tassel, the beautiful heiress to the van Tassel fortune. Inevitably, Ichabod is to compete with a bully for Katrina’s attentions, as is Disney tradition. Finally, the bully attempts to scare our hero into being afraid, which proves successful, as he starts to lose his sanity that night in the forest.
Ichabod is an interesting, flawed protagonist. He starts off a playboy, and then falls in love and becomes much more focused, though this is almost entirely due to the woman’s immense fortune. Her blatant disregard of his feelings is also completely lost on him. Because he is so lustful of her money, he is unable to see that Katrina is using him simply to get the bully off of her back.
The highlight of the short is the musical number the bully sings to spook our hero, recalling the story of the headless horseman. While everyone is merely amused by the song, Ichabod becomes deeply afraid. The number contains the best animation in the film, as the bully moves around beautifully and with great energy. It is the most dynamic, beautifully jumpy sequence we’ve seen since Geppetto’s toyshop in Pinocchio.
The thrilling climax of the film shows Ichabod being increasingly afraid of the forest, eventually caught in a chase with the horseman. Eventually the horseman catches him, throwing his head, which is simply a flaming pumpkin, at Ichabod, killing him. While there is an alternative story offered by narrator Bing, we are led to believe he actually died.
The short is dark, and mostly humorless, but it is an intriguing, somewhat low-key affair, with a dark feeling that Disney won’t really return to for a very long time. It also has a few issues. Ichabod starts off as a scumbag of a man, having affairs for food and drink, and only settles down when he develops a lust for money. It is hard to love such a despicable man, and his downfall does not generate enough sympathy to truly land. As such, the ending feels abrupt and somewhat random.
This segment is not as good as Wind in the Willows, but the overall package is quite strong, and certainly holds together better than Fun and Fancy Free. That film has overlong, cringe-inducing wraparounds, which luckily have been replaced with quick introductions that are accompanied with stop-motion book opening introductions. The simplicity of the film’s framing device is to its credit, as it helps it flow much better, and more importantly, keeps the focus on the featurettes themselves.
Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the most complete film of this package film era, and its two cartoon segments are well-realized and delightful. Still, it is hard not to wonder if each film would be better if the company were able to complete each film as a feature, rather than short subject. This film is the only essential film in the package film era, featuring high quality animation, well-rounded storytelling, and some of the best music in the decade. It is not perfect, but it is quite good, and it paved the way for the wondrous period that is coming up next.
And this brings us to the end of the package film era in Disney Feature Animation! It was fun to watch these in order, even though they are quite inconsistent. We got off to a rough start with the Donald movies, but Make Mine Music, and Melody Time both proved quite good, with plenty of great musical segments.
Bongo, Mickey and the Beanstalk, Wind in the Willows, and Sleepy Hollow each were interesting 30-minute featurettes, though the second duo is much stronger than the first.
With Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty making up Disney’s output in the 1950s, I must say I’m excited to talk about some bona fide classics again after clumsily weaving my way through this tumultuous period.