- Release date: 5 October, 1949
- Run time: 68 mins
- Director: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, James Algar
- Cast: Eric Blore, Pat O’Malley, Colin Campbell, John McLeish
- Inspired by: The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame); The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving)
“Don’t try to figure out a plan. You can’t reason with a headless man.”
And so we find ourselves skipping ahead a few years, jumping a handful of films in the process. As I said from the start, this is not the definitive list of Disney movies – rather it is the movies which I want to look at. Don’t worry, you’ve not missed anything too life-changing; during the 1940s, the studio focused on making a series of ‘package’ films, after the advent of the Second World War made feature animations unfeasible. Starting with Saludos Amigos, Disney produced films that consisted of shorter features, stitched together to make one longer movie (The Three Caballeros (1945), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948)) along with two movies that combined live action and animated sections (the controversial Song of the South (1946) and Dear to My Heart (1948)). With the European market once again opening up towards the end of the 1940s, Walt could once again focus on producing full-length animated films. But he still had one package in the works, featuring two literary icons – Mr Toad and Ichabod Crane…
Original idea? Not at all. Mr Toad comes from the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, and Ichabod is the main character in…er…Gothic horror short The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But while the stories themselves come for other sources, the idea of putting the two together on a double-bill were definitely all Disney’s. Originally set to be called Two Fabulous Characters, the connection (in Walt’s head, at least) was that the two leads are ‘prone to disaster’. It’s an interesting idea and one that would make much more sense if this was the clear key to their personalities. However, I am sure few people would identify these traits as the main ones for either Toad or Ichabod: Toad is more likely to be described as a self-absorbed child; Ichabod is more of a introverted loner. If anything links the two characters, it would probably be that they both live in their own fantasy worlds within their own heads, but even this is tenuous. On the surface, there is nothing really to connect the two stories and, at a deeper level, there is still nothing to connect them either. It’s almost like the studio had two short films which it decided to put together in order to make a feature length movie, then tried to come up with an explanation as to why they worked together. But that would surely never be the case…
Family situation? Neither have any family – at least, none which are ever talked about. Both are living on their own, without support from any kin. However, while Ichabod is completely isolated, Toad has Mole, Ratty and Badger to look out for him. In this sense, it is his friends who act as his family; a set-up that was perhaps still an oddity at the time the film was released, even if it is now a much more common way of viewing your closest buddies (television hit Friends has been credited with this change in society’s views of companions over family, with the six lead characters acting more like family figures than the traditional family – and, yes, I’m aware that two of them are actually related). It is a brave move for Disney to show something other than the traditional nuclear family in its adaption of Wind in the Willows, but one which shows just how dependent we can be on our best pals.
Y’know – for kids? Of course Mr Toad’s tale is for kids – he’s a larger-than-life character who gets into scrapes and is never really in any danger (the weasels may be armed but the threat they actually pose is minimal – there is never any suggestion that they are going to really shoot anyone). True, Toad does undertake a daring jail break, but it is so ridiculous seeing him dressed as a washerwoman, that this hardly warrants an advocation of evading justice.
On the other hand, the same cannot be said of the adaption of Sleepy Hollow. It starts off innocently enough, but those last 10 minutes or so are some of the darkest that Disney has ever created. As Ichabod begins his ride home through the woods, he is chased by the Headless Horseman! At what point is a headless psychopathic ghost, the spirit of a man who had been decapitated by a cannonball, worthy of a children’s cartoon? It is amazing how dark the film gets – and this is after some decidedly inappropriate action from Ichabod as he tries to woo the beautiful Katrina van Tassel (ok, it’s not THAT raunchy, but it is pretty clear what his intentions are). My advice – if you’re watching with young ones, probably best if you just stick with the first half and stop the movie when you get to the end of Mr Toad’s story. In fact, not even with the younglings – if you’re spending the night on your own, I’d avoid watching this just before your own bedtime.
Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? This is certainly a film of two very different halves. The first half is obviously the lighter, with comedy sidekicks (and even main characters) aplenty. There is a delightful slapstick about Toad and his friends – and even the weasels have a comic touch to them. The final scene in Toad Hall, as the four friends battle to save it, has some wonderful moments as characters fly across the screen. Mr Winky, the main villain of the piece, is hardly a man to fear; looking not dissimilar to the wonderful James Finlayson – most famous as Laurel and Hardy’s long-time foil – he is as much a comedic character as he is a bad guy, and never really feels a threat.
The comedy sidekicks in the second half are noticeable by their non-existence. There are some funny moments between Ichabod and his rival, Brom Bones (who would later act as inspiration for the classic Disney villain Gaston in Beauty and the Beast), as the two battle for Katrina’s affections at her house. But the comedy is played down and, given Ichabod’s nature to act as a loner, he has no sidekicks, aside from his horse. Katrina is the closest there is to a princess, but her role is so small (she is really no more than a McGuffin) that it is hard to see her even as a rounded character.
However, as we’ve already seen, it is hard to ignore the villain of the piece. The Headless Horseman, a figure to instill terror in grown men, is so menacing as a figure that Disney still receives complaints from parents of scared children to this day. Alongside the Devil in Fantasia, this was Walt doing his utmost to leave youngsters permanently scarred. All that said, one question that has been raised by critics is around whether Ichabod is the real villain of the piece. After all, he is the one tries to worm his way into people’s homes for free meals and essentially attempts to break up a blossoming romance between Brom and Katrina. And its not even as if he fancies her; our narrator makes it clear that Ichabod is only after her for her money. There are certainly aspects of his personality which make him hard to like as a lead character. Perhaps he gets what he deserves when he finds himself on the run from the Horseman.
Sing-along a showtune? Neither film is a musical in the traditional form, but you can’t have Bing Crosby narrating a tale (as he does with the Sleepy Hollow adaption) and not have him perform a number. And the song Ichabod is a jaunty and fun track, ideally suited to Crosby’s voice. It’s one of those numbers that gets into your head and remains there for the rest of the week. But if there were more songs, then it would be hard pushed to imagine any being as good as this one.
I have questions: So the obvious question is who thought that Sleepy Hollow would be a good story for a children’s cartoon? This is one scary tale – heck, its such an iconic Gothic story that Tim Burton turned it into a movie (and his is definitely not suitable for the kiddies!). It’s no wonder that the Horseman is still scaring children – this is a character designed purely to get them hiding behind the sofa. Also, in what universe does anybody think that these two stories work well together. In isolation, they are both fine pieces of fiction, but there is no way that any right-minded individual would take one of these tales and think ‘you know what would pair really well with this’ and come up with the other. They are just too wildly different.
Feel-good factor: Based on Mr Toad’s tale, this is easily a 9. It’s fun and comedic and, even with all the mishaps, still manages to raise a smile. Like the book, it is a nostalgic and whimsical tale featuring some wonderful, larger-than-life characters. How can you do anything but love Mr Toad? However, while I do enjoy The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as a story, there is no way that it can ever be called a ‘feel-good film’ – even with the wholesome Bing narrating. It is a dark, brooding and terrifying story; it even ends on a downer, with a question mark over the fate of Ichabod Crane (sure, let’s all pretend that he’s now living a wonderful life with wife and kids elsewhere in America – even though we know that he was brutally butchered by the Headless Horseman!). Which means that it has to have a feel-good rating of 4. Unless you get your kicks from horror, in which case you can keep it as a 9.
You can watch the trailer below:
Next movie: Time for one of the most beloved of fairytales, as we look at the rags to riches story of Cinderella (1950)