16 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 11: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad shares many of the traits possessed by its six package forbearers. As with Fun and Fancy Free, Walt once again combined two shelved attempts at narrative features to appease exhibitors. Here the thread that ties the two shorts together is their vaunted stature within British and American fiction respectively. While arguably a rather tenuous and convenient connection, the conceit actually works really well as the two stories complement one another handsomely. The film's first half, based on a portion of Kenneth Grahame's novel The Wind and the Willows, was almost entirely animated by the end of 1941 but lingered on the shelf at the studio as other productions and the war took precedence. The film's second half, an adaptation of Washington Irving's story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was begun in 1946 but it too was eventually sidelined when the studio realized there was not nearly enough story to fill a feature length running time.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad begins in one of those wonderful Disney libraries, where books pull themselves off of the shelf, magically unfolding a timeless story of delight. The great Basil Rathbone intones of the deep treasure trove of literary British characters as we pass by tomes on Robin Hood and King Arthur before resting upon the infectious pomposity of J. Thaddeus Toad, standing tall and proud with his monocle held high. We are then eased into the animation by a simple but highly effective transition that begins with etchings from inside the book depicting Toad's previous adventures, followed by illustrations of the supporting characters, animated against sketched backgrounds, before finally entering a fully-realized animated world. We meet Toad as he and his new pal, the happy horse Cyril, plow through the English countryside belting out the fabulous anthem, "the Merrily Song" which glorifies the benefits of riding off to "nowhere in particular" on roads that "are perpendicular". The rollicking tune accompanied by the great turns of phrase, is the perfect introduction to Mr. Toad. 

What makes the Mr. Toad section of the film most successful is the characterization of J. Thaddeus Toad himself. He is a mercurial dreamer, instantly obsessed with the latest fad and perpetually giddy with enthusiasm, to the detriment of his estate and the frustration of his friends, MacBadger, Ratty, and Mole. In a way, the Mr. Toad segment is a wonderful complement to another piece of British literature that Disney had been toying with for decades. In Disney's eventual adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, the titular star is the only sane character in a world of madness. Mr. Toad on the other hand is the mad one in the prim and proper world of British rule. The swirling onset of mania in Mr. Toad's eyes as he espies his first motorcar is an invocation of joy and unbridled excitement. Truly he is the personification of being fun and fancy free.

Toad's obsession with the newfangled motorcar leads his protective friends to lock him in a room in the grand estate of Toad Hall (echoes of Downton Abbey abound). Of course, nothing will get in the way of Toad and his dreams, so he makes a hasty escape out the window and into the night. The next morning the headlines exclaim that Toad has been arrested for grand theft auto. A trial ensues wherein a shady barkeep named Winky lies to the judge, putting Toad away indefinitely to the Tower of London. To clear his name, Toad escapes from the tower with the help of Cyril and heads off to Toad Hall now overrun by Winky and his weasels. (The weasels by the bye, are the spitting image of Judge Doom's henchmen in Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film that also includes a blink-and-you'll-miss it cameo of Toad and Cyril.) Along with Mole, Ratty, and MacBadger, Toad sneaks into Toad Hall and after a crashing chase of cat and mouse, or better yet toad and weasel, Toad retrieves the deed to his estate and exonerates his name in the eyes of the law.

This climax is a stirring sequence of animation with a wealth of ingenuity, gags, and top-notch action. First, Mole is tasked with lowering himself from a balcony to a sleeping Winky, in a scene very reminiscent of Mickey and Willie the Giant, in Mickey and the Beanstalk. Once discovered by the weasels, Mole runs off towards what he thinks is a long stretch of hall that surprises us by shattering and revealing itself as a mirror. Of course, if we were given a moment to think we would wonder why Mole's reflection was not present to warn him of his folly, but happily the rhythm is too frenetic and joyous for such trivialities. The deed of sale flies back and forth between heroes and villains at such a quick pace that it is impossible to keep up, especially when Toad begins throwing hundreds of paper airplanes through the damaged estate to confuse the weasels. Of course Toad wins and is exonerated in the eyes of the law but the coda informs us that he has learned little from his exploits as we see him and Cyril flying a biplane off into the sunset.

