THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad’

The one that wrapped up a difficult era.

By the late 1940s, Walt Disney Productions was barely holding on. After several years of producing inexpensive package films as a means to survive, the studio was eagerly preparing for the much-anticipated revival of its feature film production unit. But the dismal box office returns of both Fun and Fancy Free and Melody Time forced Walt Disney to rethink his next step.

With a bank debt already reaching $4.2 million, the studio failed to ascertain further capital to recommence producing feature-length animated films, leaving Walt with no choice but to package up another anthology film and hope it would be enough to finally kickstart Disney’s lagging popularity with the cinema audiences. The resulting film stands as one of the better achievements in one of the most difficult eras in Disney’s history.

In 1938, just one year after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt acquired the rights to Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows after animators James Bodrero convinced their boss the story would make an excellent choice for a Disney animated feature film. After delays due to the story needing major rewrites, the film commenced pre-production work in April 1941, under the direction of James Algar.

But the animator’s strike in May of the same year suddenly brought everything to a grinding halt. When the animator’s strike was resolved in October, production on The Wind in the Willows recommenced, only to be further complicated by the Bank of America refusing to continue funding Disney’s future animated feature films. Under the terms of Walt’s agreement with the bank, Disney were able to finish those films already in production, which included The Wind in the Willows, given animation work had already begun.

However, in late 1941, Disney reviewed the animation footage crafted during pre-production and decided to shelve the production indefinitely after deeming the quality was below the standard his studio had become known for. In retrospect, it’s a curious decision, given the dismal animation quality of the desperate package films Disney would dump in cinemas over the next seven years.

Production on The Wind in the Willows would not resume again until March 1946 by which point those animators who served in World War II had returned to the studio including Disney Legend Frank Thomas, who was immediately assigned to salvage the lagging project. But, by August 1946, Walt grew further unhappy with the film’s direction, and, once again, shelved the project indefinitely.

Meanwhile, in December 1946, Disney had commenced pre-production on a feature-length adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic American gothic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to be co-directed by Jack Kinney and Clyde Geronimi. During a review of the production in late 1947, Walt determined the story wasn’t strong enough to warrant a feature film. As such, it was trimmed down and paired with the now-resurrected The Wind in the Willows to create a new anthology feature film entitled The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

As both segments are adapted from famous literary works, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad begins in a live-action library where we find both novels on the shelves. Used as a loose but clever framing device, the two animated shorts are introduced by way of opening each respective book before we dive into the world of animation. Despite being listed second in the film’s title, the first segment is The Wind in the Willows, narrated by acclaimed British actor Basil Rathbone.

The sequence is a rather abridged version of Grahame’s novel, focussing solely on the adventures of Mr. Toad and essentially ignoring the short stories of Rat and Mole. At the centre of the animated short is the flamboyant, debonair J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq, an upper-class amphibian known as an “incurable adventurer” who never considers the financial consequences of his obsessions. The wealthy proprietor of Toad Hall, a lavish estate in the English countryside, Toad “mania for fads” has pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy.

One summer’s day, Toad’s beleaguered accountant Angus MacBadger invites his friends Ratty and Moley to Toad Hall. MacBadger desperately begs Ratty and Moley to persuade Toad to abandon his latest mania of recklessly driving about the countryside in a horse and buggy, which is causing significant financial costs by way of property damage.

But when Toad arrives, he sees a motor car for the very first time, immediately becoming obsessed with owning the new invention. After making a deal to purchase the vehicle from nefarious bartender Mr. Winky, Toad is wrongly accused of stealing the car and thrown in jail. With the help of Toad’s trusty horse Cyril Proudbottom (try not to giggle at that name), it’s up to Ratty and Moley to break their friend out of prison and clear his name.

Standing as one of the most popular and beloved shorts of the 1940s package film era, The Wind in the Willows is undoubtedly the highpoint of a period born from Disney’s desperation to survive. Despite a shorter production time and a lower budget, the beautiful animation echoes back to Disney’s earlier work with a cast of adorable characters and an infectious energy that’s both warm and entertaining.

There’s also a hefty helping of slapstick, map-cap mayhem in the film’s climactic sequence where Toad, Ratty, and Moley do battle with Mr. Winky and his army of weasel henchmen within the hallowed halls of Toad’s beloved manor. Mr. Toad has gone on to become one of Disney’s most cherished characters, typified by the short forming the inspiration for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, one of the 1955 opening day attractions at Disneyland that’s still in operation to this day.

