The Great Disney Blogathon: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
|October 29, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Now, you’ve probably seen the Ichabod half, based on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and you probably haven’t seen the Toad half, based on The Wind in the Willows, and you know what? That’s a pretty good way to live your life. Seriously, don’t let me stop you. Like Fun and Fancy Free, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is less than the sum of its parts: one delightful story, one pretty dismal one, and no particular reason to package them together.
First up is Mr. Toad, the weaker half, introduced by narrator Basil Rathbone as he makes a case for Toad being the most fabulous character in English literature.1 Short version of the story, at least as told in the movie: Toad is a wealthy, useless country gentleman prone to wreaking havoc about the countryside in various faddy vehicles. None of the lectures of his friends Rat, Mole, and MacBadger have any effect on him; he’d rather carouse with his horse friend Cyril Proudbottom. When he becomes obsessed with the newfangled motorcars (it’s 1906), he trades ancestral Toad Hall to a sleazy innkeeper named Mr. Winky and his weasel cronies in exchange for a car which turns out to be stolen. Winky claims Toad’s the thief and Toad is subsequently jailed, but escapes to win his home back from the weasels.
Now, I admit a certain bias, since I tried several times as a child to read The Wind in the Willows and just couldn’t get into it. It’s not a story for me. But man, Toad has got to be one of the most repugnant, unlikeable protagonists Disney has ever rolled out. There’s simply nothing redeeming about him. Though wonderfully voiced by Eric Blore,2 he’s unrepentantly selfish and irresponsible. He spends the entire 35-minute cartoon taking advantage of his friends – both the upper crusty Rat et al. and the devoted, lower-class Cyril – and endangering the lives of everyone around him, and learns absolutely nothing from it. What, exactly, is supposed to make him the most fabulous character in English literature?3
Hmm, what else…? The short’s too long for the story they’re telling (a glance at the novel summary on Wikipedia tells me Disney cut a lot of plot elements out), it’s deeply classist (Toad is virtuous despite his bad behavior because he’s rich, while Winky and the weasels are poor and thus evil, and loyal Cyril is talked down to by Rat and, after trading places with Toad in jail out of the goodness of his heart, forgotten entirely by the four “gentlemen”), and I’m always a little leery of ethnic stereotyping when weasels come into play. It’s not awful – there are some good gags with Cyril, and tweedy, respectable Rat and sweet, simple Mole are reasonably likeable – but it never comes close to greatness, which is normally Disney’s stock in trade. Also, there’s not a single female character in the whole thing, which makes me approximately ten thousand times less interested in a story. So.
By contrast, the Sleepy Hollow half knocks it out of the park. Back in the live action library, Bing Crosby takes over for Basil Rathbone and makes a pitch for the fabulosity of characters from “the colonies,”4 especially his favorite, Ichabod Crane. He takes us into the tale, half-spoken, half-sung with the help of the Rhythmaires, of Sleepy Hollow, where the gawky, beanpole-ish Ichabod has come to be the new schoolmaster. He quickly cozies up to the townspeople, particularly those who can keep him well fed, and eventually sets his sights on Katrina van Tassel, the beautiful daughter of the richest man in town. She gleefully sets him against her other primary suitor, local roughneck Brom Bones, who decides to score against his rival by telling the superstitious Ichabod the story of the Headless Horseman at a Halloween party. That night, Ichabod’s pursued by the dread spectre itself – whose horse strangely resembles Brom’s. After a frantic chase scene, Ichabod is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again, and Brom marries Katrina.
