Thursday, September 22, 2011

Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) (Movie Review)

     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!

The Laserdisc


           Everyone knows about DVD’s, Blue Ray’s and most should still remember VHS but video formats have had quite a history from Beta tape to CED tapes but one video format that I find most interesting is the laserdisc. Now the Laserdisc was a huge leap for its time and was the modern day equivalent of today’s DVD’s. They were first released in 1978, but for their time they were given catchy titles like discovision, (pronounced dis-co-vision). They were these huge disks that were the size of old albums or vinyl records, however they never fit the full movie. Most Laserdisc’s would come packaged with 4 or maybe even 6 different disks, so that meant getting up a lot. Not only did you have to put in a new disk every 20 minutes but you also had to flip the disks over, so you really couldn’t get comfortable in a seat for a long time. While that must have been annoying, I can imagine how technically impressive they were. I remember when DVD’s first came out and I discovered how amazing bones features were, things like “making of” features, deleted scenes, outtakes and music videos were all so cool and original to me. But it’s even more interesting to think that it was the laserdisc that introduced bones material for the first time. There are actually some slit improvements over DVD’s, for example you can fast forward through logos, FBI warnings and it all feels like you have more control over the film. Unfortunately, there still hard to transport and just aren’t as fitting as DVD’s. It’s just so much more convenient to have nice, small DVD’s on your shelf that you don’t have to turn over constantly and the quality is just so much better. Well the laserdisc may seem obsolete now but it is still an interesting bit of video formatting history and is the true predecessor to DVD’s.   

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Boba Fett (A small character with a big legacy)

      
         Just about every character from the Original Star Wars trilogy is a house hold name, seriously, who doesn't know about Darth Vader, Yoda, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and C-3PO. However, there’s one other character that seems to have just as huge of a fan base as any of the classic characters and he didn’t even do anything. I’m off cores talking about the mysteries masked bounty hunter named Boba Fett. I’ve never been so surprised by a character that had so little to do in a series to become the subject of video games, board games, T-shirts, action figures, comic books, novels, Fan made video’s, costumes, fan websites and all kinds of merchandise.

 
   IGN even labeled him as the 8th greatest character out of the 100 best to come from the Star Wars universe and others have called him one of the greatest movie bad asses along with “Mad Max” and “Dirty Harry”. But if you thought that was crazy wait till you hear this, in 2008, Boba Fett was selected by Empire magazine as the 79th greatest movie character of all time, that’s insane. Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t think he was awesome too, and one of my favorite characters from the series. But even I can't explain why he’s so awesome. Parodies such as “Fan Boys” and “Star Wars Robot Chicken” have even made some funny jokes on why he's so popular when he had little to no part in the series. So what is it about this character that makes him so fascinating and memorable, well let’s look at the characters legacy through the Star Wars series to try and find out why he’s become such a cult figure. 

                                                       Boba Fett in Star Wars 4 A new Hope



Well, unlike most characters, Boba Fett was not featured in “Star Wars 4 A new Hope”, at least not when the movie was released in 1977. The 1997 special addition added an additional Jabba the Hutt scene ware Boba Fett was briefly seen in the back ground. Not mush else to say, but it's cool that he's now featured in the original classic, if only for a little bit. 


Boba Fett in The Star Wars Holiday Special


         His very first appearance was an animated segment of the 1978 TV special titled “The Star Wars Holiday Special”. This just goes to show how awesome this character really is, he can be introduced in something as un-watchable as this holiday special and he’s still a fan favorite. In this little animated segment, he’s on a mission from Darth Vader to gain Luke Skywalker’s and Han Solo’s trust but Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3po discover his true intentions before they take him to their base. His image is a little different than usual, he has orange colors as opposed to green, a silver helmet and a long Taser gun. He’s voiced by Don Francks and in all honesty this is the coolest the character has ever been. His voice is so firkin awesome and he just personifies so much danger and mystery whenever he speaks, especially when he addresses the characters as “Friend”. It’s also a real treat just to see him interacting with the main characters, something that never happens in the trilogy. The animation in this episode looks really stupid and there isn’t much of a plot but this 10 minuet cartoon from the holiday special is worth seeing just because of how awesome Fett is. “The Star Wars Holiday Special” still remains the worst thing to come from the Star Wars universe (and for a good reason) but at least we can thank it for giving us this awesome character.   


