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There is an audio version of this review HERE
And so it is that the Unshaved Mouse comes to the last of the package films.
Okay, that’s not exactly fair. Believe it or not, I don’t hate the Never Heard of ‘Ems. In fact, I really enjoyed most of them. It was just a nightmare to review these things.
Anyway, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. This is pretty much identical in nature to Fun and Fancy Free, two ideas for full length animated movies that ended up being condensed and released as a single feature. This would close out the forties for Disney, a decade marked by incredible achievements (Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia) and a desperate and sometimes ugly struggle to keep the studio from going under (pretty much everything else). The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad begins with the opening credits…and…is he there?…could it be?…YES!
We also get quite possibly the laziest, most uninspired theme song of any Disney movie I’ve covered so far. It’s not the tune so much, which is fine. It’s the lyrics. Look at this
Ichabod and Mr Toad
Ichabod and Mr Toad
Ichabod and Mr Toad
Ichabod! Ichabod! Ichabod!
Ichabod and Mr Toad.
Seriously, who wrote that? Who was given the job of writing a song for a professional goddamn production and thought it was okay to set the title of the movie to music, insert some baby talk and call it a day?
Anyway, the movie begins in a library where we are introduced to our first narrator, Basil Rathbone.
Rathbone asks us if we had to pick the most “fabulous” character in English literature, who would it be? He lists off a few candidates; Robin Hood…
And Oliver Twist.
Rathbone however, dismisses all of these and instead settles on “J Thaddeus Toad” from The Wind in the Willows. Hm. That’s odd. I read The Wind in the Willows and I don’t remember any J Thaddeus Toad. There was Toad, of course. I wonder if this J Thaddeus Toad is any relation?
Okay, okay. That’s just me being pedantic, but it does bug me that they gave him a new name for no readily apparent reason. Anyway, moving on. Basil the Great Mouse Narrator explains that Toad is an amphibian of no little means, constantly splurging on new fashions and hobbies. Basil says that Toad has plenty of hangers-on but only three real friends. The first is Angus McBadger…
Hm. That’s odd. I don’t remember any “Angus McBadger” in The Wind in the Willows. There was BADGER of course…
Fine, fine. Okay. Badger is now Angus McBadger and is now Scottish for obvious reasons.
Then there’s Ratty. In the book Ratty is a free spirited rebel, a wanderer along the byways of the river and worshipper of the pagan god Pan.
So Disney, you’ve renamed two characters, changed the nationality of one, completely inverted the personality of another…what’s next? You going to make Mole a vampire?
Ratty and Mole are summoned to Toad Hall by Angus (grrrr) who’s taken over Toad’s financial affairs. Toad’s latest fad is racing around the countryside in a caravan and McBadger is struggling to keep up with payments for all the damage he’s causing.
McBadger orders Ratty and Mole to talk some sense into Toad. Now, I’m starting to get a little dubious about this whole idea that Ratty, Mole and McBadger are the only friends who have Toad’s interests at heart. You see, the narration makes clear that what worries them most is not that Toad will go bankrupt, but that he’ll lose Toad Hall, which Rathbone tells us is the finest home in the area and basically classes the whole joint up. It comes across that they’re less concerned that their friend will be destitute than that his mansion might be bought by people of lower class or -heaven forfend!-Americans.
Anyway, they go off to find him and we are introduced to Toad via the song We’re Merrily On Our Way. This is a great little ditty, where Toad and his horse Cyril Longbottom sing about all the places that they’re going to visit. The horse in the original story is a very minor character but here he’s been elevated to the status of Toad’s comedy cockney sidekick.
And…dammit if he doesn’t look familiar somehow.
Ratty and Mole try to convince Toad to give up his caravan, but he gallops off. Then he and Cyril almost get hit by a car and Toad suddenly has a new mania…
No, he has come down with a case of “motormania” and has become obsessed with the idea of owning a car.
Ratty and Mole have no choice but to lock Toad in his room and force him to go cold turkey, but Toad escapes and the next day’s headlines reveal that he’s been arrested for stealing a car.
We then cut to Toad’s trial, where his friends are called to testify against him and Toad mounts his own defence.
