The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949) Review
What do I know about the film?
It is the last package film. After this Disney returned to single narrative features. In a way that is all any of us need to know.
But for the sake of continuity and my commitment to not being bored I will elaborate.
Even if you have not read it, you will have heard of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame. The idea of adapting it into a full length animated story was pitched to The Boss not long after ‘Snow White’ had placed him at the top of his game. Hell, he was the only one playing. Mr Disney wasn’t keen though thinking that talking moles and toads sounded lame and nowhere near as genius as talking deer. Despite not actually liking the idea, Walt decreed (I imagine while smoking a comically large cigar) that they could start work on ‘Willows’ along with all the other stories that he wanted to see produced at the same time. So the studio were simultaneously developing ‘Bambi’ ‘Dumbo’ ‘The Gremlins’ ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ It might sound excessive but I am sure Ol’ Walty knew what he was doing. After all: His power/money/staff weren’t going anywhere…
(comedy horn disagrees)
Then came 10 years of ‘Wind in the Willows’ being pushed to the back of the assembly line for various reasons. Reasons we have covered but I will summarise:
-‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ were mega flops.
-A lot of the staff went on strike
-A world war broke out, losing Disney their ever valuable European market. And, eventually, some of their staff.
-After the attack on Pearl Harbour happened and made quite a lot of people very angry and distrustful of anyone who wasn’t them, Disney were recruited to do some damage control between the USA and South America on the off chance that SA were in cahoots with those pesky Nazis. So this took up a lot of time. And was stupid.
-While the War did helpfully come to an end, The Walt Disney Studios had already borrowed lots of money from the Bank of America and were pretty skint. While the Package films kept them going by making a steady profit, none of them were of the same quality as their first five releases.
So even though Disney had said WITW had to be pretty cheap to start with, less and less time was being spent on it in favour of other things. It got demoted from a full length feature to being one of three shorts designed for a film called ‘Three Fabulous Characters’ This was going to be WITW, Mickey and the Beanstalk and the aforementioned Gremlins. While this intro is going on longer than I had imagined I really must clarify: Disney did not make that 80’s live action film with the creatures that shouldn’t get wet. Gremlins was actually an idea pitched by none other than Roald Dahl about little creatures who live inside and tear apart World War 1 planes. As awesome as that could have been, it just never got off the ground (pun noticed in edit and left in so therefore ultimately intended) and just sort of faded away. So the film became ‘Two Fabulous Characters’ the fabulous characters being Mickey Mouse and Toad of Toad Hall. Only for Toad of Toad Hall to be rudely booted at the last minute in favour of a Circus Bear thus ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ came to be. Hadn’t the world suffered enough?
Legend has it that one Disney animator abandoned work on WITW when he had to go in to the Army. He left Disney for 4 years, came back, only to find he was put to work on the same section of WITW as when he left. Considering several scenes were completed and a couple of songs written as far as back as 1938 it seems like there was some serious procrastination going on down Disney way when it came to this particular story. Also…all that stuff I mentioned above got in the way quite a bit.
Finally, they paired Mr Toad and friends up with a film they didn’t have a home for: An adaptation of Washington Irving’s American folk classic ‘Sleepy Hollow’ that was running too short to be released by itself. While the two stories really don’t have ANYTHING in common it was still going to be called ‘Two Fabulous Characters’ and marketed as being about two characters that, oh heck, just end up in a whole heap of trouble! Here is a different pathetic noise, this one is a trombone, to emphasise how crap this sounds:
(I genuinely couldn’t decide which sad brass noise was better so I found a way to use both. This is my life.)
The last twist in the tale was the slight change in name and that Disney worked his magic and recruited two major stars to narrate the two respective stories: Sherlock Holmes actor Basil Rathbone and world renowned crooner and Christmas enthusiast Bing Crosby. So…with a new name and added star power, could ‘Ichabod and Mr Toad’ be the big hit Disney needed?
Well…no. But it did pretty good. The most enduring legacy of this film is Mr Toad’s Wild Ride, a much beloved part of Disneyland and Disney World. Yep. It did a reverse ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and went from a little known film to a very famous theme park attraction. Having said that, the Headless Horseman chase at the end of the ‘Ichabod’ segment has gained something of a cult status in cartoon fandom as it has an unusual Disney ending for three reasons: Our hero is not that nice, the villain appears to win and the ending is ambiguous. Would you like to hear more about such things? Off we go then…
Did I see it as a child?
