Disney’s 11th film is only their second literary adaptation. Whilst they’d made films of fairy tales previously (Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk in Fun and Fancy Free), the only book they had previously adapted was Pinocchio. The advantage of working from an established source is that we already know that the characters and stories work, and Disney know this, choosing one great character from English Literature, and one from America, then bringing them together incongruously in one film. There doesn’t seem to be anything connecting these two stories apart from the fact that the characters are much loved figures, rascal oddballs that somehow find ways of getting in (and out) of trouble in terribly amusing ways. It’s a film built around them, and it works because of that – by placing characters first and foremost, Disney regain some of their past brilliance in a way that was mostly forgotten after the Golden Age. Many people see Cinderella as the beginning of the studio’s renaissance, but The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad is so much fun, this seems more deserving of the title.
The first story is based rather loosely on Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, but where that was primarily about Mole’s adventures, this puts the focus on aristocratic buffoon Toad. It’s a wise move, as Mole was always a bit of a dullard. Following Toad as he gets into all different kinds of trouble, the first half of the film has a superb sense of fun to it. There’s so much to enjoy, from MacBadger’s terrible Scottish accent to the slinky, villainous weasels that move in the classic cartoon manner of legs first, torso and head following it. The final fight to reclaim Toad Hall features some classic slapstick action as the weasels try and stop Toad and company from getting the deeds to the building. Children in particular are sure to love sequences where Mole is trapped on one side of a swinging wall panel, whilst Ratty, MacBadger and Toad are on the other side, and they keep swapping over whilst avoiding the flying axes and knives being flung at them by the weasels.
Fittingly, however, the real draw of this story is Toad himself. The narrator describes him as the ‘the most fabulous character of all,’ and he’s not far wrong when he also suggests that we all envy Toad in some way. Together with Cyril the Horse (an invention for the film), he causes havoc with great glee, and his exuberance makes the first half of the film a delight. One particular highlight is when Cyril breaks Toad out of prison by smuggling him a washerwoman outfit, and he then escapes the police in a madcap train chase. By the end, as he flies away with his equine pal into the sunset, you wish that they’d made a feature length film about his adventures, and you long to spend more time in his company.
Thankfully, however, the story of Ichabod Crane is also great, similarly featuring an appealing central character. Where Toad was pompous and arrogant, Ichabod is cowardly and curiously successful with the ladies. His attempts to woo and marry Katrina Van Tassel (surely Disney’s most disproportioned female character) form the main bulk of the plot, and there’s a lot of silliness here. It’s particularly fun that Ichabod is never once presented as a hero; his desire for Katrina is never less than mercenary (her father owns land), and his way with women often leaves him looking ridiculous. This superstitious dimwit is perhaps best represented by a series of screencaps from the film, which show the silly tone of the film and the appeal of the character.
Whilst primarily this works just as a fun story, there’s also evidence of significant care put into the making of the film in a way that hadn’t been as evident in the forties so far. The art work is simple, but makes the most of the simplicity, giving the setting a homely, American feeling. Not only that but the narration, previously a source of irritation in Disney films, is turned into something far richer, the language lent a kind of poetry by Bing Crosby’s mellow voice and a script that follows a sing song rhythm. The music in both stories is memorable, too, adding yet more quality hitherto lacking in Disney’s films from this period. They’ve got their storytelling vibe back, and Ichabod and Toad make for a whole lot of fun.
Then there is the ending of Ichabod’s story, which is wholly unexpected. Don’t read this paragraph if you haven’t seen it, instead go out and watch it, it’s highly recommended. The original Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving ends with the headless horseman chasing him down, and it emerges that it’s merely a prank by local lunkhead Brom Bones. This begins to set up that ending, introducing Brom as a man who enjoys practical jokes. Then, when the headless horseman is finally revealed (he’s but an endnote in this, where Tim Burton turned him into the main plot point), he’s absolutely terrifying in a way that the original source never was. The final chase is still quite silly, and you wait for the big reveal – that it’s all a big wind up – to happen but then it ends in the most peculiar manner. Ichabod disappears, and while there is some suggestion that he left to marry a buxomly frontierswoman somewhere, the narrator assures us that actually, he was spirited away by the headless horseman before it cuts to a jolly tune about it all. This bizarre ending just serves to make this thoroughly entertaining film even more memorable.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad is the first Disney film that’s just irrepressibly fun. The Golden Age films have their moments, but on the whole they are all stories that are told with utmost seriousness. The forgotten forties are just a bit dull. This takes two crazy characters and spins stories around them that are silly, yet riotously entertaining because of it. It’s evidence, once more, that it is always exciting to see a Disney film that begins with a book being opened.