The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is from a strange period in Walt Disney Productions. World War II crippled the studio’s ability to make feature length animated films through a combination of lost foreign box office and losing most of its animators to the draft. To keep costs down the studio started producing “Package Films,” feature length compilations of shorts, which was the totality of their cinematic output for most of the ’40s. (These are: Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.) These are the films that tend to get forgotten when discussing the Disney Animated Classics line, though most of them have at least one segment that produced something memorable. The Three Caballeros has its titular trio with their insanely catchy eponymous song. Make Mine Music presented the iconic image of a sperm whale in clown makeup singing Pagliacci in The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, while Fun and Fancy Free hosted the memorable Mickey and the Beanstalk.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was the last of these package films, and despite spawning a beloved theme park attraction (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride) the only thing anyone really remembers about it is the Headless Horseman chase, which is only seven minutes of the movie’s 68 minute running time. (Even the home video cover art focuses exclusively on this segment.) It’s an amazing sequence, and I’ll break it down later, but that still leaves an hour of movie that most people don’t talk about.
Which is a shame because there’s also a lot to talk about, especially in the ways the two films complement each other. Despite not being planned for packaging, the two share a lot of themes and characteristics, including very covetous, morally gray protagonists.
The Wind in the Willows
Adapted from the Kenneth Grahame children’s novel, this segment had actually gone into production in the early ’40s, and was planned to be its own feature length film, before the war forced what completed footage there was onto the shelf. (It would appear that most of that completed footage is early in the film, most notably in the highly kinetic “Merrily On Our Way” musical number.) The streamlined story concerns Thaddeus J. Toad, an eccentric former millionaire who has squandered his entire fortune on a series of manias and fads, being framed for stealing a motorcar. (Toad was double-crossed by a crooked bartender and some weasels after trading the stolen car for the deed to prestigious Toad Hall). Toad then breaks out of prison and, with the help of his friends, attempts to retrieve the deed, which will prove his innocence.
Of course, “innocence” is an interesting term when it comes to Toad. He’s certainly not guilty of stealing that motorcar as accused, and he’s not a malicious character, but he is impulsive and careless and without regard for the consequences of his actions. He’s a classic archetype of children’s literature: the devil-may-care pleasure-seeker from whose example of excess the main characters learn a valuable lesson about balance. (I think Toad’s closest American cousin would be Dr. Seuss’s Cat In The Hat).
It’s a character type who doesn’t take anything too seriously, and the whole short is built on Toad’s flippant sense of humor. Everything that should worry Toad is treated as though it were a trifle. From the trial (where one of Toad’s witnesses says that he got the motorcar “the only way a gentleman gets anything, the honest way” and, when asked by the prosecutor what the honest way is, replies “I thought you wouldn’t know that one guv’nor!”) to his escape from prison (dressing in drag and simply walking out) and a subsequent chase by train is played for laughs rather than danger. As is the climactic fight with Winky and the Weasels (a great name for a band), where Toad folds up the deed into a paper plane and then makes a dozen more paper planes to confuse everyone. It’s all a gag, even as Toad’s future hangs in the balance.
And because it’s a character type who doesn’t take anything seriously, it’s also a character type who doesn’t really change by the end of the story. Despite a few moments of clarity, once Toad has been cleared of all charges and released back into the world he moves onto the next fad and the next adventure as if nothing has happened.
It’s perhaps for that reason, coupled with a lack of any memorable set pieces, that this half of the movie isn’t better remembered. No one’s quite forgotten it, but as I said before it’s more cherished for the things it inspired, like the popular theme park attraction (which, veering wildly from the story, ends with Toad in a fatal car wreck which sends him [and you] to Hell) and the character design for the weasels of the Toon Patrol in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Like The Wind in the Willows, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow began production in 1946 as a feature film. However the filmmakers quickly realized the best version of the story would result in an abbreviated running time (about 33 minutes), and so ended up in this Package Film.
Though produced several years apart, and with no eye toward a double bill, these two shorts complement each other in surprising ways. The Wind in the Willows is a British novel, while The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an American novella. Wind has only one musical number, while much of Sleepy Hollow is performed in song. Wind has a full cast to voice its characters, while Bing Crosbby’s Narrator in Sleepy Hollow speaks for everyone. Toad gets off scot free, while Ichabod Crane has a less charitable fate. The starkest difference between them, however, is in the characters. Toad and his friends, while often gruff or impulsive or stern, are all warm and beneficent. The main characters in Sleepy Hollow, however, are all kind of jerks, which makes the love triangle that spurs the plot fascinating.
In romantic fiction and films we’ve come to expect certain tropes, the most common in recent vintage being The Secret Asshole. The guy the Love Interest is dating whose obvious flaws are somehow lost on said Love Interest, and makes for a cheap and easy antagonist. So what happens when every party is The Secret Asshole? The story becomes a lot funnier, for a start.
The triangle in this case is Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones, and the object of their affection Katrina, who is probably the least bastardy of the three. Katrina likes Brom, but has decided that everything comes too easy for him, and so pretends to like Ichabod to drive him nuts. There’s even a moment in the film where, while sending out invitations, Katrina writes a special post-script on Ichabod’s invitation to, as the Narrator puts it, “stir things up.”