No. I had some ‘Wind in the Willows’ knowledge as I had an abridged version on cassette tape, although one that omitted the main plot of this film. I knew about messing around in boats, the wild woods, and Toad’s caravan obsession. The cassette ended with Toad learning about motor cars but that is pretty much where the Disney story starts…Odd. I suppose the audio cassette people thought my age group couldn’t handle the dark turn the story takes…
I had heard of Mr Toad’s Wild Ride being a feature of Disney but had never questioned what ‘Wind in the Willows’ characters were doing in Disneyland. I just sort of assumed that Walt Disney had the rights to everything in the world. I had no idea Disney tackled these very British stories about riverbank animals.
I never read the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as a youngster but I did see the Tim Burton version starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. It is fair to say he took some creative liberties, while Disney stayed largely faithful to the concise text give or take a bit of Bing. Again, it passed me by totally that Disney ever tackled this story until very recently. Since my discovery I had heard some murmurs that Disney did justice to the terrifying reveal of the Headless Horseman, so I was looking forward to this one. At first. Then the war films started to break me. And trepidation kicked in…
You might be wondering how on Earth they link these two very different stories together. Guess what? They don’t! And they don’t even try and pretend they were designed to work together narratively speaking so neither will I. I am going to critique them as two separate films that just happened to be in the same review. In case one of them interests you more than the other I am going to put all the WITW stuff in italics so you can follow which story I am referring to and skip ahead as necessary:
We open on a fancy library and a posh voice (Basil) suggests we dig into the story of Mr Toad. So we do. Mr Toad is silly with money and keen on fads much to the dismay of his faithful if rather kill joy friends Badger, Rat and Mole. However after he gets hoodwinked by some local thugs Toad ends up in prison for stealing a motor car and the race is on to clear his name and reclaim the marvellous Toad Hall…
We return to the library only now there is a smooth American voice…Badda Bing Crosby! He introduces us to Ichabod Crane a lean School Master who moves to the small town of Sleepy Hollow simultaneously causing all the local women to swoon and pissing off the rowdy alpha males who are not keen on his literacy and general air of superiority. Brom Bones in particular is anxious that Ichabod stop showing off and let him get on with wooing top totty Katrina. But When Ichabod won’t take the hint, Brom appeals to his superstitious nature by telling him he better hurry home before the Headless Horseman comes for his noggin…But that is just a story…Right?
After the frankly exhausting task of picking my way through the creative void that largely made up the Disney War films, my defences were way up. It meant sitting through this picture was a tense experience. But I needn’t have been so…Shoulder-uppy. Both stories are pretty great.
Having not read the original source material I can’t say how faithful Disney were to ‘The Wind in the Willows’ novel but the cartoon is authentically British. Except the ‘Scottish’ Badger who sounds stupid. As a legitimate Scottish person I can tell you the fact that the voice actor was born in California was not a shock to my system. To his credit, he makes grumpy noises like a Scot. But that is it. Anyway…Praise. Yes apart from some dodgy accents the wit is wonderfully genuine and in no way talks down to the target audience…Although, as I have mentioned, I am still not convinced children were the target audience for Disney films in the early days but for the sake of argument let us say they were because they certainly are now.
There is a great moment where Rat and Mole are praying for their poor locked up friend and at the moment where you expect a saccharine line in keeping with the more traditional sad character moment, Mole solemnly dead pans…’And may he get time off for good behaviour’ Another good example of the humour is when Toad’s loyal horse Cyril (a character I am pretty sure was invented for the film) is coolly facing questioning from the prosecution in the court case. Cyril insists Toad got the car the honest way. The Lawyer shoots back with: ‘And what is the honest way?’ To which Cyril says: ‘ha-ha! I thought you wouldn’t know that Guv’nor!’ Lawyer humour in a Disney cartoon…Delivered by a horse. What’s not to love?
So the humour and style is all comfy, cosy, and English countryside like. The characters are largely charming too, with Toad carrying the film splendidly. He is a very winning protagonist despite the fact that he is an example of someone living outside their means and not really understanding the consequences of this. He is privileged but careless and this could have made him incredibly hard to care about. Yet he is warm and real, waving to his friends in court as though he has spotted them while playing golf, not really appreciating how bad things are. But he is put through the ringer over the course of this film, they manage to make him look really washed out and dejected while in jail, and so despite the relatively short introduction to his world I cheered him on the whole way.
