One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.
This is Disney By The Numbers.
Every Halloween as a kid, we had a VHS tape (for the younger of you a VHS was like a DVD (no wait those aren’t a thing anymore) – they were like Blurays (wait, those are being phased out too)- they were like little boxes that played digitally streamed movies but were neither digital nor streamed, and they could record video off of cable tv. For the younger of you cable tv is…)
Look we’re moving on, this is a movie review not a recounting of the march of technology made to make feel my age!
We had a VHS specifically for Halloween. Among the things recorded on it were a couple of Halloween themed Disney shorts like The Lonesome Ghosts, Trick or Treat, and most importantly The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Of all the VHS recordings my Mom had stolen off of the Disney Channel whenever our cable provider gave us a free trial, this was one of my favorites. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was at once funny and spooky and encapsulated everything fun about Halloween. Little did I know it was originally a package film along with The Wind in the Willows, another Disney Classic! So that’s two great tastes, but do they taste great together?
We might have the answer numerically.
- Theme 1
- Tightness of Script 2
- Dialogue 1
- Use of Comedy 2
- Use of Drama 1.5
I’ve frequently commented during these package films how much I’ve missed the storytelling of the Golden Age classics. So imagine my delight to find our first segment opening with narration by Basil Rathbone as a book is opened to introduce the tale. Classic Disney move right there.
We’re then treated to a truncated telling of The Wind in the Willows, the story of J. Thaddeus Toad Esq, who is accused of stealing a car and sent to prison only to escape and with the help of his friends prove his innocence. The story comes complete with a catchy tune, clever comedy, and thrilling action. After Melody Time it’s almost hard to believe that this came from the same company!
Furthermore, the narration serves its purpose admirably, setting the stakes with how important Toad Hall, (Toad’s Mansion) is and introducing us to the characters. It’s the type of economy of storytelling that I’m awful at myself but love it in movies.
After the Mr Toad segment, Basil Rathbone is relieved from his narrator duties by the King of Crooners himself, Bing Crosby; A welcome addition in my book. Now unlike the Mr. Toad segment, which had other voice actors contributing to Rathbone’s narration, Bing fulfills all vocal duties that don’t call for a female voice. He relates, and sings the tale of Ichabod Crane, a small colonial town’s schoolmaster who competes with Brom Bones for the affections of Katrina Van Tassel, only for it to end tragically for him when he runs afowl of the Headless Horseman.
Bing’s narration is charming enough, though, it can begin to feel a bit like “The Bing Crosby Show Starring Bing Crosby and his best friend, Bing Crosby.” but the animation, which we’ll get to later, elevates it to be more than just that.
So while the storytelling in this film is hardly groundbreaking and there’s really not much connection between the two segments, the slightly longer format of the film allows for better storytelling.
- Lyrics 3
- Score 3
- Number of Songs 2
- Notoriety of Songs 2
The difference between good movie music and great movie music is how well it sticks with you. Lot’s of composers produce good music that can convey the emotion of the scene but is instantly forgotten. Other composers, Like John Williams or Hans Zimmer produce music that you instantly recognize which film it belongs to and you hum to yourself later.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad benefits from such music. Both segments have memorable, entertaining songs that not only convey the emotions of the movie, but transcend the films themselves. “Merrily on our Way” is an anthem for light-hearted travel and adventure. “The Headless Horseman”, by turn, is a bonafide Halloween Classic, with such lines like “… don’t try to figure out a plan you can’t reason with a headless man”.
Or in other words…
Beyond that, the score is doing some heavy lifting, particularly in the Ichabod segment where it can be haunting and terrifying as well as exciting!
It’s been a long drought in the music category but it finally looks like it’s starting to rain!
