The Persistence of Disney, Part 11: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

| September 18, 2016

From 1942 until 1949, Walt Disney’s animated output came in bits and pieces.  That is, his features came in collections called “package films,” which were segmented anthologies of animated musical numbers.  The events that led to this nearly decade long series of bits and pieces has much to do with the winds of change in America at the time.

After the success of Snow White, Disney was overloaded with story ideas that he had intended to put into production as animated features.  Yet, the war would change his plans.  After The United States entered World War II in 1941, Disney was commissioned by the government to make propaganda films with the goal of boosting home front moral and extending good will among Latin American countries that The Roosevelt Administration feared would succumb to Nazi influence.  This meant that any film project that didn’t fit this that purpose was put on the back burner.

When the war ended in 1945 Walt went back to projects of his own choosing and he had no shortage of half-begun ideas.  Most of those ideas involved fairytales and folklore but many, he found, weren’t really long enough to suit a feature, so many where shortened and hammered together as “package films,” which knitted several segments that reached feature length.  The point of the packaged film had to do with necessity but also financial problems.  The war cut off European distribution and that was coupled with a labor strike at the Disney studios.  With that, money was short.  During the war, Walt kept money coming in through government subsidies, but after the war the studio was in dire financial problems and didn’t have the capital to produce features the way he had previously.  The package films were cheaper to make and they kept money coming in, though the overall output and quality of the work varied.

It is a bit of a mind-boggler to watch the package films in order because they can often feel like Walt and his animators were cleaning house, putting out ideas and subject matter that didn’t fit a feature on their own.  Sometimes the output worked and sometimes it left something to be desired.  Yet, you can see a learning curve being set in place.  The first film Saludos Amigos felt a bit crude and hastily put together, but by the time of the last package film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad you could see that the production staff had learned a lot about these projects.

It is hard to really tell which of the package films is my favorite because they vary with each feature, but if I had to choose which had the best storytelling, it would have to be The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  I’ll admit shamefully that I never read either Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” or Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” so my introduction to both came from Walt Disney.

As has been my tradition with the package films, let’s look at both individually:

* The Wind in the Willows easily could have made a feature on its own.  A bit longer and with a few more character details and it could have been fleshed out and turned into a great movie.  It is set in London in the very early years of the 20th century where we meet J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq., proprietor of the grand estate of Toad Hall.  He is described as a wreckless incurable adventurer.  He loves anything that’s trendy and new – “mania” the Brits call it – anything that is hot at the moment he can’t get enough.  This is something of an addiction; we are reminded that he “never counted the cost” and more than once it has run in close to bankruptcy.  His wreckless spending is giving sleepless nights to his bookkeeper Angus McBadger who is at wits end and decides to put a stop to it.

Toad’s latest exploit of driving wrecklessly across the country in a horse-drawn cart with this horse buddy Cyril Proudbottom are potentially heading toward a tremendous lawsuit.  McBadger takes his case to Ratty (a rat) and Moley (a mole), close friends of Toad to urge them to curb his mania.  Their efforts come to nothing when Toad becomes enraptured by the newest trend: a motorcar.  He must have it so he makes a silly deal with a slippery barkeep named Winkie by trading Toad Hall for the car (which Toad doesn’t know was stolen by a gang of weasels).  Afterwards Toad is arrested for car theft and finds himself in court.  Winkie testifies that Toad tried to sell him a stolen car wherein Toad is sentenced to 20 years in The Tower of London.  Ratty and Moley and Cyril must band together to prove that Toad is innocent.

The punchline I will not reveal but you can probably figure it out.  It’s kind of fun.  What is interesting to note about The Wind in the Willows segment is how current the subject is.  Here we have a character who is addicted to anything new, anything that’s trendy.  Sound familiar?  In our age of “trending” this seems surprisingly modern.  At that, it can stand as a cautionary tale.  Toad’s appetites are not curbed by the fact that he gets himself into trouble.  Match that with our obsession over computer technology, fashion, movies, video games.  Then read about how something like ‘Pokemon Go’ it has caused trouble.

The world here is a little odd.  The characters exist in the human world and are drawn to scale so that when Ratty gets a letter from the human postman, he’s literally standing at the man’s toes.  That’s a strange effect, as is the sight of tiny Toad driving a human-sized coach.

The adaptation is a little odd too.  The structure of Grahame’s book was laid out so that each chapter dealt with the plight of a different character.  You got into their lives and understood a little about who they were and what their lives were like and eventually all of the characters and their stories would converge.  Here it is a little more straight forward so the characters get a little less focus.

When it was over I was left with questions about what actually happened to get Toad out of trouble.  Was there any penalty for Mr. Toad breaking out of jail?  Weren’t Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole accomplices?  Plus, what happened to Winkie and the weasels?  Did they get carted off the jail?  What was their fate?  I realize that such questions don’t mar the story, but they did leave me wanting a little more information.

Maybe there is a way that this could have been a feature.  Perhaps if the individual stories had been segments, naming them “The Story of Toad” and then “The Story of Ratty” and then converge all the characters at the end.  Then maybe there might have been a bigger investment in the characters.  As is, it feels a little slighted.  Not that it isn’t entertaining but having read the book I get the feeling that it isn’t all that it could have been.

* The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is not quite the way I remember it.  Everyone remembers the scenes of Ichabod on the way home suddenly finding himself relentlessly pursued by The Headless Horseman, but what surprised me is that this development seems to drop into the story kind of out of nowhere.  It’s mentioned in the previous scene as Brom Bones sings about it at a Halloween party but until that moment it doesn’t exist in the story.

