This Pumpkin Is Not Cinderella's Coach
In A.A. Milne’s 1929 stage adaptation, the Englishman’s famous 1908 book remains a Christmas staple in his country, and -- with a Halloween tie-in -- the Knickerbocker’s famous 1819 short story ushered in respectability for his country’s writers. Their forced yoking in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is, nevertheless, among the least-known and –shown of animated features from Disney’s classic period.
Some argue that the hero is loveable in each in spite of venial shortcomings and that both go on exciting rides. But Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are far more disparate than kin and likely were joined because, at sixty-eight minutes together, each alone was too long for a “cartoon” and too short to run as a feature. Listing three directors, six (re)writers, and an animation department two-and-a-half dozen, the 1949 film is part of the Museum of Modern Art Tim Burton (a onetime Disney animator) multimedia extravaganza, which includes all his films and many others that influenced him: specifically, “his own Sleepy Hollow . . . was clearly inspired by this film’s priggish, nervous Ichabod Crane.”
With no transition link between them, Disney introduces each part with a then-not uncommon library visit to pull down the corresponding volume whose title page opens the story. Basil Rathbone narrates the English first section in low profile, with animal and human characters voiced by the non-famous -- more effective than current celebrity readers -- while Bing Crosby narrates and croons the second, American one.
That first half is more confined to Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall than the complete children’s classic in that it scants the original’s emphasis on bucolic Riverbank existence. Instead, it details the trials of altruistic true friends Mole, Rat and Angus McBadger (voices of Colin Campbell, Claude Allister, Campbell Grant) as they attempt to rein in their improvident J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq. (Eric Blore), and preserve the baronial Toad Hall of which all the neighborhood feels so proud.
Duns beating on the door, McBadger summons the other two in the face of insurmountable bills, while Toad goes from one “mania” to the next. The present obsession is the yellow gypsy wagon pulled by accomplice Cockney horse Cyril Proudtrotter (J. Pat O’Malley), but one sight of men in dusters behind a steering wheel quickly changes that. Toad eludes his friends and offers Mr. Winky (Oliver Wallace) his estate in exchange for a red motorcar driven by that barman’s gang of weasel thugs. Framed for stealing the auto, Toad escapes from prison at Christmas and, with Molie, Rattie and Badger, needs to recover the Hall deed.
The audience of adults laughed and cheered at these adventures marvelously imagined and animated with a hint of danger, a lot of (non-wisecracking) humor, and a fleet of paper airplanes pointing ahead to the incorrigible squire’s next plaything.
Set in the fuzzy past “during the reign of the Dutch governors,” the following tale of the ungainly, self-centered new schoolteacher is, despite fun at his expense, less light-hearted, its witching hour ride as scary as anything else in the studio’s oeuvre (which includes some dire stuff). Ichabod’s gluttony and greed are hidden from public view in his pursuit of wealthy apple-cheeked Katrina van Tassel, while she in turn uses his oily prim attentions to inflame strongman Brom Bones. Sheer luck protects “Icky” from the rival’s muscles but not from the spectral Hessian Headless Horseman planted in his timorous brain.
No one gets hurt, and if rumor is right the pedagogue gets out of this scrape to find another rich wife. He is less cuddly than Toad, even if both adventurers are true to their instincts and somehow land on their feet.
Fables for a less saturated and cynical age, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad deserves more than it has received. As with its carefree heroes, its day will come, or should.
(Released by RKO Radio Pictures/Walt Disney Home Video and rated “G” for general audiences.)