- Fluidity of Animation 1.5
- Use Of Color 3
- House Style 1
- Character Design 3
- Breaks New Ground 1
I’ve mention before that this is the last of the package films, and it not only shows in the storytelling and the music, but also the animation. Walt Disney Productions had finally begun to creep out of its decade long funk. Where before the animation was just on par with the basic shorts, here it’s a little more refined.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s still nowhere near the depth, detail, or quality of say Pinocchio or even Dumbo, but it’s a definite improvement, the characters can go off model in the blink of an eye, especially if they’re in the background. But overall there’s an marked improvement.
But it’s not simply the quality that’s improved. Here and there, you can see inklings of the greatness that’s just around the corner for Disney movies. Consider Katrina Van Tassel for example. She’s a perfectly well designed character on her own but if you squint at her in certain scenes and…
Clearly the Disney animators were on the verge of something here.
In fact, I’ve always been convinced that, decades later, they took more than a few cues from Brom Bones when they designed Gaston, but that’s a ways away. Let’s focus on the quality of the animation here first.
There’s a fair amount of visual story telling and gags in this film, a particularly in the Ichabod segment, that Disney hadn’t attempted in a long while. The animation is at times, purposefully, at odds with Bing’s narration. Crosby will describe a person or event while the animation shows them acting otherwise to comedic effect.
Even Brom Bones, one of the more realistic, less stylized characters gets a certain amount of exaggeration to enhance the comedy of certain scenes, from him taking on Frankenstein appearance when getting smashed by a door, to his fist making a “gun cocking sound” when he’s getting ready to punch Ichabod’s face in.
Furthermore Disney busted out its time honored tradition of animating things to spook the living daylights out of kids. The first half of the Sleepy Hollow segment is bright, goofy, and full of funny animation. Then Brom Bones starts telling the tale of the Headless Horseman and there’s a marked shift. The shadows grow deeper, the colors mute and things like this happen…
The haunting atmosphere only deepens as Ichabod travels home at night. The forest around him seems to come alive, with the trees becoming ghosts and the very moon being swallowed up by claw-like clouds. This is trick that goes all the way back to Snow White, and when comparing the two scenes… Ichabod does it better! In Snow White there’s an effort to make the spooky forest still look like something out of a kid’s imagination. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow makes no such concessions. It’s just nightmare fuel.
All of this spookiness reaches a crescendo when the Headless Horseman finally appears and the chase begins.
What’s most impressive about this scene is that even though there are little bits of physical and ironic comedy sprinkled throughout, the Horseman remains terrifying and intimidating. There are plenty of movies today that can’t pull off the trick of having comedy right next to suspense and terror.
You see Disney, it’s not hard when you put in a modicum of effort!
- Character Interaction 2
- Importance To Overall Plot 2
- Complexity 3
- Pulls At Heartstrings 0
- Overcomes Obstacles 0.5
In both The Wind in the Willows and Sleepy Hollow, we find what has thus far been a rare phenomenon in Disney movies, even the good ones: complicated love stories.
First let’s take a moment to recognize how refreshing it is to have love stories again! Even if they are a little weird. The last few movies have been relatively light when it comes to this category.
In The Wind in the Willows the love story is between Toad and his friends, specifically Badger, Rat, and Mole. These three mammals all care deeply for Toad but are exasperated, embarrassed, and betrayed by him throughout the feature. At one point it seems like they’ve all abandoned him, only for each character to turn around and stand with him in when they realize he isn’t the cad they thought he is. They just have to accept that he’s always going to be kind of a jerk.
That alone is complex. The idea that some people will never change no matter how much you care for them is a bit much for a kids film, and one I’m not entirely sure the Disney storytellers were driving at. But it’s there.
Then there’s the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. At first glance one would assume the love story is between Ichabod, the protagonist, and Katrina Van Tassel, the love interest. You might also assume that there’s a classic love triangle going on with Brom Bones being the burly, bully vying for the affection of Katrina vs Ichabod, the frail but intelligent hero.
But then the movie ends with this…
… and you realize that, no, there never was a love triangle. Katrina was never interested in Ichabod, but merely played him off of Brom in order to put the big lug in his place and get him to make a move. Is that highly questionable? Yes! Is that a love story for the ages? Oh no! But it is complicated and that’s what we’re looking at here.