                                        Boba Fett in Star Wars 5 The Empire Strikes Back


     Boba Fett made his first official, live action appearance in “Star Wars 5 The Empire Strikes Back”. This time he’s voiced by Jason Wingreen who sounds a little menacing but not as awesome as before. Latter in the 2004 DVD special edition, he’s voiced by Temuera Morrison (who played Jango Fett in “Star Wars 2 Attack of the Clones”), I understand that he’s supposed to have his father’s voice but he just doesn’t sound all that menacing. Neither of these voice actors were credited in the film, instead all credit went to Jeremy Bulloch, who was in the costume. Bulloch based his performance on Clint Eastwood's portrayal of the Man with No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars”, as such he would be seen "cradling" his blaster and slightly cocking his head. So what does the character do in the film, well, once again he’s hired by Darth Vader to hunt down the millennium Falcon and he eventually tracks it to Cloud City. After a trap is sprong on our hero's, Boba Fett takes Han Solo as a prize for Jabba the Hut. Unfortunately, he doesn’t interact with any of the characters, with the exception of briefly interacting with Darth Vader. He doesn’t even fight anyone and that’s not including his full 2 seconds shooting at Luke Skywalker. Admittedly, he does look very cool and mysterious in the back ground, like he has his own story that was meant for another film entirely. This was also the first time seeing his rather cool ship know to fans as “Slave 1”. There’s a funny little “Star Wars Robot Chicken” joke were Boba Fett and Lando Calrissian are on a flight deck and Calrissian comments “That’s a pretty cool ship you got there Boba but I’m not too crazy about that name”. 


                                       Boba Fett featured in Star Wars 6 Return of the Jedi    

   
    Jeremy Bulloch continued his costumed performance in “Star Wars 6 Return of the Jedi”. His jet pack and wrist cable are finally seen in action but this time the character has even less to do. He’s only briefly seen in Jabba the Hutt’s place and latter during the battle on Jabba’s sale barge. Boba Fett engages Luke Skywalker in a very brief fight, then in an anti-climactic ending, Han Solo accidently hits his jet back casing him to crash into the side of the barge and dropping into a monster pit were he’s eaten by the sarlacc creature and that’s all we get from him. The 1997 special addition had some additional footage of Fett in Jabba’s palace, flirting with some girl, I guise just to give him a little more screen time. George Lucas has stated that had he known that this character would become so popular, he would have given him a better, more exciting death. But I think a lot of his fan base comes from that want and interest to see him do more. Jango Fett had a lot of involvement in Attack of the Clones and had a pretty exciting death but he doesn’t have as big a fan base. So in an interesting case, it’s because he doesn’t do much that he has a fan base. It’s all part of that age old saying that less is more, and the less you show of an interesting looking character, the more interested people get.


                                              Boba Fett featured in Star Wars Droids 


     In 1985 there was an animated TV series called “Star Wars Droids” which fallowed the adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO. Boba Fett is seen as a villain in the opening credit sequence but he only makes one appearance in an episode called “A Race to the Finish”. Don Francks, who did the voice work in The Star Wars Holiday Special returned for this show and he has the same orange look and design from before. Basically a group of villains called the Fromms enlist in Boba Fett’s help to get revenge on a group of racers. In the end they fail and Fett turns the Fromms over to Jabba the Hutt for a reword. It’s not one of his best animated events, especially considering we see so little of him and he never interacts with anyone. But there is one note worthy moment when the Fromm leader is talking to Fett in a door way and he’s completely covered in shadow. The rest of the Fromms don’t know who their leader is talking to, then Fett steps forward into the light and the rest of the Fromm are suddenly terrified. It’s a cool little moment and the episode is worth watching for hard core Fett fans. 


