Thursday, September 22, 2011

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

      In 1937, Walt Disney made one of the most crowning achievements in film history, the first theatrical animated movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. It was a huge success but only a hand full of animated movies fallowed. It wasn’t until 1950 with the release of “Cinderella” that the studio was saved from bankruptcy and they were able to make one classic animated movie after the next, and thus Disney’s first golden age began and it continued throughout the 50’s and 60’s. So what took place in the 1940’s, well there were three other full length animated movies but for the most part the only animated movies to be released by Disney at the time were package movies. Basically they were full length animated movies that were just big collections of shorter animated cartoons. 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.? Such theatrical package films included “Saludos Amigos”, “The Three Caballeros”, “Make Mine Music”, “Melody Time”, “Fun and Fancy Free”, and the most famous of all of them being “Fantasia”. Of all these theatrical package movies that came out in the 40’s, one of my favorite’s was the 1949 animated double feature called “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (originally it was simply going to be titled “Ichabod and Mr. Toad”.) This was Walt Disney’s 11th animated masterpiece, and it does a great job following in the tradition of his timeless classics while also giving us something new and original.

    This film introduces two literary classics to the silver screen, and their both brought to life very well in this Disney two-fer. It actually captures the feel of a double feature film from the 50’s, where you pay full price in admission for two movies back to back. It may not be one of the absolute best movies to come from Disney, but in my opinion it’s very underrated and one of my favorites to come from the 1940’s post golden age. The movie begins with one of those classic Disney opening credit sequences, with simple text and not much going on, usually there are pictures that foreshadow events in the film or illustrations in the background to help build your excitement, but here it’s just the color blue as the back ground, mixed with the song “Ichabod and Mr. Toad”. Admittedly, it’s a rather weak opening, but to be fare the song is nice and jazzy and it dose help set the mood. In-between the two cartoons, where in a library ware we get two different narrators talking about these literary characters. The first narrator is Basil Rathbone (who I'll always remember best from "Son of Frankenstein") and the second is good old Bing Crosby (who I'll always remember best from “White Christmas”), both do a great job bringing the stories to life with their strong narration.

      The First Story of Mr. Toad comes from the novel “The Wind and the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. I actually grew up with many different takes on the classic fable as a kid, and this one by Disney was by far my favorite. The story actually has some pretty adult concepts for an animated kids film, there's characters getting drunk and subjects involving theft, funding, taxation, deed’s and court cases. As a kid, I really didn’t understand what most of that stuff was, but I was always able to follow the story. Basically, Mr. Toad is nuts about motor cars and in an uncontrollable obsession with getting the fanciest motor car he can find, he trades his estate with a bar tender named Winkie and his gang of Wesel’s. Turns out that Winkie was a criminal and the motor car was previously stolen. Mr. Toad is then convicted guilty of stealing it, thrown away in prison, and the rest of the special is one fun adventure after the next as he escapes and with the aid of his other animal friends he retakes his estate in an attempt to prove his innocence. One thing that I always found a little strange was that we have animal characters in regular clothing but we also have normal human characters interacting with them. Usually in films like “The Great Mouse Detectives” or “An American Tail” the animal characters live in their own world that the humans have no interaction with but here it’s perfectly natural for both humans and animals to be warring close, living in the same types of homes and applying to the legal system. I guise I shouldn’t try to bring to much logic in a film targeted to kids, but it does make me wonder why all the characters couldn’t just be animals.

      Most of the characters in this short serve there purpose very well, and while some of them are forgettable, their at least fun to watch. Winkie and the Wesel’s did their job but they certainly aren’t memorable villains, (however, the wesel's were the main inspiration for the Toon Patrol seen in "Who Framed Roger Rabit"). The animal characters are pleasant (especially the mole character) but the only one who really stands out is Mr. Toad himself. He’s full of energy, has some great speaking lines, a terrific English accent, he has a fun high-spirited personality and manages to show some rather compelling emotion. If it wasn’t for Mr. Toad, this animated short wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is. There's only one song number in this episode which is titled “Merrily on our Way (Nowhere in Particular)”, which is easily the best song in the film. I know that’s not saying much because most of the songs in this movie are pretty standard and forgettable but I think this makes for a good underrated classic Disney song all the same. I absolutely loved this song when I was a kid and would often sing it to myself on road trips, how could you not like lyrics as crazy as this ... “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 actually rather sold, very colorful and should be plenty entertaining for little kids, it certainly entertained me when I was young.

      The second story of “Ichabod” is based on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. There aren’t as many speaking characters as in the last episode, in fact it's mostly told through mime, Bing Crosby narrating over it. Now I was first introduced to this special on its own “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” VHS, and I wasn’t even aware that it was originally part of a theatrical double feature until a few years later when I received the 50th anniversary edition of “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” on home video. Now I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this on my site before but I love Halloween, it’s playful, frightening and best of all is its strong atmosphere that is captured very well in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which to me stands as the equivalent of a perfect animated Halloween special. We begin with a fantastic narration about how Sleepy Hollow is a cheerful town but beneath its pleasant appearance, it’s also foreboding and consumed by superstition and haunting stories about people who get spirited, the most famous is the story of a school master named “Ichabod Crane”. It’s a chilling narration and it gets things started on the right note. We then role into “Ichabod’s song” which introduces our main character, the town and it's inhabitants. The song itself is nothing special, but it always makes me of another characters introduction song. I honestly can’t watch this opening without thinking of “Bell’s Song” from the opening of “Beauty and the Best”. In both cases it’s about someone walking into town, and the rest of the towns people commenting on how odd they are but nice all the same. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ichabod’s song was somehow an influence on Bells song, but don’t quote me on that.

