Original Release: October 1949
Runtime: 68 Minutes
Directed By: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi and James Algar
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad marks two big land marks in this project’s run. For starters, it is the last of the package film era, a series of collected shorts turned into full length features which released throughout the 1940’s. Secondly, it marks our first step into the second ten films on our list of vault films. Ten films may not seem like much but let’s not forget that between Snow White and Melody Time we saw a war as well as several drastic turns on Disney’s part. Ready to give the package film one last mighty hoorah, my fiancee and I sat down to watch the lovely tales of Ichabod Crane and J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq.
Of all the shorts involved in the package era films, these two probably saw the most juggling of any of them. The Wind in the Willows, the story of J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq. was meant to be a full length feature originally. Production began on the film in 1941, only a couple of years after the release of Snow White. Approximately 33 minutes of the film were already animated when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened in December 1941 and the United States, as well as Disney Studios was launched into World War II. With money running thin, Disney decided to cut Wind in the Willows short and instead make it part of a package. Originally intended to be packaged with Mickey and the Beanstalk, alongside an un-produced short, The Gremlins, the film would be called Three Fabulous Characters. The Gremlins eventually got cut from production and Disney pulled Mickey from the film, replacing him with a short that had started production in 1947, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which would come to be known simply as Ichabod Crane. The title, now Two Fabulous Heroes, was dropped in favor of the current title and suddenly they had a film about two fairly odd heroes, one from the United Kingdom, and one from the United States.
I think it’s odd that these characters got shuffled around so much when in all actuality, they seem to belong together. They are both rather self-centered and not particularly sympathetic characters and if I didn’t know that they had once been separated, I never would have questioned it. I think you’ll understand what I mean by the end of this article.
Let’s start with J. Thaddeus Toad. The Wind and the Willows is based on the book of the same name, by Kenneth Grahame, published in 1908. I have to say that on some level I think we can all identify with Toad, or at least I can. He’s an obsessive character. He sees something new and exciting and has to have it and he is driven to mania by his need for these things. I like to think of this as the way I feel when I see a new board game that I want. Because of this, he is constantly spending all the money from his estate, Toad Hall, and has now found himself in massive debt.
He isn’t alone in this world though. Toad is joined in this story by his friends Angus MacBadger, Ratty and Moley who try desperately to get him to see the error of his ways. Well, except for Moley who seems to be a fan of everyone and only sees the good in people, MacBadger and Ratty though both seem like stuck up fun haters who only want Toad to settle down.
Then, there’s Toad’s devil-on-his-shoulder, Cyril the horse who is quick to go along with Toad on all his crazy adventures and convince him to merrily waste time. I’m not going to lie, the song “Merrily on Our Way to Nowhere” was easily my favorite part of this short and it is over much too quickly.
Anyway, Toad is eventually arrested for stealing a car, which he swears he made a deal with the weasels for, and thusly he owned it fair and square. Mr. Winky who oversaw the agreement, however, lies in court and says that Toad did indeed steal the car. Toad is thrown in jail and disgraced.
Cyril, the ever helpful horse, shows up as Toad’s grandmother on Christmas to break him out of jail which results in a ludicrous chase scene. Toad finally escapes to find his friends have finally seen the truth, that the weasels have deceived them all and are living it up in Toad Hall.
The four friends make a plan and break into Toad Hall to get the deed back to prove Toad’s innocence. There is a raucous fight scene, complete with tons of knives being thrown and plenty of near deaths for our heroes before they make their heroic escape and clear Toad’s name.
In the end, Toad seems to not learn his lesson however as he is seen flying off into the sunset on his new airplane, which he has purchased with who knows what money. Seriously, if this guy is so out of money, how does he keep buying things?
You might understand now what I mean in saying that Toad isn’t really a character you feel compassion for. He easily gets himself into his own messes and only continues to make things worse for himself. I think he’s a character that nowadays we would have a hard time sympathizing with as he is basically a 1940’s version of Donald Trump, constantly splurging and gallivanting around with no care or worry for who it affects.