                                    Boba Fett featured in Star Wars 2 Attack of the Clones
    
   
     When news that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was on its way, we knew that we’d be seeing the origins of Boba Fett. George Lucas first considered making him related to Darth Vader in some way but then thought that story would be pushing it too much. I’m certainly glad he dropped that idea but what we got instead wasn’t much better. In “Star Wars 2 Attack of the Clones” we see Boba Fett as a child played by Daniel Logan. We learn that he was an unaltered clone from a bounty hunter named Jango Fett, and that he looked upon Boba as his own son. This was a little disappointing to me, to think that behind his helmet, Fett has the exact same face as all the other Storm Troopers and his outfit was just passed down from his father. I always imagined there being more to this character, other than being grown in a factory and taking his fallen fathers armor. Jango Fett was actually a superior character, he had more to do with the story, he interacted with the characters and he engaged them in battle, which was really exciting. There is a little bit of tragedy to Boba’s past, but were not given much of a character, again he’s just there as a bones. There was a book titled “Boba Fett: The Fight to Survive”, which continued his story after his father died but we still don’t get anything that exciting from him.


                                           Boba Fett featured in Star Wars The Clone Wars

                                

     It wasn’t until the final 3 episodes of season 2 in the TV show “Star Wars The Clone Wars” that I got the Boba Fett story that I had been waiting for. These three episodes made for very solid stories full of tragedy, anger, regret and we see a few new sides of Boba that I thought were rather interesting. Daniel Logan returns to the role and the character is now on a personal mission of revenge against Mace Windu for killing his father. In the first episode titled “Death Trap”, Boba disguises his identity amongst a group of young clone cadets that are training on a republic “Jedi” cruiser. After his first attempt to kill Windu fails, he then takes out the entire ship on his own from the inside. The ship crashes on a nearby planet but Mace Windu and most of the passengers escape before it crashes. The story continues in the episodes “R2-D2 Come Home” and “Lethal Takedown”. It’s a very nicely constructed three-parter with good action and some rather surprising emotional levels. Boba is fuelled with vengeance but at the same time he’s feeling nothing but regret for what he’s doing. He really doesn’t want anyone else getting killed because of his own personal vendetta and wants nothing more than to be accepted as a friend amongst his clone brothers. His story just feels more tragic because he seems to have the potential to be a better person but he’s lost and consumed by hatred. 

        

It’s his internal conflict between anger and honor that makes it so fascinating and the music in this episode dose a damn good job enhancing the mood and the drama that the characters going through. We also get some awesome shots of Slave 1, definitely the coolest the ship has ever been. For those of you who wanted to see a really good Boba Fett story, this is what I’d recommend above anything else. After the season 2 finally of Star Wars The Clone Wars”, Boba Fett would continue to make appearance in the show. He's briefly featured in an episode title "Deception", which is a great bounty hunter episode, which involved Obi-Wan Kenobi going under cover as a mercenary. In another episode titled “Bounty”, we see Boba Fett take command of his own small team of Bounty Hunters, there mission is to protect some valuable cargo from bandits. This is without a doubt, one of the best bounty hunter episodes of the series and features some thrilling action scenes. Boba Fett even gets his own armor and helmet, the colors for this costume are red and grey as opposed to his usual green colors and it makes for a cool first costume for him to wear. All though, the design of his helmet looks a lot more like the "Predator" then anything else, he's still awesome in this episode and he's fantastic in this animated series, easily his best portrayal so far.  




So that’s the complete legacy of Boba Fett and dose he really deserve to be a cult figure? Well, in the beginning, he did seem like an interesting intergalactic man of mystery. The only thing we really knew about him was that he had one of the greatest outfits ever seen in a Sci-Fi movie. The helmet, that tint of green, his gadgets, and the rocket jet pack were all just so cool! But that doesn’t make him a good character, just a nice bit of extra flavor to add to this awesome series and that’s all he’ll ever really be. 
         The End