And okay, I’m going to have to be a hypocrite now, because I took Toad to task for being unlikeable, and I love the Sleepy Hollow segment despite the fact that all three main characters are basically terrible. Ichabod is a user, a glutton, unbearably smug, and clearly only after Katrina’s money; Katrina is deliberately playing her suitors off of each other; and Brom is a bully and something of a thug (though judging by the kiss Katrina lays on him at the wedding, this all played out exactly the way she wanted it too, so I have no concerns on that front). The difference is that the narrative doesn’t really ask us to like any of them, whereas Toad is supposed to be sympathetic; we’re in it for the sight gags and the music, and we get plenty of both. The animation on Ichabod and Brom5 is brilliant (though Katrina’s a bit underrealized) and they play off of each other hilariously.
And the music! Bing Crosby is always a pleasure to listen to,6 and the songs in this featurette are so catchy and jaunty, especially the legend itself. “Jaunty” is a good word for this short; while something about the pacing of “Mr. Toad” feels plodding and off, “Ichabod” clips merrily along, picking up steam as it hastens to the party and the fantastic climax. There’s no wasted space.
And, of course, it’s spooky – so spooky I wouldn’t watch it all the way through as a child. Though you know – or at least suspect – that the Horseman is just Brom in disguise, he’s absolutely chilling, and that final chase scene is some edge-of-your-seat stuff. A+ job, all-around.
While we’re talking about spooky Disney offerings, here’s a few of the shorts that always get bandied about on Halloween:
The Skeleton Dance (1929)
This was the first installment in the Silly Symphonies series, which is kind of a big deal – Donald Duck first appeared in a Silly Symphony, “The Wise Little Hen,” and Warner Brothers copied the idea for two sets of shorts, Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. This one is a tour de force by animator and innovator Ub Iwerks (the skeletons dancing in a circle! amazing!) and musical director Carl Stalling. By today’s standards the music being paired with the gags may not seem like much, but bear in mind that the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, had only just come out a year ago. When Disney learned (or debuted, in this case) a technique, they learned it fast and pushed the envelope faster.
Lonesome Ghosts (1937)
Mickey, Donald, and Goofy almost always work better together than in any twosome or separate outing, and here it shows – both in the way they interact with one another, and the way Mickey’s plucky heroism contrasts against Donald’s temper and Goofy’s methodical bumbling (the line “I’m brave…but I’m careful” makes me laugh every time). The surreal pranks of the ghosts are also delightful; I especially love the sequence with Mickey and the various doors and gaily surfing ghosts.
Trick or Treat (1952)
I LOVE THIS SHORT SO MUCH. You guys, I am not emotionally strong enough to handle little baby Huey in a devil costume. LOOK AT HIS LITTLE EVERYTHING. (The others are cute, too, but Huey is my all-time favorite. Also I know Dewey is supposed to be a warlock or man-witch or something, but I always think he’s a pilgrim. DEWEY YOU NERD.) Fun fact: Chuck Jones basically straight-up stole the pun name “Witch Hazel” for the Looney Tunes character, knowing Disney would have no recourse since it was the name of a plant, and even eventually convinced voice actress June Foray (who played Disney’s Witch Hazel) to voice the character for him despite her reservations about “stealing” from Disney. Chuck Jones, that is sketchy.
- He’s wrong. He even compares him to Sherlock Holmes. Buddy, you of all people should know Holmes > Toad! ↩
- For whom I have undying affection thanks to his appearance in no less than five Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. ↩
- I mean, for the intended meaning of “fabulous.” This cartoon is pretty rife with homoerotic subtext, though it’s stronger with confirmed bachelors Rat and Mole, who seem to take every meal together, than with Toad, Cyril’s devotion aside. ↩
- And he does seem to mean “fabulous” as “from a fable,” since he lists figures like Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. Side note: the movie was originally called Two Fabulous Characters. Yikes. ↩
- I didn’t realize what a strong, distinctive character Brom is until I saw some hand studies floating around Tumblr and immediately recognized them as his. Before that I would’ve just said he was a significantly less evil proto-Gaston, but no – he has his own physicality and his own charm. ↩
- Seriously, it’s weird that I don’t like this movie as a whole more, because “narrated by Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby” should be pretty much all it takes for me. ↩