Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)


From 1943 to 1949, Disney's animated 'feature films' were not, in fact, full length movies, but were instead 'package films'--a collection of shorter films. There was a war on, after all, and many of the animators and creative minds behind Disney were otherwise engaged--producing training and propaganda films. In fact, the first few 'package films' were themselves a form of propaganda: Saludos Amigos (1943, Disney characters go to South America and have adventures) and The Three Caballeros (1945, Donald Duck receives various presents from Latin American friends) were designed to foster goodwill with South America and counteract the Nazi influences there. The rest of the package films weren't directly related to the war effort, but WWII left a significant creative drain in its wake, resulting in a lot of half-finished storylines, which were then cobbled together to make feature length films--Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948). The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was the last in this series.

As you might expect, it includes a story (loosely) derived from Kenneth Grahame's classic novel The Wind in the Willows and an adaptation of Washington Irving's well-known short story 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.' The stories are not connected in any meaningful way, though the narrators (Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby, respectively) claim to be discussing the most 'fabulous' characters in English and American literature (which is a bit of a reach).

I think a lot of viewers prefer Mr. Toad's portion of the story--it's full of crazy shenanigans, daring escapes, and a thrilling fight for the future of Toad Hall. But to me, this was by far the lesser of the two stories, largely because it did such violence to the original source material. Toad is insufferable and irrepressible in both versions, but in Grahame's original he appears to demonstrate genuine repentance. Here, his folly and selfishness continue unabated, and he has learned nothing from the experience of being imprisoned and losing his family home. Furthermore, the likable characters of Rat and Badger are reduced to mere caricatures--and inaccurate ones at that. Book Rat is far more laid-back and friendly than the film would lead you to believe, and Book Badger is wise hermit, not a crotchety bookkeeper. A child watching the film is likely to be drawn to Toad and his equally batty friend Cyril Proudbottom (a Disney addition), as they are the only remotely interesting chaps in the lot. All the 'good' characters are dull as toast. In the book, there are examples of wisdom and moderation that are eminently likable, and thus present a viable alternative to Toad and his blithely oblivious misadventures. Despite the frenetic pace of the the action, I found myself bored with the story. There was no growth, no change, no ... anything, really. Everything I loved about Grahame's story was gone, and the one thing I disliked (but tolerated because of the other more appealing parts of the book)--namely, Toad's awful behavior and selfish mania--was dialed up to eleven. Blech.

In contrast, I found the quieter adventure of Ichabod Crane much more enthralling. Granted, it probably didn't hurt that the beloved Bing Crosby was narrating/singing the whole thing. But still--the tale was well told, and admirably faithful to Irving's story, even borrowing some of the original language. Disney added some fun slapstick humor, as the burly Brom Bones is (inadvertently) bested time and again by Ichabod
as the two simultaneously attempt to woo the lovely (albeit coquettish) Katrina. And the final showdown with the horseman is extremely effective (so much so that it may be quite terrifying for young viewers). But despite these crowd-pleasing bits, the story retains its original complexity. There really is no hero here--Brom may be a bit of a bully at times, but at least he seems to genuinely like Katrina. Ichabod, though a victim of bullying, is far more interested in Katrina's wealth that her person--he is fundamentally selfish, and uses his charm with the ladies to fill his own stomach. Katrina is lovely, but not above toying with Ichabod to make Brom jealous. For Disney--especially early Disney--to tell a story with no real hero is remarkable indeed. Then, too, there is the uncertain note on which the story ends. Is the horseman real? Was it just a prank by Brom, or was there really something there? Irving doesn't tell us, and Disney--miracle of miracles--refuses to weigh in either way. The end result is a surprisingly effective adaptation of a classic tale.

Really, what we have is a four-star story and a one-star story, so I split the difference and called it three stars.  I probably wouldn't recommend it to parents of young children--Ichabod's adventure is probably too scary for them, and I wouldn't want to risk them emulating Mr. Toad's obnoxious antics. But if you're a classic Disney enthusiast, of course, you must check out this 'package film.'

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