I will say though, that I like how different this is from everything we’ve seen so far. This is a very British story with very British mannerisms. The characters are all very posh and peculiar and I really feel that if they were human characters, we would not like them nearly as much as we do. This ultimately satirizes their plight and makes them something that we all want to watch. Moley is absolutely adorable and the particular Ratty and MacBadger are cuddly enough that we almost miss how curmudgeonly they are. I’m very happy that this story was split from Fun and Fancy Free though, as I think Toad would have seemed even more of an unlikable character when placed next to Mickey and Co. as they save Happy Valley.
Bing Crosby introduces us to Ichabod Crane by telling us that across the sea, we have just as many fun heroes to talk about. I really like this as the thread that pulls them together. Much like Saludos Amigos, this has a good feel of unity and that nice thought of “It’s a Small World After All.” Ichabod Crane is based on the short story by Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which tells the tale of a young school teacher who arrives in Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York near Halloween 1790, only to be terrorized by the legend of the Headless Horseman. I love the idea of this story. As some of you may know, my favorite Holiday is Halloween and this is one of the few Disney animations that really captures the creepy and dark side of the holiday. Like “Night on Bald Mountain” before it, this represents a darker, twistier side of Disney and I can’t get enough of it.
But let’s back up a little. I don’t love everything about this short. In fact, I can honestly say I really don’t care for Ichabod in this telling of the story. He is sort of a jerk. He shows up in Sleepy Hollow and starts wooing the ladies of the town and eating all their food. The previous town hero and all around tough guy, Brom Bones, formerly the town ladies man, is quite jealous. Eventually, this all comes to the forefront and becomes an all out competition of manliness when the extremely beautiful farmer’s daughter, Katrina Van Tassel shows up in town. Ichabod and Brom have to have her.
The issue I have with this competition is that as it goes on and on, and Ichabod constantly bests Brom, I started to see Ichabod as the villain. Sure, Brom is kind of a jerk and full of himself, but Ichabod is really a bully to him! I think because Ichabod is the skinny nerdy guy, we are supposed to want him to win because he’s the underdog, but switch the body images of these two and Ichabod is just flat out mean, allowing Brom to fall in mud, get hit by doors, hurt his head and generally feel pain in all sorts of ways.
All of this hits the forefront at the Halloween party of Baltus van Tassel, Katrina’s father, when Ichabod dances with Katrina. Brom, who can’t dance, tries desperately to cut in and impress her.
Brom happens to notice that Ichabod is wildly superstitious and uses this to his advantage, telling a story about the Headless Horseman who lurks nearby and embarrassing Ichabod by terrifying him. Let’s think about this. Ichabod is now the one who has been bullying Brom the entire show and now Brom finally bests him with a simple story. I really felt like I was on Brom’s side at this point.
Eventually Ichabod heads home on his horse and becomes terrified in the woods by simple noises of wind and grass rustling, when he is at last attacked by the Headless Horseman. I love that the Horseman is absolutely terrifying. I remember this collection of ‘scary’ Disney images put together to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ which my Mom recorded off the Disney Channel when I was little. I used to watch it constantly. Of all the different little animations, The images of The Headless Horseman were always the most terrifying to me and to this day he is still a creepy guy and I love that. More scary, creepy Disney please!
The Horseman chases Ichabod through the forest with Ichabod trying desperately to get over the bridge where he has been told that the spell of the Horseman ends. This chase is part scary thrill ride and part hilarious slapstick, as Ichabod and the Horseman go around in circles and Ichabod narrowly escapes the Horseman’s blade over and over again. Ichabod finally makes it over the bridge only to turn back and have a flaming Jack-o-Lantern thrown at him.
The story leaves whether or not he died open for interpretation but I choose to believe he was taken by the horseman as it is the sinister route.
Overall, these stories, while not necessarily portraying their heroes as heroic, stand as some of the best shorts in the entire Package Film Era. They fit wonderfully together and the presentation is flawless in combining them. With the package films complete, and the war over, Disney was ready to move into a new era of films, and while I didn’t love everything in the Package Era, I still found things to enjoy, surprises I didn’t see coming and characters I might have gone my whole life without knowing, even though I found them so amazingly entertaining. I’m looking at you Aracuan Bird. Whether the Package Films were amazing or not, it really doesn’t matter. They made Disney back the money they had lost before and during the war and allowed the company to go on to create some of the most amazing films we have or ever will know. As I’m sure Walt was thinking at the time, onward and upward.
Next Up: Cinderella
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!