Brom Bones is somewhere in the middle. The Narrator keeps flip-flopping on whether Brom is a rowdy town hero or a bully, and his actions bear him out as someone safely on the middle ground. He seems to have a sense of humor and is well-liked, but he also has a temper, and in his courting competition against Ichabod he often tries to knock his block off. (In perhaps an unintentional representation of his confused stance, when Brom opens up a barrel of beer for all of his friends, he also opens up one for some dogs and a horse… because what?)
However, both of these characters are small potatoes when it comes to Ichabod Crane. Ichabod is a gluttonous womanizer, stealing food from passerby and following his students’ overflowing lunchboxes to free meals from their mothers. It’s also clear that his interest in Katrina may be stoked by her father’s fortune. One sequence finds Ichabod sitting in front of a mirror, congratulating himself on his inexplicable attractiveness to women, daydreaming about taking over the fortune of Katrina’s father after he passes on. Ichabod is like a Warner Brothers character who wandered into a Disney movie, or early Bugs Bunny, back before his sense of ironic detachment and unflappable calm. It works, though, and gives the story an extra bit of life. Each one of them is working the other, and the whole thing is less above love and more about winning. Which is why, when Brom notices Ichabod’s extremely superstitious nature, tells him the legend of the Headless Horseman, just as he’s about to leave for the evening.
At this point the comedy wanes and the movie starts ratcheting up the tension, as we enter the most famous part of this whole endeavor. Ichabod rides his decrepit old plow horse home through the woods which, thanks to Disney’s layered perspective technique, look to close in around Ichabod as he ventures deeper and deeper into the forest. The cartoon that was once filled with bright, vibrant colors finds its hues limited to grays and browns and very dark blues. In a nod to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Ichabod starts seeing ghosts in the shapes of the trees. The jovial singing is replaced by ominous words whispered in the ambience. “Headless Horseman!” croaks a toad. Crickets chirp “Ichabod” when they rub their legs together. These sounds pile up on top of each other in a cacophonous collage as Ichabod gets more and more spooked, until he hears charging hooves. Ichabod falls off his horse in terror and crashes into a log, where he discovers that the hooves he heard were just reeds beating against a hollow log. He lets out a mad cackle of relief, the first time a sound has come out of his mouth not provided by Bing Crosby. It’s no smooth crooner’s laugh, but high pitched and manic.
And then the Headless Horseman makes himself known.
It’s an incredible shot, so good that the filmmakers use it again at the end of the short. The Horseman, astride his horse on a hill in a graveyard, is dressed all in black but for a purple cape, holding a sword in one hand and a flaming Jack-O-Lantern in the other. The horse rears up on its hind legs, the Horseman almost silhouetted against an angry red sky. The Horseman laughs, and it’s a deep, echoing sound, not of this world.
The Horseman and his horse aren’t animated like anyone else. Every other character on screen up until this point is a cartoon caricature; big eyes, exaggerated body types, elastic movements, etc. They’re built for humor. The Horseman on the other hand is drawn much more realistically, to the point where I wonder if rotoscoping was involved, which makes him a much more credible threat. This isn’t a character who abides by the same cartoon physics that allow Brom Bones to get hit by a swinging door and become embedded in a stone wall, when he swings his sword at Ichabod’s neck the intent is to kill.
It’s an interesting clash, the realistic Horseman and the cartoony Ichabod, and I think it helps the sequence feel like a nightmare. Ichabod’s long, lanky body is suddenly a liability, his elasticity slowing him down while the solid, muscular Horseman confidently closes the gap. It also helps the sequence seamlessly transition back-and-forth between funny and frightening. Ichabod may constantly be getting caught up in slapstick and impossible stunts (including one where he gets his nose caught on a low-hanging branch and spins around 360º, landing on the back of the Horseman’s steed), but the Horseman never falters, never wavers from his single-minded pursuit. Ichabod’s face twists and contorts in fear, while the Horseman’s lack of visage makes his emotions a complete mystery. All we get from him is his terrible, hollow laugh.
Unlike any other Disney movies, but like most horror stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow ends on a bit of uncertainty. Ichabod crosses the bridge that Brom said the Horseman can’t cross, but in the final moment of the chase the Horseman throws his flaming Jack-O-Lantern through the bridge house, directly at Ichabod. The image fades into the next morning, where we see Ichabod’s hat and the smashed remains of the pumpkin. There’s a brief epilogue where we discover that Brom and Katrina married, and that everyone believes Ichabod was spirited away that night. The Narrator says that some believe that Ichabod got away and settled down, but neither he not the movie seem to have any conviction in that version of events.
In a way it’s appropriate that The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad ends with a marriage and a disappearance, as Disney returned to full-length features in 1950 with Cinderella and never looked back. Still, we’re left with a pair of entertaining tales that complement each other surprisingly well, and one of the scariest sequences Disney ever produced. So if you’re looking for a short, spooky film for Halloween check out that seven minute Headless Horseman segment, which is readily available on YouTube. If you want to watch the whole thing and experience one of the less-remembered Disney Animated Classics, the film has just been released on Blu ray and DVD.