Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

Following the release of Bambi in 1942, Disney released a series of package films, comprised of multiple shorts told through a framing device, throughout the 1940s, beginning with Saludos Amigos in 1942 and ending with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad in 1949. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad adapts two stories, those being the 1908 novel The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and the 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. Though I had not seen the movie for the longest time since I was a kid, I found it to have aged really well; as this is a collection of two stories, I will be talking about how the movie works as a whole in addition to covering each story individually.

The framing device consists of an unseen narrator reading from a book in a library, covering The Wind in the Willows first in spite of the title. Both halves of the movie are amazingly well-animated, as to be expected from a movie featuring Disney’s Nine Old Men. The quality of the animation is, aside from its narrative, one factor that allows the feature to stand the test of time, with the opposing tones of each tale demonstrating the capabilities of Disney’s animators.

The Wind in the Willows is, despite what the title may tell you, the first story presented in this movie, about a group of friends; a toad named J. Thaddeus Toad (Mr. Toad) (Eric Blore), a badger named Angus MacBadger (Campbell Grant), a water rat named Ratty (Claude Allister) and a mole named Moley (Colin Campbell). Mr. Toad is a toad known for his manias, which puts a strain on Toad Hall and MacBadger, who tracks all of Mr. Toad’s damages. Ratty and Moley soon try to stop Mr. Toad from pursuing his latest mania, a canary yellow gipsy caravan pulled by a horse named Cyril Proudbottom (J. Pat O’Malley), only for Toad to become obsessed with a motorcar. Despite Toad being locked in his room, he is later accused of stealing a motorcar. In court, Cyril testifies that Toad merely traded the deed to Toad Hall to a group of weasels at a pub to get the motorcar, however the witness and bartender Mr. Winky (Ollie Wallace, uncredited) says that Mr. Toad actually tried to sell him a stolen motorcar, landing Toad in prison. After managing to escape, Mr. Toad and co. make plans to take back Toad Hall once it turns out Cyril was telling the truth.

Prior to my most recent viewing of this movie, I had actually read a more recent (unabridged) printing of The Wind in the Willows from IDW Publishing, with illustrations by David Petersen of Mouse Guard fame (I would highly recommend this version of the book if you’re looking for a more modern printing), to see how much it differs from the book. The movie presents a Disney-fied take on an abridged version of the book, adapting the Mr. Toad-centric chapters and tying them together with its own narrative; the adaptation is done well enough that it works on its own, helped by the aforementioned stellar animation along with narration by Basil Rathbone. I wasn’t too bothered by the creative liberties taken, especially since apparently most adaptations leave out two admittedly superfluous chapters of the 12-chapter book and Mr. Toad is arguably the more popular character, though I will note some of the more major changes here.

The version of the book I read for narrative comparison.

In the book, J. Thaddeus Toad and Angus MacBadger were simply named Mr. Toad and Badger, though Water Rat and Mole were nicknamed Ratty and/or Moley at points. Additionally, the weasels (joined by some stoats in the book) were given a more expanded role in the movie, as was Cyril, who actually barely had a presence in the original story to the point where he didn’t have any lines and wasn’t even named; then there’s the addition of the character of Mr. Winky, who wasn’t even in the book at all. A more major, perhaps the most important, change is that, in the book, Mr. Toad was outright guilty of stealing the motorcar in the first place, though a different version of his prison escape still occurred. Fans of either version may recognize a much more radical change in the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride dark ride at Disney theme parks, which ends with Mr. Toad going to hell for some reason.

In my research into The Wind in the Willows, I have found that some people apparently believe the book to be about homosexuality, which seems to stem from the interactions between Water Rat and Mole, which could admittedly get oddly personal at times in how they express their emotions (for example, there's a scene in one chapter where Mole openly cries when he senses his old home nearby and he and Water Rat nearly pass by it). In the end though, these chapters are more about world building and setting up each of the characters, including Badger and Mr. Toad (that said, two of those chapters are superfluous and are just filler to break up Mr. Toad's prison escape). At its core, however. the book is more about Mr. Toad's fascination with a motorcar to the point where he steals one and suffers the consequences; by the end of the book, he turns over a new leaf and becomes a better toad.

In adapting the book to a feature, Walt Disney cut out the Water Rat and Mole chapters because he thought they wouldn't be interesting enough, which, along with the aftereffects of WWII, necessitated adding the in-production The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (more on that later) to fill out the running time. Though a number of changes both major and minor were made to try and make what was left of the story work as a Disney movie, I think the end result is an interesting attempt at trying to capture the real essence of the book and what most readers take away from it, that being the character of Mr. Toad.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the second and arguably more famous part of the movie, especially considering the poster and just about every home video box art emphasizes this story. Ichabod Crane (Bing Crosby) is a dandy who arrives in the village of Sleepy Hollow and becomes the new schoolmaster, where he wins the affections of the village’s women to get food from them, before falling in love with a woman named Katrina van Tassel; the narrator (Bing Crosby) explains that Ichabod is really after her money, as she is the daughter of the richest man in the village, Baltus van Tassel. Ichabod’s actions do not sit well with Brom Bones (Bing Crosby), a strong man whom Ichabod managed to overtake as the attractor of Sleepy Hollow’s women, leading Brom to try to take Katrina away from him. Upon seeing that Ichabod is superstitious, Brom finally gets back at him by telling him the story of the Headless Horseman at a Halloween party, which scares Ichabod. After the party, Ichabod is going home through the forest on horseback, leading to his famous encounter with the Headless Horseman.

Unlike The Wind in the Willows, I have not read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” prior to watching this movie, however I did enjoy it for what it was. Bing Crosby, the biggest singer of his time, demonstrates his talent in the realm of voice acting as he voices the two major characters of the story and narrates most of the events. The famous scene with the Headless Horseman is animated spectacularly, aided by a strong buildup and the absolute lack of narration throughout the entire sequence.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the result of needing to fill time after cutting The Wind in the Willows in half, however the end result is a really good package movie. The animation is spectacular and each segment features some great vocal talent as well as some well-timed humor. It’s easy to see why “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” half took off the way it did, though the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride Disney park ride keeps the Mr. Toad character relevant for some.

The version some people are more familiar with.

Though presented as one package, the two stories have often been released individually on home video, however you can still find a proper collected DVD in stores (incidentally, the DVD copy I watched this movie from turned out, upon being opened, to be so old that it (for some reason) included 17-years expired coupons for Energizer batteries). Though one may be more tempted by one half of the movie over the other (The Wind in the Willows segment may be a turn-off for some purists), I would still recommend watching it in its original packaged form as intended if you can find it.

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