By JOHN BILLINGER
Tiger Media Network
Disney has made 62 movies total coming this November, and in that time there have been many films that have been high in the spotlight, but with that, there have been quite a few that have fallen by the wayside. And here’s one of them.
“The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” was released in 1949. Some might be familiar with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, and they might have wondered, “What movie is Mr. Toad from?” Well, this film is the answer, but this film is not a cohesive narrative. It’s two half-hour shorts compiled into one feature. You might wonder why they made it like this, and there is a reason.
After the massive success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Disney went forward to make more feature-length animated films starting with the double release of “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” in 1940, continuing on in 1941 with “Dumbo” and 1942 with “Bambi.” During this time they went into pre-production with others including “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” a film titled “Lady” (which would eventually evolve into “Lady and the Tramp”), “Morgan’s Ghost” (which ended up getting canceled altogether), “The Legend of Happy Valley,” “Bongo,” “The Wind in the Willows,” and the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Things hit the brakes with two obstacles. One: World War II cut off the European and Asian box office; the enormously expensive and ambitious “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” and “Bambi” flopped (a fate shared with other films of the time such as “The Wizard of Oz”). Two: the United States joined World War II in December 1941. The studio delayed the production of all their pre-production films and instead went into production of propaganda films for the war effort including “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros.”
When the war ended, the Studio was in financial trouble but they still wanted to make movies. So the solution was to make what’s known as ‘package films.’ Basically a compilation of various films. And so began the Package Film Era of Disney of 1942-1949. The films that they made in this era fall into three categories. There’s the Goodwill Tour Films that consist of “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros.” They showcase South American culture in the form of animation and were meant to appeal to Latin American audiences in the hopes of building their support for us during the war. The Shorts Compilation films which are “Make Mine Music” in 1946 and “Melody Time” in 1948. These are just a collection of a whole bunch of shorts with a musical theme. Finally, there are the two that I refer to as “The Ones that Adapt Canceled Films.”
The two of this category are condensed versions of stories that they wanted to be a full film but ended up just being half-hour shorts. The films are “Fun and Fancy-Free” in 1947 (which adapts “Bongo” and the “Legend of Happy Valley”) and “Ichabod and Mr. Toad” in 1949 (which adapts “The Wind in the Willows” and the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Following the release of the latter, Disney returned to proper narrative animated films with “Cinderella” in 1950. Looking back on the era as a whole, the strongest one of the bunch is “Ichabod and Mr. Toad.”
Part of that is that it’s a pretty fun ride. Both segments adapt the stories by Kenneth Gramhe and Washington Irving respectively. Since they’re each about a half hour long, we’re given condensed versions of both stories, but that is not an issue. They move at a quick pace and are pretty lively and jolly all the way through. They are presented very differently from how you’d think they would present them though. The framing device used to bridge both stories is that we’re given a tour of a library, and two different narrators are showing off examples of classic literature, one from England and the other from America.
This way of tying the two stories together is a lot better and more clever than what they did in the earlier package film “Fun and Fancy-Free.” In that, Jiminy Cricket is going along, listens to a record album about Bongo and then goes to a party where he hears a story about Mickey Mouse in a “Jack and The Beanstalk”-inspired tale. That felt kind of forced and loose. Here, it’s simple but more clever and effective. The first narrator who showcases the “Willows” section is Basil Rathbone, a popular character actor from the time best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in a series of films from back then. The second narrator for the “Sleepy Hollow” section is Bing Crosby. Yes, they got one of the biggest names of entertainment from the 40s to narrate this.
These days, people complain about casting celebrities for animated films, but here you see that this trend is hardly new (in fact the first celebrity who voice acted in an animated film was singer Cliff Edwards who played Jiminy Cricket in 1940’s “Pinocchio”). Both actors do a great job narrating, but Crosby pulls double duty as he also voices all the characters in the Sleepy Hollow section. This is a little odd, as the Willows section is all voiced by a variety of different actors. I’m not sure why they did this, but it helps give both a unique feel.
Of course, Crosby also sings some songs as this film is technically a musical. The songs themselves are fine. There are not really any especially iconic or famous Disney songs in this, but the Headless Horseman song is the highlight of the group. The animation for both segments is also good, but it’s nothing to ride home about. Since this had a lower budget, it doesn’t quite rise up to the visual level of the films they had made just a couple of years prior, but it does the job and it’s still nice to look at. The Headless Horseman scene is especially good. It’s definitely the highlight of the whole show. Speaking of which, if you want a good spooky ghost story to watch for Halloween, the Sleepy Hollow section is just what the doctor ordered.
I don’t really have much else to say about this movie that I haven’t already said. It’s a chill, fun movie. And looking at the Package Films as a whole, this is the only one that’s really worth seeing. I mean, there’s really no reason to watch something like “Fun and Fancy-Free” outside of historical curiosity. By comparison, this actually has more to enjoy and it has achieved some form of legacy as it did spawn a Disneyland Ride and the Headless Horseman has appeared in quite a few other properties. The Weasels from the “Wind in the Willows” have had a life of their own, appearing as stock henchmen in a number of other Disney properties such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” So it’s very likely that you’ve seen something from it, and if you were ever curious where that stuff originated from, check out the original source.
Overall, if you’re looking for a fun fall movie, give this a watch. And if you only want to watch one segment rather than the full thing, you can actually view them separately. See, in the 1950s both of them were rereleased as their own individual shorts. So, see them both or only see one at a time. Take your pick.
John Billinger is currently in the Informatics department at FHSU and is an avid movie buff.