The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is one of Disney’s most underrated films. It features some of the studios finest work and gets better after repeated viewings.
Here is a little background about the feature for those not in the know. The Disney studio was used by the United States to help with propaganda, good will and training cartoons during World War II. This shifted the studios time and energy away from animated features. The war also cost the studio important overseas audiences, which caused a severe loss of revenue. In order to build up income the studio turned to package features, a feature length film comprised of animated shorts. This was an inexpensive and efficient move. However the quality of the shorts features ranged from the studios best work to fairly forgettable and uncinematic fare. The lack of thematic unity and focus on current music has caused many of these package features to age poorly, especially when they are classified as features similar to narratives such as Cinderella by the studio. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was the final package feature to be released and the two shorts featured are top notch.
The first half of the feature is about Mr. Toad, based on Kenneth Graham’s book The Wind in the Willows and is narrated by Basil Rathbone. It is a humorous tale of a toad that is easily swept away by the mania of motorcars.
The Wind in Willows is a triumph of personality animation. Modern animators and writers would do well to watch this short as it holds many strengths lacking in modern filmmaking. There are certainly quality gags in it, such the sound turning down as Mr. Toad and his horse Ceril discover they can cover their ears. However most of the humor comes from the subtle expressions of the characters. Every character is well animated here as their personalities strongly come through such as Mole’s innocence, Ceril’s good nature, and the prosecutor’s power.
The best character in the feature is Mr. Toad himself who, while easily caught up in various manias and madcap adventures, maintains a dignified composure. Toad never goes crazy as cartoon characters often do instead he descends into madness. He is a fully realized character as he believably conveys a large stable of emotions including joy, remorse, deviousness, dedication and cleverness.
The song Merrily On Our Way to Nowhere In Particular is also worthy of note, it is probably the most sadly underused of Disney’s many catchy tunes.
The second short in the feature is based on Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow and is narrated by Bing Crosby. This isn’t as completely solid as Mr. Toad. It meanders quite a bit through its expansive exposition that is largely unmemorable. While I love Bing Crosby, a majority of the songs he sings and his individual vernacular age the cartoon. But what a payoff this short has! The highlight of the entire feature is of course the chase through Sleepy Hollow.
The memorable scene, which is one of the finest in animation and scariest in Disney history, does not even involve the Headless Horseman for most of it. The atmosphere is terrific, with a haunting gothic background. There is no dialogue and minimal narration. This allows a focus on the excellent use of sound, which puts the audience on edge as Ichabod Crane’s imagination loses it. The animation of Ichabod is terrific too as he shifts back and forth between terrified and falsely secure.
It is interesting to note that during the chase Ichabod operates under cartoon logic. When you think of something terrifying you think realism, but in this cartoon it is the otherworldly Headless Horseman who moves in a realistic fashion while the normal character breaks the laws of physics. This is a strong juxtaposition that adds humor to the terror.
There are a number of gags in the chase, many of which are very funny. It could be argued that this is to lighten the mood for younger audiences, but I really think it makes it more eerie. When you think about it there is something a lot more messed up about comedy than seriousness. Having so much physical comedy in a scary scene creates an uneasy atmosphere for the audience.
I often tell people that my favorite scary movie is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. To me there is nothing scary about a horror movie with a lot of jump scares. They get old really fast. But The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a family comedy with one extremely effective scene. And the scene is so effective because of its intense build up, focus on characterization, and unresolved answers about the fate of Ichabod and identity of the Headless Horseman.
These two shorts have little in common, but they work well together. They are both a lot of fun and are extremely well made. I highly recommend that you check out The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.