One of the reasons the prospect of a full-length Wind in the Willows feature was nixed fell in part to the cheaper form of animation the studio was producing throughout much of the decade. While it is evident that the animation is not nearly as lavish as Bambi or Pinocchio, particularly in its occasionally plain backgrounds, the cheap approach works well for the story. A fast and loose character such as Toad would be stifled by an animated world as intricate as Snow White, or better yet the film that closes out the studio's next decade, Sleeping Beauty

As Basil Rathbone closes out the chapter on the rambunctious Mr. Toad, the gentle tones of Mr. Bing Crosby take over to tell the colonies' side of this literary symposium. A pretty cool tracking shot in the magical Disney library takes us from the spine of Mr. Toad to an adjacent bookcase which the camera zooms through to a nearby shelf with a collection of cherished American tales on it. We then get a pretty faithful introduction to Washington Irving's tale as the book unfolds on a map of New York, passing through Tarry-Town on the way to Sleepy Hollow. Here we meet the star of the picture, the lanky bookworm Ichabod Crane who saunters into town as the new school teacher. Here Bing Crosby does triple duty, narrating the tale, voicing Ichabod, and singing a number of tunes, including a few that act as themes for the characters. 

Speaking of characters, Ichabod is a refreshingly multi-faceted person. When one first lays eyes on the gangly fellow with the prodigious proboscis, his face buried in a book, we expect him to fit the bill of the clumsy, shy type. Instead Ichabod proves himself both a ladies' man and a bit of a freeloader, mooching food and hospitality off of the housewives of Sleepy Hollow. This nature does not endear Mr. Crane to the town beefcake, Brom Blood, who now must vie for the coveted affection of the gorgeous Katrina with the newly smitten Ichabod. The majority of the short is taken up with the competition between these two suitors for the hand of the fair maiden. The ballad that Bing sings of Katrina is one of the film's highlights. It feels akin to something Stephin Merritt would have tucked away somewhere on his three-disk opus "69 Love Songs". With a lyric that echoes the style of Mr. Merritt's gem "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" the tune is playful, hummable, and wonderful. 

As Brom gets evermore jealous by the advances of Ichabod on the coquettish Katrina, he begins to plot serious revenge. The opportunity for retribution arrives at a Halloween party hosted by Katrina's father. Discovering that Ichabod possesses a superstitious and fearful disposition, Brom regales the revelers with a tale of the Headless Horseman who stalks the woods on dark and lonely nights. Ichabod, who earlier in the evening danced effortlessly with the vixen Katrina, quickly becomes an aching, quaking spooked-out soul. As he leaves the party on his horse, his fears take over. 

The evocative design in the film's fearsome finale is superb. Blues and greys of gnarled trees and foggy skies set the tone as Ichabod - finally playing the part of the ineffectual weakling - trepidatiously traverses the terrible terrain. Clouds form gloved hands that envelope and consume the moon, shrouding the forest into deeper darkness. Ichabod's mind begins playing increasingly demented tricks on him. The flora and fauna of the forest look and sound like haunted spirits. Some reeds banging on a log break the spell and Ichabod breathes an ever-so temporary sigh of relief before the Headless Horseman himself appears out of nowhere upon his black steed, his flaming jack-o'-lantern skull in one hand, a swinging sword in the other!

While the cartoonish elements of the chase that ensues (replete with goofy antics and reactions from Ichabod) tempers the scene, the depiction of the Headless Horseman is truly terrifying. He is framed from low angles which accentuate his already imposing stature. One shot shows him as he leaps from a cliff and up into the sky, the moon soon blotted out by his hulk. The red eyes of his black stallion burn bright through the darkness of the forest. The hysteria of the climax as the flaming pumpkin is thrown directly at the camera sends a solid chill out of the frame. 

The Walt Disney Studios closed out the 1940s with their final package film, and also their best (Fantasia excepted). The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the most sustained bit of entertainment the studio had cranked out since the high-flying peak of Dumbo some eight years prior. While one still longs for a sustained narrative with lavish production values and the driving perfectionism of the earliest features, the best of these smaller films have plenty to offer the discerning viewer, not least of all, a rollicking good time.

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