Toad calls Cyril to the stand (oh yeah, I’ll bet he’s comfortable being in a courtroom) and Cyril tells the court that Toad didn’t steal the car, but traded some weasels for it and gave them the deed to Toad Hall in exchange. The prosecutor doesn’t believe him, so Toad calls Mr Winkie to the stand. Winkie is the bartender who Toad had witness his signing of the deed over to the weasels.
Toad, thinking this thing is basically in the bag, asks Winkie to confirm his story. Instead, Winkie tells the court that Toad tried to sell him the stolen car. Toad is shocked that Winkie has betrayed him…
…and Toad is thrown in jail. Months pass, and at Christmas we see Toad alone in his cell in the tower of London, miserably recalling his wasted life. He stares at a pool of water on the cell floor, and sees the faces of his friends.
The jailer then comes in and tells Toad that he can have a visitor since it’s Christmas (he only gets visitors at Christmas? He stole a car for crissakes!) and that his grandmother is here to see him.
“Grandmother” turns out to be Cyril in disguise.
Cyril gives Toad a washerwoman’s disguise to allow him to escape, and Toad makes a break for it.
When Toad is discovered to be missing, the police raise the alarm and wake all of London with sirens, release dogs to track him and mobilise the entire force.
He stole. A frickin. CAR! Why are you acting like he’s a combination of Hannibal Lecter and Magneto?
Toad manages to get to the train station and steal a train, and the police follow after him, shooting wildly.
Toad jumps into the lake and, because he’s wearing a leg iron, sinks to the bottom. As he desperately struggles to reach the surface, we pan away to Mole and Rat praying over Christmas dinner.
They are interrupted when Toad appears in the doorway, having escaped from the lake by…by…um…
He was saved by Mr Flippers.
There’s a frantic knocking at the door and Toad begs Ratty to hide him but Ratty refuses because Toad has to pay his debt to society.
But it’s not the police. McBadger bursts in and tells them that the weasels have taken over Toad Hall and the Winkie is their leader. He also says that Winkie has the deed to Toad Hall. Now you may be thinking that, since Winkie told the court he doesn’t have the deed, he can’t use the deed to legally claim ownership of Toad Hall, since doing so would prove Toad’s innocence. So, how does having the deed benefit him in any way? Well, if you’re wondering that then you were paying attention. And the penalty is torture!
Angus tells them that they Toad has to the get the deed back to prove his innocence and…no. No, that doesn’t prove Toad’s innocence. Winkie having the deed proves Toad’s innocence, Toad having the deed makes sense if he just stole the car…
Arrrrggghhh. Okay. Fine. They’re going to Toad Hall, to get the deed from Winkie, to prove Toad’s innocence.
They sneak into the grounds of Toad Hall by boat and are almost spotted by the weasel sentry. Toad then pulls out a frickin’ shotgun and tries to shoot him.
They stop Toad and manage to get into the manor house undetected. They see Winkie in the middle of a pile of sleeping drunken weasels with the deed tucked into his shirt.
The lower Mole down carefully over the sleeping Winkie so that he can snatch the deed without waking him up.
Mole manages to grab the deed but just then the sentry who Toad almost shot comes in, sees what’s going on and raises the alarm. The weasels chase Mole and he runs down a corridor only to have it smash because it’s actually only a mirror. But hang on, that doesn’t make any sense. As Mole was running towards the mirror he should have seen his reflection. The only way he wouldn’t see his reflection is if…OH GODAMMIT DISNEY, YOU MADE MOLE A VAMPIRE!
The sequence where the four friends and the weasels try to grab the deed is pretty fantastic, with plenty of energy and good gags as the piece of paper changes hands from one side to the other and back again. In fact it’s so good that elements of it were reanimated over for quite a few of the, shall we say, more cash strapped movies that came later. My only real quibble is that almost all the action is taken up by Mole and Toad. Ratty gets very little to do, and McBadger gets almost nothing at all. In the middle of a giant battle with the weasels, Badger does nothing. Let me show you how Badger deals with weasels in another version of Wind in the Willows.
THAT’S Badger, okay? A savage force of violence who is permanently enraged because there are a few hours in every day when he is not murdering weasels with his bare hands and that burns him up inside. This guy?
