Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

The package features had the blessing and the curse of being able to offer several different types of material in one film.  It’s a blessing because variety is the spice of life, a curse because the various types of stories could be wildly uneven, with one being simply amazing and another being downright bad.  After several tries, though, Disney got it right with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

Like the other package features, Disney recruited celebrities to come on board and provide narration and music.  For the first part of this piece, it was Basil Rathbone, best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, who was the narrator of the story of J. Thaddeus Toad.  The aristocratic tones of Rathbone lend an air of credibility to a tale of talking animals.  After all, the original book was meant to poke fun at the British aristocracy, and the film follows that while infusing some Disney magic.

Walt was not impressed with the animation of this story, which is why he shelved the project for so long.  And to be honest, he wasn’t entirely wrong.  The animation isn’t as fluid and beautiful as what is seen in the second half of the film.  That’s not to say it’s bad, however, as some very memorable images from this film still resonate today.  The shot of Toad standing atop his horse, Cyril Proudbottom, and the weasels chasing him through Toad Hall are images Disney still uses.

The story ultimately comes down to a lighthearted romp through the tale of Toad swapping Toad Hall for a motorcar.  The best work in this film is the contrast between Toad’s mania and the stuffy, buttoned up attitudes of his friends Rat and Mole.  You see it during the courtroom scenes, the chase sequences and more.  While the crazed pace of the film keeps kids entertained, it’s the way that character is revealed through the actions of these characters that fascinated me this time around. 

When we hit the second part of the film, it’s a welcome slow down to spend some time getting to know the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, especially the skinny schoolmaster Ichabod Crane.  Helping along that path is Bing Crosby, who brings his crooning skills to the table and provides songs and narration to the tale.  This was probably the best choice Disney could have made, because Bing’s trademark vocal tones soften the sharp edges of the tale and make it much more friendly to the viewer.

The story of this tale is actually quite light, as we are simply introduced to the three main chracters – Ichabod, his rival Brom Bones and their mutual crush Katrina Van Tassel – then shown how they interact.  The rivalry between Ichabod and Brom is the conflict of the short, and is established through action rather than narration.  Sure, Bing puts out a few lines that prod things along, but most of the rivalry is displayed through the slapstick back and forth between the two.

Of course, the real masterpiece of this film is the Headless Horseman, and the animation does not disappoint.  This is where Disney’s Nine Old Men spent their time, filling the short sequence with gags, suspense, horror, thrills and some of the best work the Disney studio produced in the 1940s.  There is a reason this part of the film still resonates today. 

The complete package of the stories of Mr. Toad and Ichabod Crane seem mismatched, and they probably are.  But combined together, they make for a film that is probably amongst the best of Disney from this era.  Soon after would come a second renaissance for the company with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and others, but the seeds for that future success are sown in this film, which should not be missed by anyone who loves Disney. 

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