- Sidekick 1
- Charm 1
- Goodness 0
- Emotional Transformation 0
- Comedy 1
Speaking of complications… oh boy! Welcome to the hero category! It’s amazing there are any points at all. But not for the same reasons as the last few where there simply was nothing to judge on.
No, here we have a unique situation where the protagonists of the two segments pretty much spend the entire shorts butting heads with each other in our point system. When one hero gains a point, the other does something that would negate that point. And since we have to average the score… it pretty much takes a walloping.
Toad is a selfish, arrogant, short sighted thrill seeker, who thinks only of adventure, cheap thrills, and having fun.
And given that description you’d think that he’s the one that kept scoring low points. But turns out it’s not him at all. Because Toad, for all of his faults, is a lot of fun, and genuinely cares about his friends when he’s not possessed by some new mania.
No, it’s not Toad’s fault. It’s Ichabod’s.
Ichabod Crane is an utterly despicable character. Apart from being absent-minded and conceited, he’s a philandering womanizer that sees the opposite sex as tools. All Ichabod cares about is if they can get him wealthy or well-fed. His ‘love’ for Katrina is purely based on the fact that she’s good looking and rich, but mostly rich. He even imagines taking her father’s place when he kicks the bucket.
What truly separates these characters is how the story treats them. Ichabod is treated by the narration as the hero and blameless for his actions and for what happens in the story. The story treats him like a hero, so we judge him as a hero.
In contrast, Toad’s faults are treated like faults. His wild ways are called out by his friends, the narrator, and by society at large. He’s even thrown into prison because of them. As an audience we see how Toad is flawed and it gains him sympathy when he’s actually repentant.
On top of that, we get to see Toad engage in some good, old fashioned, high flying action.
The result is that Toad endears himself to us in spite of his faults where as Ichabod’s faults only grow more pronounced the more you look at him.
- Evilness 1
- Comedy 0
- Sophistication 1
- Henchmen 1
- Poses A Threat 3
I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m a fan of the Headless Horseman. The visuals on him alone grant him iconic status. He has presence, he has menace, he has a killer cackle. He’s like a Nazgul, but one that’s having a hell of a good time.
But that’s about as far as we get with him. The Horseman is more of a force of nature than an actual character. He’s terrifying and awe inspiring, but by his very nature he can’t be funny, or sophisticated, or even have henchmen.
Wind in the Willows‘ villain is a crook by the name of Winky who, in many ways, is the opposite of the Horseman. His character design isn’t much to look at. He’s just some dude. He has a posse of weasels henching for him. He gives off such a respectable vibe that the judge at Toad’s trial falls all over himself to shake his hand.
Where the Headless Horsman doesn’t really have any motivations, Winky has greed.
So really, if you combined the two you’d have the perfect villain, and the Horseman would love it because Winky’s head is ginormous!
- Comedy 1.5
- Inventiveness 0
- Clear Help Or Hindrance 2
- Strength of Relationship with Main Character 2
The reason why “Strength of Relationship with Main Character” is a subcategory is because, as we saw in lower scoring Disney movies, very often the supporting characters are just sort of there and barely know or relate to the the main character. We’ll see more of this in later films as well.
Happily, that’s not the case here. Toad is an inconsiderate, tailpipe huffing nincompoop. It’s lucky for him he has friends that care about him, frankly, more than they should. The three main ones are Mole, Rat, and Badger
This cartoon trio offer direct contrast to Toad’s antics, with Badger being irascible but financially minded scotsman, Rat, the respectable British gentleman… and Mole being a regular Peter Pettigrew.
These three spend the first half of the movie trying to look after Toad, attempting to protect him from his mainias. Later, when they realize that Toad is innocent of the crimes he’s committed, they aid him in thwarting Winky and his weasels.