Anyway they get the deed back and the movie ends with Ratty, Mole and McBadger celebrating in Toad Hall. Toad has apparently now cleaned up his act, so the three friends drink a toast to the new year and “the new Toad.” Then there’s a huge crash and they look out the window to see Toad and Cyril flying through the air on his new biplane. Toad waves at them…
…and flies off into the sunset.
Basil Rathbone then passes the narrating baton to Bing Crosby who’ll be our storyteller for the second part of the movie, The Legend of Ichabod Crane. Bing doesn’t have Rathbone’s comic chops or dry delivery, but he’s got a hell of set of pipes and he uses them well in this segment, both singing and speaking. But I can’t help wishing that David Bowie would come in to do supporting narration with him. Ah well.
Bing introduces us to Ichabod Crane, a lanky itinerant school teacher as he arrives in the village of Sleepy Hollow. We also meet Brom Bones, leader of the village’s young men and pretty much the biggest swingin’ dick in the place.
Despite looking like a bald stork, Ichabod soon establishes himself as something of a playa, with all the women in town fawning over him. He even manages to turn the head of Katrina, the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest farmer in the village. This enrages Brom Bones, who’s in love with Katrina and isn’t that always the way? The popular, handsome jock losing the girl to the weird-looking nerdy guy with the muscle tone of an anorexic whippet?
Okay, it is actually a little weird that Ichabod does so well with the ladies, especially since the movie goes out of its way to show that he’s really not that nice a guy. He steals food, uses people, and even his fantasies of marrying Katrina seem more focused on inheriting her father’s wealth than any real feelings for her. But then, given what happens to him, it’s probably best that he’s not too sympathetic.
There’s a party in the village and Brom tries desperately to get some time alone with Katrina, but Ichabod always manages to outfox him. Finally, Brom decides to use Ichabod’s only weakness against him, the fact that he’s very superstitious. Brom (voiced by Bing) sings “The Headless Horseman”, a brilliant song that takes the story of a rampaging headless spectral abomination decapitating people in the dead of night and sets it to a beat you can really dance to. He does this in hopes of scaring Ichabod senseless.
The remainder of the film is just Ichabod’s journey home through the forest. This scene really demonstrates just how damn good Disney was at doing horror. Even in this, a movie that is certainly not showing the studio at the peak of its creative or financial resources, Disney manages to create a real sense of dread as the forest closes in around Ichabod and the moon is occluded by clouds that look disturbingly like hands. As Ichabod’s unease increases, every sound and shadow becomes a source of terror.
Two elements make the Horseman so effective as a villain. One, obviously is the design. And the second is the laugh. This guy has maniacal evil cackling that Dick Cheney could be proud of.
There follows a terrific, breakneck chase through the forest with Ichabod trying desperately to cross the river to safety before the ghost kills him. Ichabod crosses the bridge and turns to see a flaming pumpkin flying right towards and wait just a damn minute here!
The movie ends with Bing telling us that Ichabod was never seen again. While the townspeople hear rumours that he’s married a wealthy widow and raising a family in a different part of the country, they choose to believe that he was killed by a headless undead equestrian enthusiast because they’re people of logic, dammit.
I’ve got to be honest, the animation in both segments is quite poor, even below the standard seen in the other package films. There’s continuity errors galore, with the animators frequently forgetting what colour Ichabod’s eyes are supposed to be. But it does make up for it with some very appealing character design.
The Leads: 13/20
I love Toad, but Ichabod is…I dunno. He seems like a bit of a mish-mash of various traits that don’t really seem to go together.
The Villain: 16/20
I think you could make an argument for the Headless Horseman being one of the scariest Disney villains of all.
Supporting Characters: 14/20
Both narrators do an excellent job. Cyril is fun, but Ratty and McBadger both got on my nerves for the reasons I’ve already gone into.
The Headless Horseman, We’re Merrily on our Way…some minor classics here.
FINAL SCORE: 65%
NEXT WEEK: We close the door on the Never Heard of ‘Ems, and move into the next era of Disney movies: The Restoration. Cinderella is next.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!