In the original novel he is more at fault as he actually does steal the car, twice, without being tricked or manipulated and I think the change was necessary here in order for him to remain a sympathetic character. Sure a morally bankrupt lead can still be likeable but I am still pleased they made him naïve rather than narcissistic as it just makes for a more jolly adventure given the fact that they don’t have long to convince us to like him. I am also glad they made up Cyril the Horse as he is the salt of the Earth, a lot of fun and I want us to be buddies. Ratty, Mole and Badger don’t get as much screen time but are clearly loyal and loving friends despite their stiff upper lipped Britishness forbidding them from showing it too often. As a result of this, the writing is forced to work hard to demonstrate the relationships between Toad and his friends and they do such a good job. After several Disney films filled with characters so pointless I didn’t even bother learning their names it is a breath of fresh air to have a gang I actually wouldn’t mind being part of.
An artistic touch that was taken from the book that I really liked was the fact that humans exist in this anthropomorphic universe. It makes all our heroes seem that much more vulnerable and the stakes that much higher. The reason? They are to scale. So the first time we see a human is when Ratty gets some post dropped off by the postman. The man can’t fit inside his house so has to bend down and stick his face in the door. I found it kind of intrusive and a bit odd. That sense of dominance increases tenfold when Mr Toad tries to flee the court room after being stitched up by the unpleasant looking Mr Winkie only to be nearly trampled on by humans. He looks so small and helpless and it genuinely affected me. Later in the film when he is being pursued by the police that are so much larger than him and carrying weapons I felt very nervous. While it is never explained how humans and talking, well dressed animals that can own property and be put on trial for theft came to live side by side, creatively it leads to some tense moments.
One of my biggest complaints about these package films has been the narrative devices replacing character development and decent story telling. I don’t know if it is because they use it more sparingly, the source material is strong or if Basil is just a superior vocal talent, but the narrator adds more than he takes away in this adaptation. Is he plummy? By George, yes. But it works here. I don’t think his name was picked out of a hat or he just happened to be hanging out at the studio that day. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is a good fit for Basil and he could read me a bedtime story any time.
On to Ichabod…a character who is unusual on several levels. Lead characters in Disney films are rarely permitted to be morally ambiguous. Even the ones who do misbehave, Aladdin commits pretty heavy fraud, are aware that what they are doing is wrong and they feel guilty about it. But here is the thing about most people who do bad things…They don’t see it that way. From their perspective, they are in the right. People who get all outraged when two men kiss on TV or when a Cheerios advert show a mixed race family (this ‘controversy’ actually happened. In 2013.) think their judgement is sound. Their motivations, their passions, their values…These things are not missteps or lessons on their journey to a happy ending.
I liked Ichabod right away. He is not designed like a Disney leading man. The original story takes great pains to emphasise that he is tall, skinny, awkward, with a big nose and bigger feet. And Disney don’t give him a Hollywood makeover. He is NOT pretty. But he is sexy. Women are all over him. The Gaston-like Brom Bones does not understand why. But I get it. Ichabod is a talented dancer, a foodie, he is well read and despite his odd appearance he carries himself with the confidence of a guy who knows he is a lady killer. But he isn’t all good. And that is where things get interesting…
When Ichabod sees the beautiful Katrina and starts to daydream about being with her…What does he see? He imagines them together…awww…only…she is crying…because her Dad is dead. And Ichabod gets her property…Oh. His fantasy is not romantic. It is at best practical and at worst tasteless. But it is not evil. He doesn’t feel bad about his designs. Ichabod is a man who wants to be comfortable. He exploits the needs of the lonely women of Sleepy Hollow for delicious meals. He does not see a problem with his behaviour. They enjoy his company, he enjoys their food. The fact that he does not care about Katrina is not an obstacle when trying to get his hands on her. And for a lot of people who see relationships as a means to an end, this kind of logic is not a big deal. Ichabod is not going to learn to see past Katrina’s money or how to treat women right before this film is over. Because as far as Ichabod and the 1940’s is concerned this lesson does not need to be learned.
