A Study in Disney: ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad’ (1949)

| December 3, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

How Well Do You Know... The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad? | Disney  Insider

At best, one can see Walt Disney’s wartime Package Films as experiments in style, free association from an artist’s pen without the burden of having to stick to a long-form narrative.  At worst they can often feel like a jumble of ideas, like a file cabinet of unrealized ideas because they 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 a lot to be desired.  Yet, you can see a learning curve being set in place.

It is hard to really tell which of the package films is the best because they vary with each feature and the fractured program-style wavers in quality, but the best storytelling could be found in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  let’s look at them individually:

* The Wind in the Willows, directed by James Algar and Jack Kinney, could easily 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 reckless and incurable adventurer.  He loves anything that’s trendy and new – “mania” the British 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 him close to bankruptcy.  His reckless 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 recklessly across the country in a horse-drawn cart with his 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.  Toad decides that he simply must have this glorious new invention and so he makes a deal with a slippery barkeep named Winkie by trading Toad Hall for the car (which, unbeknownst to Toad, 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 will not be revealed but you can probably figure it out.  It is kind of fun.  When it is over you are 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?  These questions don’t mar the story, but they do leave you wanting a little more information.

What is interesting to note about The Wind in the Willows segment is that the subject matter is surprisingly current.  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.  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 game systems, the latest cell phone upgrade, and whatever is new at Starbucks.  Then read about how something like ‘Pokemon Go’ caused trouble.  What is the message there?  Can one be found?  Possibly only in subtext.  Animals feed off the world around them and move from thing to thing, and human’s by and large do the same thing.

* The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, directed by Clyde Geronimi, is probably not the way most of us remember it.  Everyone remembers the scenes of Ichabod on the way home suddenly finding himself pursued by The Headless Horseman, but what surprising is that this development actually drops into the story out of nowhere.  It is 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 fellow, rather tall, skinny, superstitious to a fault and – in a strange development – a raging glutton.  Despite his rail-thin stature, Ichabod has a voracious appetite.  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, Ichabod’s casual activities are singularly centered on his ceaseless appetite for food.

Most of us come to Disney’s version of this story first and what sticks in your mind is the idea of Ichabod as a helpless victim, but it is easy to forget that in this film he is largely portrayed as a jerk.  Yes, he’s charming but he takes advantage of the townsfolk and his interior monologue confesses that his intention to marry Katarina is a plot 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 tear him limb from limb.  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, it twists his demise into a parable.  He’s a greedy and gluttonous sinner, a bit of a charmer who knows how to easily win the hearts of the townsfolk and he takes full advantage of their kindness.  In that way he isn’t a hero and he eventually loses everything from the neck up.  That’s an interesting turn for the character, but again, the headless horseman drops into the 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 his encounter with the Headless Horseman might have seemed a little more integrated.  You are 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 that part exaggerated?


Both of these adaptations are flawed but that doesn’t make them uninteresting.  Actually, they’re quite beguiling in a way that none of the other shorts in the Package Films were.  Whereas 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. Perhaps this is supposed to suggest a point of view shot as we’re being led through the library by a pair of kindly librarians, but 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 a very odd world in which animals and humans co-exist as sentient beings.  Both wear clothes and have the same social customs. There are some of the technical touches such has Toad’s agony at being lectured by Ratty – he puts his hands over his ears and the sound is muffled.  Plus, there’s also a wonderful 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.

The courtroom scene is a delight as 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 barely lets them speak – then he literally turns on his heels.  Another amusing moment is when Winkie the barkeep is questioned on the witness stand and continuously 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.”  “Boo” was a nice touch in that he is going to tell a ghost story.

Some of the best animation in this film comes in Ichabod’s body language.  He walks ramrod straight but he’s able to sneak around and steal food like a snake.  He’s a slippery fellow who pilfers food almost as casually as he walks down the street.  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 of 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 horse’s hooves throwing sparks and the horseman with his sword in one hand and a flaming pumpkin in the other – and that LAUGH.  It is 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 the head should be.  Then later we see his point of view shot as his horse gallops toward the safety of the covered bridge.

So, what to make of this film?  Well, the animation works and both segments are quite engaging but both segments are also full of holes and logical questions that leave the more inquisitive viewer puzzled.  The Wind in the Willows is a wonderful story but the characters seem frustratingly underwritten.  Meanwhile Ichabod seems to be a parable about greed but there’s a crucial element of foreboding that seems missing.  So, is it a great film?  In some respects, yes.  In other respects, it needed some fleshing out.  There’s a great film here but you can’t lose your head asking too many questions.

About the Author:

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