But what makes them interesting, I think, is that short middle period when they believe Toad is guilty of stealing a car and he gets sent to jail. They don’t fall into the typical sidekick cliche of instantly assuming their friend’s innocence because they know Toad is very easily capable of something like that. But even with them thinking he’s a criminal, we see at their Christmas Dinner, that they still care for him and want the best for him.
All the while he’s escaping prison, resisting arrest, and lying to them.
Ichabod’s story is a bit different. He certainly doesn’t have sidekick’s like Toad. I’m pretty sure that fleas wouldn’t even want to be his friends. What’s curious about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow is that no one is quite who they appear to be.
Ichabod seems like the hero, but is actually a louse.
Katrina seems like a sweet and innocent damsel, but is actually conniving and shrewd.
Then you have Brom Bones. The big, dumb, jock who actually might not be as dumb as we think. Because in the same vein as the others, Brom might not just be more clever than he seems, he could very well be the Headless Horseman himself. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence (which my Mom used to point out to me) to suggest this. Which means he either scared Ichabod to the next county or murdered the crap out of him.
But even if Brom isn’t the Horseman, he still manages to outwit Ichabod by putting the schoolmaster on the path toward the Horseman.
And that’s the craziest thing. In a movie where a character may or may not be a murderer, he still manages to probably be a better person than the other two main characters.
Disney Magic and Legacy
- Theme Park Presence 1
- Timelessness 2
- Impact On Culture 1
- Scope of Audience 1
- Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 0.5
Few people know about The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad as a movie. Oh sure, lots of Disney fans know that Disney did an adaptation of the Wind in the Willows and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but in the grand scope of Disney Animation, this tends to be one of the smaller, lesser known entries.
And yet for something small, it has a rather outsized legacy.
The Disneyland boasts an entire ride dedicated to Mr. Toad. In fact, Mr Toad’s Wild Ride is an original 1955 opening day attraction. Most of the opening day attractions built in Frontierland and Tomorrowland have gone by the wayside but a ride dedicated to one half a movie no one remembers is still going strong.
But it’s not only Mr Toad that gets a nod at the theme parks; though his is by far the more grandiose. Disney also hosts an annual Halloween Party called “Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party”. The event is notable because it’s pretty much the only time that adults are allowed to wear costumes in the parks, it has trick or treating for the kids, special ride overlays to re-theme them for Halloween, and a special Halloween Parade. And during that parade, this guy shows up.
These park appearances just go to show how iconic Disney has managed to make these characters in spite of the movie being less well known. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad probably isn’t the most definitive version of these stories, but there’s no denying that their take is one of the most iconic.
Grand Total: 54.5
This is easily the best of the Package films. That isn’t necessarily saying a lot. The two Donald Duck movies are too scattered and insane to rank well. The musical features just feel like lesser versions of better movies, and Fun and Fancy Free suffers from being only half-good.
Reviewing these package films have been a chore and with each of them it’s gotten dark. Really dark! Like sitting in an interview only to realize you’ve made the worst decision of your career and ruined your comeback kind of dark.
With Ichabod and Mr. Toad, we finally had a package film where both segments carry their weight. The characters are relatively complex, much of the comedy lands, and it delivers thrills and catchy tunes. Like I said at the beginning, two great tastes…
… that don’t necessarily taste great together.
One of the reasons why many don’t even really know that these short films were once packaged together is that they really have nothing to do with each other. Even within the movie the only thing linking them is a quick line from Bing Crosby that more or less says “America also has cool stories”.
Ultimately. both films are stronger separately than together, which is more or less the lesson we can take from these package films. Sure they can have great stories, but when there isn’t a connected narrative, getting through a theatrical runtime can be a bit of a chore.
And thankfully, Disney learned this lesson as well, since this is the very last time they did a package film. They were initially made out of necessity, a necessary evil to keep the doors to the studio open during the War and it’s aftermath. When viewed individually they don’t seem to amount to much, but looked through the prism of Disney history, the package films serve as interesting footnote and a somewhat circuitous map leading to the greatness that was about to come.