Is it possible to root for a character with motivations like this? Yes. I did. To a point. I didn’t really care about the love triangle because all 3 of them are motivated by awfulness (more on that later) But Ichabod is a compelling character because he is a schmoozy guy who is actually smart. He is greedy and manipulative but goes about it in such an innocent way. And not in the Disney ‘bad guy pretending not to be bad’ way but actually with a dollop of hope and earnest desire because he is ok with how he is. I am not sure how well I am getting across how I experienced this character…To put it simply: I wouldn’t want him dating my sister…But he is mighty intriguing all the same.
So I didn’t care if Ichabod got the girl…so what did I want for our hero? Well…do you know the legend of Sleepy Hollow? Ichabod wishes he could forget. But after learning about the headless horseman and leaving the party for home…the night comes for him in what must be one of the best scenes in Disney history. And man, was I rooting for him to get out alive.
We have all had to walk home alone in a place we would rather have company. Just the other night I took my keys out my pocket to use as a weapon when I thought I was being chased. It actually turned out I was being followed. By an empty packet of crisps blowing in the wind. An empty packet of crisps that got such a stabbing.
Disney had done a few ‘lost in the woods’ scenes by this point but this one stands heads and shoulders above the rest. They really nail the atmosphere. Ichabod and his horse just look so damn vulnerable, positively surrounded by leaves, trees and vengeful looking owls. My hairs are standing up remembering the moment where Hell literally breaks lose. Ichabod jumps when some reeds knock against a log and starts to laugh, a loud, long obnoxious noise. And then…Someone joins in. Shivers. Can’t you just feel it?
The chase that ensues is fantastic. I was concerned Bing Crosby was going to keep narrating but he quiets down and lets the animators do the talking. The stakes are higher than in your typical cartoon and you really feel the panic as the scene shakes whenever we see the shot from Ichabod’s POV, the confusion that leads to him running towards the danger and of course the knife wielding horseman with a flaming pumpkin head under his arm who never seems to get tired of laughing at his prey. It is really great stuff.
And so what of the ending? Like the short story it came from we don’t know if Ichabod dies or becomes the new headless horseman or flees the creepy town forever or if his love rival was the horseman the whole time. In the 1934 short cartoon I watched while learning more about this, they make it explicitly clear that Brom is behind the ‘prank’ and that Ichabod survives it. Disney does not quell our fears for Ichabod. Only his hat remains. Brom marries Katrina and the story ends. If anything, the way the last few minutes are shot implies that Ichabod very much lost his head and was spirited away…And I love it. I love proper Goth, bloody horror and I love it when Disney goes outside the box: This is the main character! He doesn’t get the girl! And he probably died! This is the kind of happily ever after I want. Life gets complicated. And sometimes it ends. Learn it kids! Learn it now. It doesn’t stop it hurting later but it makes the game more interesting.
So that was all very good and much, much better than I was expecting. So how did ‘Ichabod and Mr Toad’ fall into obscurity with the rest of the line-up of crap that are the package films? It goes a little something like this…
What Doesn’t Work:
I never appreciate the Popeye dynamic. Hopefully that is explanation enough, yes?
Ok I will elaborate…The last scene of Ichabod is outstanding but, man, it takes too long to get there. And the cartoon is only about 35-40 minutes long. I had heard the final sequence was great and so I found myself twitching in my seat waiting for the violence to start. Because I did not give a fuck about which man Katrina was going to choose.
Like Olive Oil before her, Katrina likes whichever man is closest. She cares not a jot if she ends up with Ichabod or Brom, despite their contrasting personalities suggesting liking them both equally would be a challenge. She openly enjoys the drama of being the prettiest girl in the village and positively thrives off the competition between the two men. So Brom is the Bluto of the trio. A bully who likes humiliating the man who makes him feel small and will settle any dispute with violence. He is obviously the antagonist of the piece, yes? But Ichabod is a terrible teacher, a player with the women, snobby and motivated by money…They are all awful people. So why did I have to sit through at least a quarter of an hour of her being courted by them?
When I was a kid, Popeye was on a lot. And man I hated those 3 characters. The constant tussle over the most vanilla of women, between two men who are just as bad as each other used to drive me nuts. While Ichabod himself is at least interesting (he likes books and dancing!) it is impossible to be invested in the outcome of this story. Until they, finally, introduce the Horseman concept.