The story involves Ichabod Crane, a beanpole of a man who, in 1790, comes to the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow, New York to be the new schoolmaster.  He’s an odd duck, he’s rather tall, skinny as a beanpole, superstitious to a fault and – in a development that I had forgotten – a bit of a glutton.  Despite his rail-thin stature, Ichabod is always eating.  Not only eating, but perpetually stealing food.  That’s much of his activity, whether its meeting with folks or charming the lovely Katarina van Tassell is centered on his ceaseless appetite for food.

I hadn’t seen this segment since I was a kid and my mind had settled in on Ichabod as a helpless victim, but I had never really noticed that he’s kind of a jerk.  Yes, he’s charming but he takes advantage of the townsfolk and his interior monologue confesses that his intentions with Katarina are to marry her so that she can inherit her father’s money.  “How I’d love to hit the jackpot.  Sweet Katrina, Papa’s only child.  Papa?  Well, the old goat can’t take it with him, and when he cuts out, that’s where I cut in.”

Of course, Ichabod’s affections for Katarina put him at odds with the town bully, Brom Bones who would like nothing more than to skin him alive.  He’s the one who sings the song about The Headless Horseman at the Halloween party that eventually leads to Ichabod’s untimely demise.

By not allowing Ichabod to be a traditional hero, I think that makes his demise much more palatable.  He’s a greedy and gluttonous sinner, a bit of a charmer who knows how to wind his way into the hearts of the townsfolk and he takes full advantage of their kindness.  In that way he isn’t a hero and he loses everything from the neck up.  I like that about this story but I’m bothered by the fact that the legend of The Headless Horseman drops into this story out of nowhere.  There’s a very, very minor hint of this in Ichabod’s superstitions but above all the story had little to do with that finale.

Maybe if the story had giving suggestions throughout that Ichabod had woefully ignored then maybe it might have seemed a little more integrated.  I was left with questions Is Ichabod cursed?  Plus, Brom Bones sings that the only way to break the curse of the headless horseman is to get across the covered bridge, but Ichabod crosses the bridge and is still defeated by the horseman.  Was the bridge part of the legend exaggerated?

I sound like I’m complaining on both accounts, both stories are flawed but that doesn’t make them uninteresting.  Actually they’re quite beguiling in a way that none of the other package films of the decade were.  Whereas the previous package film duology Fun and fancy Free employed two shorts that had absolutely nothing to do with one another there is some connective tissue to the stories of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  Both are cautionary tales about extremely flawed characters who get themselves into trouble and both stories have an effectively dark tone.  The introductory and midway interstitials have a certain darkness to them, taking place inside an old empty library in the middle of the night.  We hear the narrators but we don’t see them and the books are presented to us as they just sort of float off the shelf.  I think this is suppose to suggest a point of view shot as we’re being led through the library by a pair of kindly librarians, but I think the disembodied effect works best as suggesting that the library is haunted.

The animation is both segments is fast-moving and fun with creative touches that Disney animators made their specialty.  The Wind in the Willows segment in particular is kind of brilliant in this regard.  It leaps from Grahame’s story into, as I mentioned before, a very odd world in which animals and humans co-exist as sentient beings.  Both wear clothes and have the same social customs.  I love some of the touches such has Toad’s agony at being lectured by Ratty – he puts his hands over his ears and the sound is muffled.  Plus, I especially love the moment when Toad becomes determined to acquire the motorcar and Basil Rathbone tells us, “You see, Toad was far too clever and at the moment, completely mad. He was determined to get a motor car. If he had to beg, borrow or…”  Cut to a frame of a newspaper announcing that Toad was arrested for possession of a stolen motor car.

I love the courtroom scene where Toad speaks on his own behalf, dressed in the trappings of a barrister and at one point cleaning his monocle.  The Defense attorney is fun too, a large imposing figure who bears down on the witnesses like a predator and bearly lets them speak – then he literally turns on his heels.  I also love the moment when Winkie the barkeep is questioned on the witness stand and wipes the stand with a rag.

Sleepy Hollow too has its nice little touches, especially playing up the fact that Bing Crosby is the narrator.  When his title card comes up in the opening credits, the title song allows him to interrupt with “Bom-Boo-Boo-Boo-Boo-Boooo-Boo-Boooo” I always thought the “Boo” was a nice touch in that he is going to tell a ghost story.

I like Ichabod’s casual nature.  He’s a slippery fellow who pilfers food almost as casually as he walks down the street.  The animations on his body language are kind of brilliant in their own way, especially when the otherwise dedicated schoolmaster.  His daydream of acquiring Mr. van Tassel’s fortune is wickedly funny.  The inner monologue tells us, “Well, the old goat can’t take it with him, and when he cuts out, that’s where I cut in.”  Shot of the old man sitting in a chair draped in fineries; the old man disappears and Ichabod appears in his place.

And course, there’s the appearance of The Headless Horseman, built up by some of the best animation that Disney has ever conceived with the willows drumming on the hollow logs and the clouds closing in on the moon like giant hands.  THEN . . . there he is!  The Headless Horseman, his horses hooves throwing sparks and the horseman with his sword in one hand and a flaming pumpkin in the other – and that LAUGH.  It’s an incredible moment.  The animation as the Horseman pursues the shivering Ichabod is brilliantly paced as he finds himself at one point in the Horseman’s lap looking directly into the empty space where his head once was.  Then later we see his point of view shot as his horse gallops toward the safety of the covered bridge.

So, I’m back and forth on these two stories.  I started out by complaining and then turned around and started complimenting.  That’s because I was let down by the gaps in storytelling but I was overwhelmed by the animation.  It’s a movie that I enjoy looking at but one that I feel could have been better written.  That said it’s probably the one package film that I would recommend first, along with Make Mine Music.  They have flaws but they’re both great in their own way.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.