Now to once more dig into my favorite Disney films, and those are of the more obscure variety. I have probably already explained this before, but back when the Disney Channel started, with cable television in its infancy (yes, I am that old), they had to find programming. Lots and lots of programming. During the day, when I guess they thought no one was watching, they used to play old school shorts. They were the kind of cartoons you would find before a feature length movie back in the day when, other than the radio, that was peoples’ main form of entertainment. You can find many of these cartoons now on Disney+, and I have watched the majority of them. I am guessing there are certain ones that will remain under lock and key in the Disney vault, along with Song of the South (1946). Other than these shorts, another that I recall seeing in my childhood is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1946). I surmise that the streaming service suggested it to me because of all the shorts I had seen. Or maybe it is because of Halloween? If the latter, then that is lost on me because I am not a fan of that holiday. Anyway, on with the review!
For whatever reason, the producers at Disney studios in 1949, which really means Walt himself, decided to combine in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, two classic tales of Western English literature: respectively, Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1820, and Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s book The Wind and the Willows. The opening narrator (voiced by Basil Rathbone) asks what is to me the suspicious question of who is the greatest character in the whole of the aforementioned body of work. I say “suspicious” for two reasons. First, whomever is picked, they are about to get the Disney treatment. Next, the initial personage they land on, after passing over a number of familiar giants, is J. Thaddeus Toad (voiced by Eric Blore), henceforth Mr. Toad. In this strange world where anthropomorphized animals live in harmony with regular humans, and in England to boot, Mr. Toad is known as one of the wealthiest animals. He is also imprudent. He has hired Angus MacBadger (voiced by Campbell Grant) to put his estate, Toad Manor, in order. Poor old MacBadger cannot keep up with Mr. Toad’s recklessness, so he appeals to Mr. Toad’s two best friends for help, the well-meaning Mole (voiced by Colin Campbell) and the stuffy Rat (voiced by Clause Allister). Not even their words of reason can calm the mad dashing of Mr. Toad, especially with his new horse, Cyril Proudbottom (voiced by J. Pat O’Malley), pulling his new cart. Mr. Toad is fixated on tearing about in his buggy until he spies a new contraption that completely captures his attention: a motorcar. Having had enough, Mole and Rat lock Mr. Toad in his room, but Mr. Toad escapes. They discover this in the morning papers when it is reported that Mr. Toad has been arrested for stealing a car. Representing himself in court, Mr. Toad reveals that he had traded with a pack of weasels, who were the ones who had actually stolen the car, giving them the deed to Toad Manor in exchange for the vehicle. This had been witnessed Mr. Winkie (voiced by Ollie Wallace) inside his pub. Mr. Winkie had been Mr. Toad’s star witness until Mr. Winkie decided to double cross Mr. Toad, changing his story and taking Toad Manor for himself. This sends a befuddled Mr. Toad to prison. Yet, on Christmas, Cyril sneaks into the prison and gives Mr. Toad a disguise that is used to escape. Mr. Toad is able to make it Mole and Rat just as Angus arrives to say that Mr. Winkie has taken over Toad Manor along with the weasels. Seeing the deed as the object needed to clear Mr. Toad, they all sneak in together, but for some reason send the clumsy Mole to slip it off of Mr. Winkie’s sleeping form. Of course, Mr. Winkie awakens, and there follows a brief chase before Mr. Toad and company are able to get away with the document. Now shown to be innocent, Mr. Toad claims to be reformed of his wasted life of adventure seeking. However, this half closes with Mr. Toad flying off into the sunset on an early airplane.
The other supposedly widely known literary character in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is Ichabod Crane. I cannot give you actors, or in this case voice actors, for this part because it is all done by Bing Crosby, who serves as narrator. Actually, I think the only reason this exists is so that Crosby can croon. At any rate, Ichabod comes to the quaint Manhattan village (before it engulfed the entire area) of Sleepy Hollow to be the new school master. His gangly appearance brings him the ridicule of the men in town. The women, on the other hand and for no good reason, find Ichabod charming. For his part, Ichabod is a conscientious teacher, though not above indulging in the trappings of his position in town, namely the free food. What turns everything on its head is the return of van Tassel family to their farm, namely Katrina van Tassel. Everybody agrees that Katrina is the most beautiful woman in the land. It also helps that her father, Baltus, owns a highly successful farm. Anyone that would manage to marry Katrina would stand to inherit a fortune in crops and land. Ichabod is infatuated with Katrina’s beauty, but also wants the trappings of the van Tassel wealth for himself. His rival in this quest is the handsome and ruddy Brom. To Brom’s utter surprise, it seems that Katrina initially favors Ichabod. This is made clearer when the van Tassels host a party on Halloween at their farm, and Katrina spends most of the night dancing with the fleetfooted Ichabod. Brom believes he has missed his chance until he remembers that Ichabod is petrified of scary stories. To unnerve the school master, Brom recounts to tale of the Headless Horseman, a ghostly figure that haunts the area on Halloween looking for a victim to replace his own missing cranium. With this story in the back of his mind, a scared witless Ichabod sets out for home that night, jumping at every sound that goes bump in the night. Eventually, he is confronted by the actual Headless Horseman. A chase ensues as only animation can produce. The long and short of it is that Ichabod is never heard from again, though the narrator suggests that he had moved on to happier places, while Brom is then free to marry Katrina.
I could not tell you for certain why these two stories were put together in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Sure, it is the Halloween season, and the second part does deal specifically with that holiday. Yet, I would call the first part, if anything, more of a Christmas tale. Mr. Toad’s escape occurs on that important Christian holiday (lest we forget why it is celebrated). Because of this disjointedness, we need to look at it thematically, and that is a job for this Catholic reviewer. On the surface, I will say it is nice to see Mole and Rat praying for Mr. Toad while their friend is in prison. That is a corporal act of mercy, and a grace. Yet, there is no parallel in the second part. Instead, what I would like to suggest is that they are both morality tales warning of the dangers of being too attached to earthly things. With Mr. Toad this is easy to see. He has what the narrator calls a predilection towards “mania,” an over-enthusiasm for adventure. This is a little trickier to apply to Ichabod, though the teacher often appears preoccupied with good food, good books, or the possibility of a good life. There is nothing wrong with adventure and wanting a level of comfort. The problem is that the pursuit of such things often becomes a god for people, hence the mania. God sends people into our lives to try and bring us back to the right path, as Mole and Rat attempt to do for Mr. Toad. Unfortunately, Ichabod is on his own, and pays the price for his fixations. Or does he? Crosby left it ambiguous. The point is that the best things come from God, and usually they can be found in the simplest places.
It is always fun to revisit Disney’s older material like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. On the whole, I enjoyed the experience. The historian in me was confused by the music they chose for the second part, but I suppose that is what you get when you hire Bing Crosby to do all the voices. Either way, it is a lot better than any of the Hocus Pocus movies. At least Ichabod is not talking about iPads, or something else foolish.