Walt Disney was a household name in the 1930’s due in large part to the success of characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, as well as for being really the only producer of feature-length animated films. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a massive success for the company, and though its follow-ups are well-regarded today, they struggled to turn to a profit at the time. With the onset of World War II, the company found its resources spread quite thin making war propaganda films for the government with little time and money available to produce more feature-length animated tales. Thus, the company resorted to shorter “package” films where two stories not really worthy of feature-length treatment were packaged together as one feature and released to the public. Some of these, such as Fun and Fancy Free, would mix live-action and animation in presenting its multiple tales. And others, like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad, would simply combine two animated shorts into one feature-length experience.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad was released in 1949. The two were seemingly paired as a result of both stories being British in origen, though both were considered for feature-lenght treatment at one point or another. The Mister Toad portion, based on the story The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, was a natural fit for Disney as it already starred several anthropomorphic characters and had an easy to adapt plot line. The Ichabod portion, based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, was a tougher piece to adapt to a feature length, and while its source material may seem too scary by today’s standards, would slide in rather seamlessly given the presentation of recent films Pinocchio and Fantasia. And given the eventual release date of October 5th, it possessed the Halloween spirit movie-goers likely would be looking for.
For various reasons, neither tale was able to secure a feature-length production and release. The Wind in the Willows was especially affected by the war and budget, with the finished product omitting numerous planned sequences adapted from the novel. This release would end up being the last of package films, as the follow-up Cinderella would get the Disney company back on track. Over the years, Ichabod would become a regular on television around Halloween time, while Mr. Toad would be immortalized as an attraction at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World (though in the case of the latter, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride has since been demolished). Children today may not be familiar with Disney’s version of Ichabod as the sequence is rarely shown on television. And if they’re at all familiar with the characters from Mr. Toad, it’s likely thru their many cameos in Mickey’s Christmas Carol or the previously mentioned theme park ride. However, those of an older generation seem to remember this feature quite fondly just judging by the ratings it has accumulated around the internet. In perusing them, it seems most viewers have a stronger connection to the Ichabod sequence than the Mr. Toad one, likely due to the television airings during the 1980’s, but do have a fondness for Mr. Toad and his compadres.
I recently purchased the feature on Blu Ray. Given that Halloween is just around the corner, it made sense for Disney to get a truckload of copies onto retail shelves. It was modestly priced, which makes sense given that it’s only 68 minutes long and the release is light on special features. I had seen both sequences from the feature as a child, but really didn’t recall much. I am not sure if I saw them together or spread apart. My memory was slightly stronger when it came to the Ichabod portion, probably due to the scary visuals and the unique look of the Ichabod character. Given that I only vaguely recalled viewing these two shorts as a kid, watching them on Blu Ray felt more like watching them for the first time. My reaction was muted at best.
The Adventures of Mister Toad is up first. A brief live-action sequence introduces the tale as a camera pans around a library and settles on the book the story is adapted from. Basil Rathbone is our narrator and the narrators chosen for both shorts is where Disney paid for any sort of name recognition. They are both used quite differently though with Rathbone just introducing the tale and interjecting some thoughts and explanations throughout the story. Toad and the rest of the cast are fully voiced and are appropriately presented with British accents. This is actually somewhat noteworthy as most of the early Disney films were set in Europe but the characters possessed American accents. The story obviously centers on the Toad character who’s a carefree toad of wealth (and debt) consumed by a passion for anything trendy, which at the moment is motor cars. His plainly named associates either approve of his actions or disapprove while all try to keep him out of trouble. He ends up being taken advantage of and framed which lands him jail for Christmas, and the most exciting part of the short centers around his escape and attempt to clear his name. Despite the brief running time, I found the sequence to be rather slow-moving, and at times, downright boring. The film takes time to set-up the story, but the characters are drawn in the broadest of strokes and little time is really needed to establish who they are. It’s easy to tell right form the start that Toad is a compulsive and sheltered individual. His exuberance makes him the most interesting of the small cast, and he’s certainly likable as a lead.