Although even that does not really makes sense. Brom tells the story to scare Ichabod but everyone at the party seems to know the story so he didn’t make it up. So what was his plan exactly? To tell Ichabod he might die tonight and then kill him? Did he need to tell him? Wouldn’t it have worked just as well as a surprise? Still I will let it go. Because the love story ended in favour of a horror story and not before time.
Katrina, we are told by Bing-a-Ling, is plump. Feel free to google her. She is plump in the tits but, in the biggest disregard of human physics I have ever seen, has the teeniest, tiniest waist in the whole world. It is creepy and icky. This would be improbable but acceptable except…Before he meets Katrina, Ichabod is making headway with a woman who you could actually describe as plump. And then when the big party scene happens, this woman becomes the butt of the jokes, with Brom and Ichabod swapping her back and forth because…ewww…she is a bit fat. I could do without that stuff. In any film. It just adds to the whole ‘women are only good if they are pretty’ myth that is perpetuated by the House of Mouse. Ichabod can be ugly and still desirable. A woman can’t.
Also, I was disappointed in Bing. To be clear, he wasn’t a terrible narrator but the music given to him wasn’t that great and I tend to enjoy him most when he gets to be witty and the script for ‘Ichabod’ isn’t a winner. Sorry Bing-Bong-Bing. I still like you but you were trumped by Basil. 1-0 Brits!
But come on UK! You should know better than to start celebrating a victory before the final whistle blows! Unlike ‘Ichabod’ there are no stand out scenes in WITW. It is good, but not fantastic. The climax, set in Toad Hall, is all very clichéd. The villains, having enjoyed a good day of villainy, are asleep. So Mole tries to get the lease from Mr Winkie’s pocket. For some reason, he goes the ‘Mission Impossible’ route and is lowered down from a height. There is no reason I can see why this is better than just leaning over and removing it, but of course he wakes up and bla bla bla…What plays out is the classic: ‘I’ve got the important thing!’ ‘Now I’VE got it!’ ‘Oh no we failed!’ ‘Oh did we???’ ‘You managed to get it yeah we win!’ finale and it is all a bit rushed and devoid of any kind of suspense.
Ultimately the biggest flaw with WITW is it needs to be a full length movie. It just assumes you know who these characters are and takes no time at all to set up the world. If you didn’t know who Rat and Mole etc were you might be left scratching your head as to why they all hang out. Why not show it like in the books, where we learn how they all meet? Why should we care about the fate of Toad Hall? Why is Badger so invested in it? What makes the Weasels tick? How do the humans deliver post without crushing the homes of the animals? None of these questions even crossed the minds of the people who made this version of the classic story. It could have been so much better. It all feels super rushed and ultimately a little like not a lot of care was taken which, I have discovered, is pretty accurate. And these characters deserve better.
And finally criticism I can level at both films: The music was pretty forgettable across the board, the title song being really awful, a lot of the designs and story boarding ideas get reused in later/better films giving the animation an especially cheap look, the sound on the edition I watched was really bad and the attempt to link the two stories together (Thanks Basil…Bing here. We also have books in America!) was embarrassing. The film ends with the final shot from ‘Ichabod’ being ruined by happy Disney music and Bing saying ‘I’m getting outta here…’
Me too Baby Bing. Me too.
NO. MORE. WAR. FILMS.
In the words of Jeff Buckley quoting Leonard Cohen quoting, I don’t know, the Bible…Halleluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuujah!
So ‘The Wind and the Willows’ needed to be longer and ‘Sleepy Hollow’ needed less horrible romance and more scares. But both cartoons are a success one by being witty and charming and the other by giving Disney a unique leading man and a terrific final act. If you are a true fan of Disney/English Literature/Gothic Horror you should check it out.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 3
Katrina’s waist, the guy in the horseman song that says ‘And some don’t even have their skin,’ and the whole Headless Horseman scene, especially the laughing bit.
The soundtrack isn’t as good as it could be considering the talent they have but a couple of favourites have emerged. I will have to give you ‘The Headless Horseman Song’ as Brom tries to freak out the superstitious Ichabod who copes by comfort eating. Bing seems to be having a blast and it is a fun way to deliver exposition.
YES! We’re all going to the ball! The film that saved Disney and spawned a million parodies…Cinderella (1950)