The 1940s were a rough time for Walt Disney Pictures, with two underperforming feature films (Pinocchio and Fantasia — the latter of which was only a flop because Walt insisted on theaters installing a whole new sound system just for the film) and a 5-week animators’ strike in May of 1941 that ended with the studio having to recognize labor unions (because recognizing humanity cuts into the profit margin) and the departure of many artists, including Frank Tashlin and future Creature from the Black Lagoon designer Millicent Patrick (who animated Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia). A few months later, the United States joined World War II, and even more talent was drafted into the army. Eventually the studio would partner with the military to produce a series of propaganda shorts in order to stay afloat. Before that, though, they took out a 3.5 million dollar loan, with the stipulation that they focus on shorts (hence the abundance of package films from this period). The only features they were allowed to work on were projects already in production, including Dumbo, Bambi, and The Wind in the Willows.
Of course, the lattermost never made it to feature length, and its eventual pairing with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a long, tedious story of rewrites, compromises, and content shuffling. So if the pairing never made sense to you, or their purported connection seemed tenuous at best, you were right. The whole isn’t nearly as good as the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are really great.
THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
The Wind in the Willows is easily the weaker of the two shorts, though it has a lot to recommend it. The problem is that, as with a lot of films that have been repeatedly and significantly altered, you can see all the seams and feel the palpable tension to just get the thing done. “The Merrily Song” feels like the remnant of a more traditional Disney musical and is now out of place in a movie without any other songs. It’s also one of the best-animated and most dynamic segments in the movie, suggesting that it’s one of those early sequences begun before the loan and was kept solely because of how much time and money it represents.
Then there’s structure. As a short subject, Toad makes a natural protagonist: his manic energy and easy distraction are well-suited to establishing a frantic pace and a focus on gags and action, like a Warner Brothers cartoon. However, the abundance of secondary characters suggests a more episodic ensemble piece with a focus on characters telling stories, as evidenced by the story-within-a-story nature of Toad’s acquisition of the motorcar. Likewise, glossing over Toad’s incarceration feels like something meant to be simmering in the background of a longer narrative that got folded forward to eliminate most of the second act. Setting this against the better, more deliberately structured short that follows only highlights its patchwork nature.
Yet of the two films The Wind in the Willows has the undeniably stronger legacy, thanks almost entirely to the famous and beloved Disney Parks attraction Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. An opening day attraction at Disneyland in 1955, it was (and still is) unlike any other Disney dark ride, realizing a violent cartoon energy that tosses guests around weird sight gags and hairpin turns before hitting them with a train and sending them to Hell. The Disney World version (also an opening day attraction, in 1971) was even more notable for its inspired two-track system (popularly known as Right and Left Track), which sent guests on two completely different ride experiences. (Though like the Disneyland version, both cars are eventually hit by a train and its passengers sent to Hell. Unlike the California version, Hell isn’t nearly as warm as the Florida sun waiting outside.) This has earned Toad great visibility on all manner of merchandise, such as T-shirts and pins, as well as two visual references within Disney World. On the Winnie the Pooh ride, which replaced Toad’s attraction in 1999, he can be seen in a picture handing over the deed to Toad Hall to Owl, which is a pretty great meta gag. (Moley is also featured in another picture, doffing his hat to Pooh) Over at the Haunted Mansion, a small Toad statue is planted near the back of a pet cemetery next to that attraction’s exit. Likewise, Toad’s antagonists the Weasels became significant pop culture figures after being Judge Doom’s henchmen in the 1988 Disney/Touchstone film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (where Toad himself also makes a brief appearance, riding the extended ladder of an old fashioned fire truck). That’s pretty good for coming from a movie that most people likely haven’t seen. Or if they have seen it, they’ve only seen a portion from the second half of the film.
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW
The better of the two shorts, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is best known for — and is utterly defined by — the sequence where Ichabod encounters the Headless Horseman in the middle of the woods. It’s a brilliant five-minute stretch, which features a deft balance of horror and slapstick that ranks among the best of the genre. It’s such a well-known and regarded segment that Tim Burton incorporated parts of it into his 1999 Hammer Horror-influenced retelling of the story. But I’ll come back to it, because there’s more to recommend the short than its transcendent climax.
The Ichabod Crane seen here is perhaps the most fruitful result of Disneyfying a character in the history of adaptation, not changing any of the core characteristics (a stern, vain, voracious, superstitious gold digger) while adding a little impish charm. The original story sets him up as cannon fodder, a fool on the wrong side of the mores of the time who is made fun of by the narrator until his mysterious disappearance, and as a result he’s at a strong remove from the reader.
Ichabod is the ostensible villain of the piece, as he comes between the local hero Brom Bones and his crush Katrina van Tassel, and he’s still the ostensible villain of the Disney short, but the animation use Ichabod’s long and lanky frame to evoke both sympathy and vulnerability. Like Chuck Jones’s adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, nothing is added to the story that would change Ichabod except for silent physical business. Ichabod flits and strolls throughout the world, acutely attuned to his surroundings despite most often traveling with his nose in a book, which gives him a weird sense of cool. In a sequence where Brom tries to attack Ichabod, he has an almost Bugs Bunny quality, pulling off complicated escape maneuvers while coolly ignoring his attacker. Even if Ichabod is a shallow loser, he appears to go through life with an alluring effortlessness. But then at the dance, where Brom tells Ichabod the tale of the Headless Horseman, the animators undermine that unflappability. As the story gets to him, he shakes, sweats, and goes pale, the gory details of Brom’s song fueling his imagination. It not only primes the audience for the sequence that follows, but gives him a strong vulnerability he was lacking earlier, and as in the best horror movies it makes him a character we want to avoid the misfortune that’s coming his way.
Ichabod then leaves the party and rides his horse into the woods and creepy, slow-burn horror. It’s all atmosphere, full of suggestive animation and eerie sound design, taking the time to build a sense of dread. Croaking frogs, rustling leaves, cattails beating against a hollow log as reminiscent of hoofbeats. Ichabod’s fear heightens his senses, magnifying his surroundings until it builds into an unbearable cacophony and he falls off his horse. He realizes he was terrified of nothing, and lets out a relieved laugh, laughing with his horse over the ridiculousness of everything. And then, in one of the piece’s most brilliant touches, that laugh is answered with another, utterly unhinged laugh, and Ichabod sees the Headless Horseman, sat astride a rearing steed, holding a sword in one hand and a flaming pumpkin in the other, and we’re off to the races. Part of what makes the chase so effective is that the slapstick serves the horror. Every time Ichabod executes a pratfall, or gets snagged on a tree, or gets turned around by the woods, it’s all playing into his inability to escape the killer on his heels. It’s funny, but it’s also nightmarish. The short may not have had a great impact beyond that sequence, but it’s an incredible sequence, and one that stands up to all kinds of critical scrutiny.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is, on the whole, not greater than the sum of its parts, but it does have some incredible parts that were put to better use elsewhere.