The voice acting is mostly adequate but I couldn’t help but feel that some of the voices chosen did not suit the character. Few of the voices seem like they should be coming from the characters, with the most jarring being the horse, Cyril, who had me wishing he was a silent character. The animation could also be described as adequate which I suppose is expected given the studio’s financial situation at the time. It’s basically on par with the theatrical shorts the company was known for as opposed to the feature-length pictures. All in all, I found it hard to care about the characters as presented, and when the sequence was over I was ready for it to end.
The Sleepy Hollow portion follows and was the sequence I was most interested in. While I was curious to see how The Wind in the Willows was adapted, I never had a strong affinity for Mr. Toad. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is also a story I’m more familiar with, as I assume most people are. Ichabod’s last ride and the specter of the Headless Horseman have been recounted numerous times in popular media either as a direct adaptation or as a spiritual retelling. It’s a timeless tale and little effort is needed to convey the doom possessed by the Horseman. It’s really quite hard to make a headless knight riding a black stallion not look scary.
This segment is narrated, and sung, by Bing Crosby as a true narrator. If you’re looking for an example, think Boris Karloff from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Crosby narrates the entire portion and sings at times. Ichabod and the characters do not actually speak, instead Crosby narrates the whole damn thing. It’s not the approach I would have taken if I were placed in the director’s chair, but there’s no reason why this shouldn’t work either.
As was the case with the Mister Toad sequence, the Ichabod portion suffers from pacing issues as well. This is partly to be expected as anyone familiar with the story knows the Headless Horseman shows up at the end. Leading up to it we’re essentially shown how Ichabod is basically a conman who’s motivated by wealth and food. He’s the local school teacher, and despite being a rather ugly looking fellow, is able to woo the local women with his singing voice and charm. When a wealthy individual comes to town with a fetching daughter by the name of Katrina, Ichabod sets his sights on a new prize. This puts him in competition with a local man by the name of Brom Bones, who is basically a lunkhead (he must have been inspiration for the much later Disney character, Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast) who is outsmarted by Ichabod when trying to court Katrina. It’s at a Halloween party hosted by Katrina’s father that Brom gets the idea to tell the tale of the Headless Horseman in an effort to scare Ichabod, who is revealed to be a superstitious man at the very same party. Given how slow-moving the story is, I found it lazy that Ichabod’s superstitious ways were not revealed throughout the picture in a more subtle fashion. Anyways, it’s when Ichabod leaves the party the he encounters the ghostly horseman.
The sequence where Ichabod is chased by the Headless Horseman is easily the highlight for both pictures. The setting is chilling and the Horseman looks particularly menacing. Ichabod, seated atop a very unimpressive horse, is forced to run for his life and the music and animation does a decent enough job of allowing the audience to share in his terror. There are some disappointments to be had, however. As mentioned during the Mr. Toad portion, the animation is merely serviceable and not feature-length quality. As a result, there is really no use of shadows or shading on Ichabod who pops too much against the background. Perhaps feeling the ride was too scary, some comedy was also added to the chase which really disrupts the mood. It’s basically screwball comedy not unlike what would appear in a Bugs Bunny cartoon and feels woefully out of place. At the end of the picture, there are some scenes that also detract from what should have been a more ambiguous ending, which also felt like a cop-out.
Overall, I was unimpressed by The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad. As someone who loves and appreciates animation from all eras, I can easily forgive the films technological short-comings there as I wasn’t expecting it to be up to Disney’s usual standards from that era. I can’t really excuse either film for the pacing issues, and if given the chance, I probably wouldn’t have purchased this had I seen it first. The DVD release for the film a few years ago at least included a Mickey Mouse short that for some reason isn’t included here. And while I have all of the Mickey Mouse cartoons on DVD already, it would be nice for others if it had been included on the Blu Ray too. If you happen to be in the mood for a re-telling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I’d suggest looking elsewhere (or scanning the various Disney channels to see if they show their version for free) this Halloween. As for The Adventures of Mister Toad, the weasel characters for the film inspired the same for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, an immensely more enjoyable film. And if you really want to see the characters from the original, just wait for Mickey’s Christmas Carol which undoubtedly will start showing up on television before Thanksgiving arrives.