In 1937, Walt Disney released one of the crowning achievements in film history, Americas very first theatrical animated movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. It was a huge success, and paved the way for the classic animated pictures that proceeded. However, only a hand-full of movies followed directly after, as the ensuing events of World War 2 changed the face of the studio for the next decade, and made it challenging for the studio to release any full-length animated pictures. It wasn’t until 1950 with the release of “Cinderella” that the studio was saved from bankruptcy, and they were able to make the animated Disney classics we all know today.
So, what kept the studio going through the 1940’s war times? Well, in order to save time and money, as well as keep the animation studio going, Disney released a series of theatrical package movies. Basically, they were animated anthologies comprised of Disney shorts, and each with their own themes and tones. Some were educational travelogue’s, others revolved around contemporary music, and some were scripts intended for full-length pictures, but trimmed down to half-hour shorts. What an interesting bit of movie history … can you imagine today, going to the theater and instead of seeing a full-length animated movie, you get a collection of cartoons that seem like specials you’d see on T.V.? Of all the theatrical package movies released during this decade, one of my absolute favorites is the 1949 picture “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad”, or “Ichabod and Mr. Toad” for short. This was Walt Disney’s 11th animated picture, and like any of his animated films, it made their adapted sources some of the most recognizable and iconic in the media.
Unlike most Package movies of the time, which contained a huge assortment of shorts, as well as featured appearances from recognizable characters like Mickey Mouse and so forth, this film acts as double feature with only two shorts, and no guest appearances from animated Disney icons. Also, instead of adapting fairy-tales, this was Disney’s attempt to bring literary classics to the silver screen ... namely “The Wind and the Willows” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. The film is appropriately set in a library, with famed talents Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby acting as our disembodied storytellers for each individual story. Watching this movie as a kid, I had no point of reference for either of them, so it’s cool watching this movie again as an adult and identifying both of our narrators. I’ll always associate Basil Rathbone with "Son of Frankenstein" and “Sherlock Holmes”, while with Bing Crosby, I’ll always associate him with holiday classics in the vain of “White Christmas” and “Holiday Inn”. Speaking of which, both short’s complement each other by taking place during different holidays, as “The Wind and the Willows” is set on Christmas, while “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is set on Halloween. From here, it’s probably best to look at each short individually.
(The Wind and the Willows)
Our first tale revolves around the mad adventurous of Mr. Toad, based on the novel “The Wind and the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. I actually grew up with several different takes on the classic fable as a kid, and this one by Disney was my favorite by far. Mr. Toad is nuts about motor cars, and in an uncontrollable obsession with getting the fanciest vehicle he can find, he trades his estate with a crooked group of Wesel’s, in exchange for their shinny motor car. Their nasty leader, a bartender named Winkie proceeds to frame Mr. Toad for stealing the vehicle, and thus, he’s convicted, and sent to prison. Following a daring escape, he with the aid of his other animal friends set off on a mission to clear his innocence. On the surface, it seems like your typical children’s adventure with cartoon animals, but it’s not without an undercurrent of adult and dark themes, with legal procedures, and even scenes with characters smoking and getting drunk. One thing I always found a little strange was that the setting of the story features talking animal characters in regular clothing living alongside human characters. Usually it’s one or the other, but here, animals and people are mixed together, and their even at proper scale … it’s just kind of odd and makes me wonder why all the characters couldn’t just be animals.
While I’ve always looked back on this short as “okay” by Disney standards, I’ve always remembered the characters, with Mr. Toad himself standing out as a personal favorite.
He’s full of energy, has some quirky lines, a highly animated personality, and even conveys a reserved sense of dramatic emotion. If it wasn’t for Mr. Toad, I don’t think this animated short would be as enjoyable as it is. With that said, the other animal characters are fine, with the friend Mole being a lovable companion and the horse has his share of quotable lines. While the villain Winkie is nothing special, his gang of Wesel’s have become minor icons among Disney’s cartoon rouges, and were the main inspiration for the Toon Patrol seen in "Who Framed Roger Rabit". This short also features my favorite musical number called “Merrily on our Way (Nowhere in Particular)”. While this movies collection of songs in general aren’t too memorable, this song has always stuck with me as something special. I remember back when I was a kid, I loved this song so much that I’d sing the lyrics whenever my parents took me on a road trip ... “Are we on our way to Nottingham? To Brittingham, to Buckingham? Or any hammy hamlet by the sea? … No!”. Overall, Mr. Toad’s adventure doesn’t reach the same heights as other animated shorts, but it’s perfectly passable, it’s colorful, and has some entertaining cartoon action. The final battle for Toad Hall even features cell animation that would be reused during an action sequence in Disney’s “The Jungle Book”. However, this short is really just the appetizer for the main event …
(The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)
Things take a spooky turn with the adventures of Ichabod in a short based on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. Unlike the previous short, which feature characters with spoken lines, this segment has all its players speaking through a form of Mime storytelling. No joke, just about everything conveyed by the characters is through their movements, expressions, and Bing Crosby’s narration. In this short, one Ichabod Crane comes to the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow to be a respected school teacher. Yet, after meeting the towns beautiful Katrina, he becomes a self-centered schemer, determined to win her hand, and inherit her land. His only competition is local bully Brom Bones, who equally has the same self-centered ambitions. While Ichabod Crane has no problem outwitting a tough guy, he’s no match for a certain haunted figure who comes to life on Halloween night … The Headless Horsman. Straight to the point, it’s all thanks to this segment that “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” stands out as one of my favorite of Disney’s packaged movies. While I liked Mr. Toads short just fine, this movie wouldn’t have meant nearly as much to me if it were paired with something like Disney’s animated “Paul Bunyan” short instead. Likewise, Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has become a staple for repeat viewings for me around the Halloween season. It’s one of my all time favorite animated Halloween specials, and it’s what elevates this movie into a treasured Disney classic.
