Year of release: 1949
Running time: 68 minutes
Based on: “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
Availability: available on DVD in some stores
Sequels/spin-offs: none, though the two segments were almost immediately separated to form stand-alone short films
This film is the sixth and final “package film” released by Walt Disney in the 1940s – his next film, Cinderella, would see the studio return to feature-length animation for good. Ichabod and Mr Toad contains two self-contained short films with almost no interaction between them: the only connection between the stories the narrators can make is that they have “fabulous” central characters.
The Wind in the Willows
The first short film is an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, narrated by Basil Rathbone (famous for playing the title role in the 1940s Sherlock Holmes films). The story should be familiar to anyone who has read the book or seen one of the many film, TV or stage adaptations: Toad, an aristocrat with something of an addiction for the latest fads, finds himself in deep trouble after becoming obsessed with motor cars. Despite the desperate attempts of his friends, Ratty, Moley and Angus MacBadger, to calm him down, Toad ends up in prison, wrongly accused of stealing a car belonging to a gang of weasels. After breaking free, he teams up with his friends to rescue his former home and prove his innocence. With his name cleared, Toad swears off motor cars for good – only to become obsessed by aeroplanes instead.
I’ll be honest: I’m not very keen on the story of The Wind in the Willows. With one or two exceptions, I find visual adaptations to be mind-numbingly boring, usually spending a lot of their running time taking in the (admittedly, often beautiful) English countryside. The alternative to this approach is to create a madcap adventure focusing on Toad and his wacky adventures, often scrapping the framework of the original plot. While Disney’s version is still quite action-packed, they stay within the confines of the original story, with only a few changes and additions, most noticeably a now-Scottish Badger and a talking horse companion for Toad.
The 30-minute running time means that things never get truly dull, but I still struggled to connect with this short. The version of Toad in this film actually feels a little held-back, certainly in comparison to other portrayals, and the action on-screen feels too rushed to make a significant impact. The supporting characters are reduced to one-dimensional shadows of their originals, Ratty being a proud Englishman, Moley a timid-but-ultimately-brave companion and Badger is… well… he’s supposed to be Scottish, but he actually sounds more Russian. Cyril – Toad’s talking horse friend who does not appear in the original story – is a little more interesting, though he vanishes from the film completely as soon as Toad breaks out of prison.
At the end of the day, The Wind in the Willows does not impress me. The characters are not fleshed out enough and the story is presented poorly. It’s not a bad short film by any means, but there are far better adaptations of this story.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The second short in this package film is an adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. This time, Hollywood legend Bing Crosby provides the narration, many of the voices and the singing talent and does an excellent job in all these roles.
Again, the story here should be familiar to many as Disney sticks fairly close to the original short story: Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow, is a manipulative and greedy man and sets out to win the affections of the farmer’s daughter, Katrina. However, his romantic advances puts him in direct competition with Brom Bones, the most popular man in town. Their rivalry comes to a head on Halloween night when they are both invited to Katrina’s party. There, Ichabod instantly gains the upper hand with his charming mannerisms and dancing skills, but Brom plays on Ichabod’s superstitious beliefs by telling him (in song) of the infamous Headless Horseman who rides through the area on Halloween. After the party, a terrified Ichabod finds himself alone in the forest and he is chased by the headless ghoul. He makes it over the bridge and outside the ghost’s power, but the Horseman throws his pumpkin head straight at Ichabod – and the viewer – as the camera fades to black. Crosby informs us that Ichabod is never seen again, though there are reports that he settled down in a different town far away. With Ichabod out of the picture, Brom marries Katrina.
One of the most brilliant features of this short film is the complete lack of heroic characters. In a rare move for Disney, there is no clear side to root for: Ichabod is a scheming, greedy individual who cares more for food and riches than for Katrina; Brom is a bit of a bully, though his love for Katrina appears more genuine than Ichabod’s. Katrina is probably worse than both of them, deliberately playing on the feelings of her many suitors to get anything she wants. We’re used to seeing Disney tell clear good-vs-evil stories, so this complex love triangle is a refreshing change to the usual storytelling formula.
Of course, just because the characters are complex does not mean that this film is above the usual cartoon slapstick and this short has plenty. The highlights include a hilarious sequence where Brom finds himself being chased around by a short, rotund woman at Katrina’s party and the final chase sequence between Ichabod and the Horseman. The spectre himself is quite a terrifying presence, with the Disney sound designers applying a thick layer of spooky atmosphere before the fast-paced chase kicks in. The comical false alarms build a significant amount of tension, though the chase itself is peppered with enough comedy to ensure that the final scenes never become too scary for younger viewers.
I also really enjoy how open-ended the film’s conclusion is. Much like the original story, the identity of the Horseman is never fully explained. While Irving heavily implies that it is actually Brom in disguise, Disney seems to lean towards a more supernatural explanation (indeed, Ichabod looks directly down the Horseman’s neck and is apparently terrified by what he can – or cannot – see). This ambiguity is again something that Disney usually avoids with their stories.
As would be expected from Bing Crosby, the music is top-notch and complements the story well. The main attraction is Brom’s spooky description of the Headless Horseman, which has become a staple of many Disney Halloween specials, along with the final chase scene. The song describing the hypnotising allure of Katrina is also well-crafted, though it’s not quite as memorable.
The final triumph is the character of Ichabod Crane himself. He’s a very unique central character for Disney in that he is very much an anti-hero and almost a full antagonist. I can think of several Disney villains who are not as greedy, manipulative or selfish as Ichabod, though it is left up to the viewer to see his wrongs – the narrator never judges him explicitly. Brom, on the other hand, could easily be a hero in any other Disney short, being very similar to some of the human protagonists in other Disney package film stories. This reversal of roles is something that we haven’t seen much from Disney, before or since.
In conclusion, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an incredibly well-crafted short film, combining a brilliantly “un-Disney” story with some top-shelf animation, songs and voice talent. Definitely among the package films’ finest shorts and the perfect note for them to go out on.
As mentioned before, these two stories really have nothing to do with each other and they were very quickly separated and released as individual shorts. The DVD release I reviewed is actually the first time they have been available together since their original theatrical run! While The Wind in the Willows left me feeling very disappointed, Sleepy Hollow really astonished me and should definitely be tracked down. I’d rate the former around a 5 and the latter a strong 9, so this film is averaging out to a 7.
I award this film 7 out of 10 Russian-sounding badgers
Next review: Cinderella (1950)