      The characters in this film are a little more memorable than the ones in the first special but not by much. Our lead character Ichabod Crane doesn’t have the same enjoyment that was provided by Mr. Toad, and oddly enough, he's actually a terrible person. I will say that his overall design is fantastic, with a strange noise, big feet and disjointed body. He’s very superstitious but a mostly kind fellow who would never yell at his students. But things begin to change when he meets the lovely Katrina, and that's when he takes a nasty turn and becomes a really selfish jerk. Now he's determined to win her over another big strong character named Brome Bones. Katrina never really amounts into much of a character but she serves her purpose just fine. Of cores she gets her own little musicale number that’s more forgettable than the actual character, but “Katrina’s song” dose lead to some funny visuals. The scenes with Ichabod and Brome Bones trying to win Katrina over are hysterical, some of the funniest visual hummer you'll ever see from Disney. This goes on for a while and you begin to forget that it’s a Halloween special, and that’s what I love about it. You’re so accustom to all this comedy, then all the sudden it kicks you off your butt and before you know it you’re watching one of the most chillingly awesome Gothic cartoons ever. 

    The turning point is when Ichabod is invited to a Halloween party, Brome Bones learns of Ichabod’s superstitions, so he sings “The Headless Horsemen song”. It isn't nearly as great as other Halloween songs like “This is Halloween” from the “Nightmare Before Christmas”, but this is where the story gets dark, and we begin to get visuals of things that really get you in the proper Halloween vibe like Jack O Lanterns, Black Cats, scarecrows, shadows and some genuinely creepy images like this pail man in a chair and some nice shots of the woods at night. It’s also a rare treat to get the villain song before we even see the villain, and all the grizzly details of what The Headless Horsemen dose on Halloween night just get you all the more excited for when we finally see him. 

    Then we get to my favorite part of the movie ... the slow buildup to when we meet the Headless Horseman. This scene of Ichobod riding by himself in the woods is one of the strongest, scariest and most atmospheric scenes to ever be experienced in an animated movie. We’ve all had times when we felt dismal, frightened, and alone in the dark, we hear strange sounds and we get a scary feeling that there is something lurking in the shadows and 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 scene, we see him begin to panic at the sounds of frogs, owls and crickets, the narrator gives frightening detail of how the forest seems to close in behind him and consume him whole. We get great shots of wind blowing through the trees, an awesome shot of the full moon and what looks like a hand closing around it.
It’s my favorite part of the entire double feature, and one of my favorite moments from any Disney movie. It just does a great job  putting you in his place, scared, alone and thinking that there is something evil and dangerous out there waiting to strike. As a child, I could never watch this scene by myself, and personally it’s the scariest thing about this special. This is also where the funniest scene in the film takes place, 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 here that The Headless Horseman makes his grand appearance, which leads into a thrilling, climactic chase in the woods. This sequence is often regarded as one of the most frightening scenes from any animated kids movie, especially a Disney film.  Honestly, I thought the buildup was scarier, it’s all part of that age old saying that less is more, and what you don’t see scares you the most. Having said that, The Headless Horseman is still a spectacle to be viewed on screen, with his menacing laugh, bright red cape, creepy looking red eyed horse, and of cores his flaming pumpkin. I could easily see how he’s been regarded as one of the scariest things to come from Disney, especially with him swinging his sword around tying to decapitate pore Ichabod. Like most people, I never looked at The Headless Horseman as a classic Disney villain but one of the great monster icons like “Dracula” or “Frankenstein”. It’s interesting to note that this is the only Disney movie that didn’t change the ending for a traditional happily ever after, instead it kept the dark twist ending of the novel, Ichabod is presumed dead and Katrina gets married to Brome Bones. Wow, I love it when a kids film isn't afraid to take risks. With its strong atmosphere, creepy visuals, dark storyline, and one of the most memorable monster icons, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is one special that I find myself watching every October.

      Like I said before, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” isn’t one of my absolute favorite movies to come from Disney but it’s remarkably crafted, has great atmosphere, is emotionally resonant, has some amazing animation that’s very colorful, and sometimes dark and detailed. The animation in this film is actually an improvement over other Disney films that would follow for years to come. I also like that both stories take place during a holiday, Mr. Toads adventure takes place during Christmas, while Icabods takes place during Halloween. It may be a little disappointing to have a package Disney movie without Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and company but as a whole, it still makes for one of the best theatrical cartoon collections that Disney has to offer, and a nice little underrated gem to add to any Disney collection. 

  I give “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” 4 stars out of 5. Stay tuned for Mr. Movies October Marathon that begins October 1st and will last all month long!

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