Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Disney Halloween Treat: “Ichabod and Mr. Toad”

Disney's Eleventh Animated Feature - 1949
We’ve made a point of covering the classic Disney features in the order of their production, but in honor of Halloween, we’re allowing Disney’s 1949 feature, Ichabod and Mr. Toad to jump the line. Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the last of a series of “package films” that combined shorts until the 1970’s. Ichabod and Mr. Toad would make a terrific choice for a children’s Halloween party, even for under-fives, as the Ichabod story is scary but not too; ultimately, it’s funnier than it is frightening. And Mr. Toad is a hilarious and adventurous tale that incorporates Christmas, but transcends season and speaks to all of us, all year ’round.

Released in 1949, Disney chose two huge (and hugely different) stars to narrate the stories. Bing Crosby relates the American tale of Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Basil Rathbone narrates the English story of Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

Introduced as the most fabulous character in all of English literature (not overselling it, are we, Basil?), Mr. Toad is a replete, fun-loving, speed demon who merrily races around the country side in a canary yellow cart pulled by his friend, Cyril the horse. (So THAT’S what they mean by “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”) Mr. Toad is everybody’s favorite wild child, full of mirth and as irresponsible as the day is long. His destructive hi-jinks have put at risk his stately mansion, Toad Hall, the showplace of the shire. His friends Rattie and Molie commiserate with the responsible MacBadger who tries to pull Mr. Toad back from the brink of financial disaster. Before Mr. Toad can seriously consider reforming, he is tantalized by the latest invention: the speedy motorcar. He won’t rest until he can possess one.

Mr. Toad finds himself in serious legal trouble when he’s accused in court of trying to sell a stolen car and winds up in jail. His pals help him escape and clear his name, and he goes after his accusers who have stolen Toad Hall out from under him. You’ll enjoy the scenes with the unscrupulous Weasel Gang whose characters were later borrowed by the creators of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Cinephiles will appreciate the funny stunt where four weasels simultaneously club each other, a moment that eventually found its way into the work of John Woo and Quentin Tarrantino. Suffice to say, all turns out well for Mr. Toad, but the new, reformed Toad doesn’t stay static for long. But we really didn’t want him to reform, did we?

Bing Crosby then takes over the narration, speaking up for “the colonies.” Ichabod Crane was a lanky, eagle-beaked, itinerate schoolteacher who finds his way to the town of Sleepy Hollow, New York, seeking more than just a job teaching school. He’s manipulative and ambitious in his way, and wouldn’t mind making a comfortable marriage for himself. Bing Crosby also lends his voice to Ichabod, so when Ichabod sings, the ladies of Sleepy Hollow swoon like 1940’s bobby-soxers. Ichabod didn’t figure on falling head-over-heels for the flirtatious Katrina Von Tassel, who just happens to be the daughter of the wealthiest man in town. Local he-man Brom Bones considers Katrina to be his claimed territory, but Ichabod gives Brom a run for his money. It’s made fairly obvious that Katrina enjoys playing one man off another, and is most likely using Ichabod to make Brom jealous. And it works. If I were to fault this tale, it would be that none of the lead characters—Ichabod, Katrina, or Brom—is particularly likable, but they are faithful to the satirical, stinging prose of Washington Irving who deflates every stuffed-shirt in Sleepy Hollow.

Fed up with Ichabod, Brom Bones (also voiced by Crosby) sings the frightening tale of the Headless Horseman at the Van Tassel Halloween ball. Ichabod has a harrowing ride home, imagining the Horseman around every bend, eventually sharing a laugh with his horse at his own silliness. And then, the Headless Horseman appears, flaming Jack-O-Lantern in hand! The Horseman chases Ichabod to the safety of a covered bridge, where he tosses his “severed” head at him. As in the Irving story, it’s left a mystery as to whether Ichabod safely fled or was “spirited away” by the Horseman; though Disney heavily weighs it toward the former, showing Ichabod with a plump wife and a table-full of eagle-beaked children. And any idea that Katrina was left broken-hearted is dispelled when we see her enthusiastically kiss Brom Bones on their wedding day.

All told, Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a fun, lively, sometimes scary feature that’s just right for kids but will appeal to parents as well. I personally prefer Mr. Toad to Ichabod, as the attempts to freshen up the Ichabod story with pop references—like the girls who swoon at Ichabod/Bing’s singing—actually make the piece seem a bit dated. And I could do without an unnecessary scene at the Halloween ball where Brom tries to trick Ichabod into swapping his dance partner Katrina for a short, overweight gal, but chalk it up to 1940’s sexism. I’d describe Mr. Toad as the more timeless, universal piece. But both are delightful, perfect for the transition from Halloween to the winter holiday season. You can see Ichabod and Mr. Toad in its entirety (in chapters) on YouTube.

Have you seen Ichabod and Mr. Toad? Share your thoughts here.

No comments:

Post a Comment