As we head back to the live-action library, the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby introduce the second segment based on Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which Crosby both narrates and sings. We arrive in the village of Sleepy Hollow where lanky Ichabod Crane has arrived as the town’s new schoolmaster. Despite his rather odd behaviour and appearance, Ichabod soon wins the affection of the village’s women, putting him at odds with the town’s local roguish hero, Brom Bones.

Tossing aside Brom’s attempt to bully the schoolmaster, Ichabod soon sets his sights on Katrina van Tassel, the most beautiful girl in Sleepy Hollow and the daughter of the richest man in town. While there is love in his heart, Ichabod is far more interested in Katrina for her family’s wealth and taking glee in the fact Brom also has eyes for the young maiden. It’s not long before the pair are soon vying for Katrina’s affections, which she seemingly encourages to make Brom try harder to win her heart.

The love triangle comes to a head at the Van Tassel’s annual Halloween party where Ichabod and Brom compete over the chance to dance with Katrina. After learning Ichabod is terribly superstitious, Brom regales the party with the tale of the villainous Headless Horseman who has been terrorising Sleepy Hollow for several generations, returning to the town to search for the head of an unlucky townsperson to replace his own. On his journey home, a terrified Ichabod does indeed cross paths with the Horseman with dire consequences.

The finale sequence featuring the Headless Horseman is one of the darkest and most atmospheric sequences in Disney’s history. The character design of the menacing villain is sublime and the sound design featuring a cacophony of unsettling nighttime noises is spectacular. For younger viewers, this scene is the stuff of nightmares and even older viewers may feel a chill down their spines. It’s just a shame everything proceeding this moment is so bafflingly unenjoyable.

The inherent problem with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the genuine unlikability of every single character. Despite being the film’s apparent protagonist, Ichabod is arrogant, conceited, and shallow; hardly the kind of hero you want to cheer for. And with ears that would make Dumbo jealous and a nose as big as his ego, it’s laughable we’re expected to believe the women of the town would be swooning over a man who’s rather physically repulsive, particularly someone as beautiful as Katrina.

Katrina herself doesn’t fair much better, crafted as a manipulative snob who elicits the attention of both Ichabod and Brom as little more than a way of amusing herself. Equally full of brash confidence and arrogance, Brom is painted as the burly villain of the piece, which seems unfair, given he appears far more interested in winning Katrina’s heart and not her family’s wealth. Fun fact – animator Andreas Deja has said Gaston from Beauty and the Beast was heavily influenced by the character design of Brom. When placed side-by-side, the two could practically be brothers.

But the film’s most uncomfortably outdated moment occurs as the Halloween dance where a rather robust woman sits alone in the corner, longing for someone to ask her to dance. After feeling crushed at Katrina’s choice to dance with Ichabod, Brom invites the overweight woman to dance before attempting to swap partners with Ichabod and steal a dance with Katrina instead.

The robust woman soon becomes so infatuated with Brom, he cruelly locks her inside a broom closet before fleeing the dance altogether to escape her desperate clutches. The entire sequence is played for laughs at the expense of this poor woman, playing on her weight as lowbrow comedy you rarely see from Disney. Look, it was 1949 and the idea of politically correct humour was far from existence, but it’s a decidedly cruel moment from a studio who should have known better.

While the second segment of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad ends the film in a decidedly disappointing manner, the evocative animation echoes its predecessor in wonderful fashion. The Headless Horseman sequence is a spectacularly spooky moment with lashings of dark blues and purples to dazzle your eyes. The film was surprisingly awarded the Golden Globe for Best Cinematography (a category the HFPA abandoned in 1953), highlighting the film’s impressive visual style.

Throughout a period of disappointing films, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the sole Disney package films that genuinely fits the visual aesthetic and narrative styles of the studio’s earlier feature films. It’s crafted with the same sophistication and emotional resonance as the films which defined what Disney were capable of. The film hinted at the remarkable revival that was just around the corner and elicited enough funds to keep the studio functioning.

Is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad a Disney Classic? Neither segments were able to stand on their own as feature films, but, when combined into one anthology package, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad offers just enough to consider the film a Disney Classic.

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