It’s the textbook definition of a Gothic children’s cartoon, with its cryptic atmosphere, dark story, creepy visuals, and even the setting has a haunting history to explore. Above all else … it’s a rare case in which there’s no definitive hero’s or villains. All three of our principle characters are self-centered, with very little moral substance, but none are quite nefarious enough to be branded as evil.
It gives both the story and experience a very unique feel, and it makes things less predictable, as it’s not bound by typical Disney conventions. Ichabod Crane has one of the most distinct designs of any animated human character I’ve ever seen, and when paired with his up-beat personality, it makes him a joy to watch ... even though the character is still kind of a jerk throughout. Katrina always made me think of Bo-Peep from "Toy Story", although slightly more beautiful if I'm being honest. The scenes with Ichabod and Brome Bones fighting over Katrina are hysterical, and they lead to some of my favorite visual-based hummer I’ve ever seen in a Disney production. As the antics between these characters go on, I always find myself forgetting it’s a ghost story, but that’s the beauty of this tale. It doesn’t hit you over the head with visual reminders that it’s Halloween, and it lets all the spooky elements slowly sneak up on you.
The songs in this segment are less memorable, although “Ichabod’s Song” always reminded me of “Belle’s Song” from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”.Both revolve around a single person walking into town, who’s odd behavior and persona becomes the main subject to the gossipy towns people. Actually, there’s a number of things that I feel might have inspired the future animators of “Beauty and the Beast”. Brome Bones is almost like a prototype for Gaston, and even some shots of the woods at night could have influenced some of the spookier moments of Belle’s dad getting lost in the woods. Of course, the big turning point of the story is when Ichabod is invited to a Halloween party, and Brome Bones learns of Ichabod’s fearful superstitions. This leads into “The Headless Horsemen Song”, which isn’t on par with any of the great Disney villain numbers, but it’s always stood out to me as a worthy Halloween song. This is when the darker elements of the story take shape, and we begin to see more visuals that put me in the mood for the season. There’s Jack O Lanterns, Black Cats, Scarecrows, shadows, and this random creepy image of a pail-man in a chair. It’s also a rare treat to get the villain song before we even see the villain. All the grizzly details of what The Headless Horsemen dose on Halloween night just get me all the more excited for when we finally see him.
This leads to Ichabod’s lonely and frightening ride in the woods at night, which is personally one of my favorite individual scenes of any animated Disney movie.The strengths of this sequence come from its chilling atmosphere, mood and build-up. Seriously, no other Disney moment makes me feel as submersed in the moment as this creepy walk in the woods. It’s a rare case in which I find the build-up even more rewarding then the actual payoff, and it still thrills me as an adult. Unlike the over the top monster designs of Snow Whites venture in the dark forest, or the creatures from Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain, this sequence keeps the designs simple, and only sparingly shows creepy imagery ... that way it really pops when something appears on screen. I’ll never forget that awesome image of the full moon, and what looks like an evil hand closing around it. This scene is almost like a simulation, putting you in his place, and making you feel the fear, adrenaline and anxiety that something evil or dangerous might be out there waiting to strike. In general, I think we’ve all had times when we've felt dismal, frightened, and alone in the dark … we hear strange sounds, and we get a scary feeling that there’s something lurking in the shadows. You try to convince yourself that it’s just the wind or an animal, but you don’t know for sure. Never before has that feeling been captured so well on screen then in this moment. We see him begin to panic at the sounds of frogs, owls and crickets, and all while the narrator gives frightening detail of how the forest seems to close in behind him, and consume him whole. Back when I was a little kid, I could never watch this scene by myself, and it’s personally my absolute favorite spooky sequence from any family picture.
There’s also a great little moment in which Ichabod thinks he hears the Horseman coming up fast, but it’s really a bunch of twigs agents a log … and then … he just cracks! It’s an effective peace of comedy that leads into the film’s most famous scene … when The Headless Horseman makes his grand appearance, leading into a thrilling, climactic chase in the woods.
This sequence is often regarded as one of the spookiest scenes from any of Disney’s animated pictures, as well as kid’s films in general. While I personally fond the buildup scarier, it’s still a really fun sequence, and The Headless Horseman is still a spectacle to view on screen. I could easily see how he might frighten younger viewers, especially with him swinging his sword around trying to decapitate pore Ichabod. With his menacing laugh, bright red cape, creepy looking red eyed horse, and of cores his flaming pumpkin, he’s always stood out to me as a seasonal mascot in the same vain as either Dracula or Frankenstein. His wicked laugh is also one of my all-time favorites, especially in this one moment when Ichabod gets a close-up look at his headless body while he’s letting out an evil chuckle. It’s also interesting to note that this is the only Disney movie that didn’t change the ending for a traditional happily ever after, and instead, it kept the dark twist ending of the novel. Ichabod is presumed dead, and Katrina gets married to the town bully Brome Bones. Wow … I love it when a kid’s film isn't afraid to take risks.
In the end, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” stands out as one of Disney’s very best packaged deals, and one that I highly recommend. While my feelings for the Sleepy Hollow short overshadow the Mr. Toad segment, his is still a fine companion peace, and it makes the experience overall feel more rewarding. The animation for it’s time is also worth praising, and still looks good all these years later. There are some creative angles, the energy is high, the colors pop, and even the backgrounds are expressively detailed. While this probably won’t be remembered as one of the great Disney classics, it still has its own strengths, and is a nice little underrated gem to add to any Disney collection.
Thanks for reading my review of Disney’s 1949 animated picture “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” … and do yourself a favor, by making your day a little more special with a splash of Disney magic.
Stay tuned for Mr. Movies October Marathon, which begins October 1st and will last all month long!