First Theatrical Release: October 5, 1949
First Home Viewing Release: May 25, 1999 (as a full feature; the segments were released individually prior to that.)
My Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: The library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. “The Wind in the Willows” segment exists in a world without females, although the women’s clothes worn by Mr. Toad and Cyril Proudbottom imply that they might exist, or have existed at some time. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow/Ichabod Crane” includes several female background characters in addition to leading lady Katrina, but while they appear in scenes together, they don’t seem to talk to one another.
At long last, I have reached the end of the package film era! And with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, pretty much universally regarded as the best of the package films, I’ve also once more caught a glimpse of the Disney storytelling I love. What’s more, while the movie does include some narrator commentary about literature linking the segments, it manages to eschew the creepy live-action segments involving grown men and little girls. Interstitial connectors praising literature with a visual of a library is something I can quite readily get behind. (I rather like that the older Disney movies pay homage to the source material in this way, especially since so many in our culture seem to think the Disney renditions of these stories are the “real” or “original” versions.)
The Wind in the Willows
In this short, Disney manages to do something that author Kenneth Grahame did not: imbue The Wind in the Willows with an actual plot.
While lovers of the source work are understandably critical of Disney’s take on it, my own feelings toward the source work are undeniably cool, and so I considered Disney’s rendition to be a vast improvement. Of course a lot had to be cut to fit a short novel into 35 minutes, but Disney did this by pulling out the few cohesive plot points in the novel and cutting out all the rest. I did regret that it did so with its customary disregard for female characters — it changed the little girl who helps Mr. Toad escape jail into his (male) horse, and cut the delightful scene where a woman operating a barge calls Mr. Toad out on his disguise as a washerwoman by demanding that he wash all her clothes below deck.
Still, Disney managed to make remarkable sense of the jumble of human and animal characters in the original story (although the animals are anthropomorphized, they remain more or less “animal-sized.”) We also start to see hints of the expressive, human-like rodent characters that Disney will further perfect in movies like The Rescuers and The Great Mouse Detectives. Mole, Rat, and especially Badger are also reminiscent of Don Bluth’s work, such as The Secret of Nimh and the Fieval movies. I have to wonder how much this short influenced that whole cadre of work. At any rate, it is certainly a sign of better things to come!
Ichabod Crane, aka The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
This short serves more as a character study of Ichabod, it seems, than as a plot-based story. Lots of screen-time is given to the strangely compelling, spindly school teacher — we see him at work, at extracurricular activities, at home in bed, in front of his mirror, at a party, and slipping through dark woods at night. We learn that he is a sucker for home-cooked meals, a good dancer, and superstitious. We come nowhere near knowing this much about some Disney characters in full-length features (Snow White‘s prince, anyone?)
When I was in high school, I played Katrina Van Tassel in an 11th-grade production of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” So I was put in a high school frame of mind as I watched this and couldn’t help but think of the rivalry between Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane as one between a jock and a nerd. So it’s validating to see the sought-after Katrina’s unwavering preference for the nerd, although somewhat disappointing that he is looking for pretty much the same thing as the jock: an ample bosom and a wealthy father-in-law.
Even if it weren’t for that, you’d be mistaken to think “Ichabod Crane” is a story about the triumph of the underdog. [Spoiler alert] Bram Bones gets Katrina in the end. Ichabod disappears, possibly killed or run out of town by the Headless Horseman, although rumor has it he married a wealthy widow (there’s a pretty adorable scene of him sitting at a table with about a dozen Icahbod-ish looking children around him). And there’s an offensive scene at the dance in which a short, plump, and warm woman becomes the butt of the episode’s joke, as Bram tries to escape her and she, overly enthusiastically, mistakes his interest and relentlessly pursues it.
Personally, I think she’s a lot more interesting than Katrina, and probably deserves a lot better than Brom. While these two shorts are fairly harmless, this is probably the place that I’d say something if I was watching this with kids — about how a situation that will ultimately end in pain for one character is not really funny, and that this spunky side character is no less a “person” than the beautiful Katrina (in fact, Katrina seems so vapid that it’s very possible this secondary character is “more” of one.)
Luckily, this scene quickly enough fades to Brom’s singing about the Headless Horseman, which is pretty delightful, mostly because of Bing Crosby’s voice. And then we get to the infamous scene of Ichabod’s confrontation with the horseman in the woods.
The Horseman is the only part of the cartoon that I remember from my childhood, probably because it scared the pants off me. It was as if the first half of the story never even happened — I watched it as if for the first time, although I must have seen the beginning as a child if I saw the end. I think what makes the ending sequence truly terrifying is how bucolic and innocuous the story is up to this point — like the best horror films, it lulls you into a false sense of security. Even though I knew it was coming, I still had trouble while watching the first part of the story believing it would get truly scary. And when it does, it takes its time building the tension, beginning with spooky winds and wildlife and insect sounds.
What is most haunting is the story’s lack of resolution regarding the Headless Horseman. We get a hint that Ichabod might have survived the encounter, but we never get the reassurance that the Horseman was a figment of his imagination; or that Brom Bones was playing a trick on him. Even confirmation that the Horseman was REAL would have at least offered some closure. But there is none, and perhaps that is why the specter of the Horseman stayed with me for thirty years while the rest of the piece, still masterfully done, faded from my memory.
Next up — Cinderella, and I’m out of the dark days of the 40s at last!