Tuesday, October 18, 2011

DATE Night: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

That cape is huge.
Wouldn't it trip the horse?
I told you that this DATE Night would be better! The rough patches will be few and far between in this Disney-centric relationship. I have been near fidgety waiting to get back to the single narrative features, beginning next week with Cinderella. I consciously decided to pause, take a deep breath, and really make sure to give my full attention to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It's all about living in the moment, right? I was newly surprised at some of the things that I discovered, in both good and bad ways. So let's turn to the final package film until we get to The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh in about thirty years. It was actually nicely timed to give us a good, old-fashioned Halloween season spook.

Is that black blob the
cape now? Unclear...
The Background:

We have now come to the tail end of the forties (we've come to 1949 to be exact) and the aftereffects of WWII on the studio are lessening. Disney spent the decade dipping its toes into live action films and producing animated package films consisting of more than a single linear story. These package films were less taxing on the manpower and resources the studio had at its disposal, but were by no means crowning achievements artistically. They were a way to keep the folks making animated pictures creatively active. It was a sort of fallow period that would soon bring about the growth of a second wave of unabashed masterpieces in the canon. Disney had been developing "Toad" as a full-length picture since the late thirties when the rights to The Wind in the Willows were acquired. It became apparent that the story was going to take much more work than they were going to be able to give it in the strained WWII years and it was decided to condense the story and pair it with another story, a la Fun and Fancy Free's pairing of "Bongo" with "Mickey and the Beanstalk". "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was chosen as an American story to contrast with the very British "Toad". The film was warmly received at the time of its release.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 18: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Filling a gap, I'm back to the 40's. The two stories don't much tie together and neither is outstanding. But there are some great characters (adorable Mole, hottie Brom Bones), charming songs, and funny bits. There is some great styling and color work by my fave, Mary Blair, in "Ichabod". Neither tragic nor fantastic, but squarely in between.
March 7, 2010 at 12:54am ·

The Art:

They stole the crazy eyes for the
awesome attraction poster.
6/10. There are some nice artistic moments in "Toad", like his psychedelic pinwheel eyes when he gets excited about a new gadget, the atmospheric fog or the train rushing past the snow and trees in the night, leaving trails of red-hot ash behind it. But one of the moments that stands out in my head the most is the first shot of Toad Hall and not for a good reason. There is a pond in front of it where there would normally be beautifully animated water and yet it is completely still. It sits there like a painting until a blossom falls to the surface and produces a few rings. This seems to be out of economic necessity rather than artistic vision and left a funky taste in my mouth. The rest of the story employs techniques and tricks that we've seen before. Well-done but unexciting.

Mary Blair's firefly tree ghost.
"Ichabod" more than makes up for these shortcomings. Mary Blair's fingerprints are all over the place from the use of color to signal emotional states, especially in the climactic scene in the woods, to the stylized backgrounds and landscapes. The whole work is really rooted in her aesthetic, so you know that I loved every brushstroke and line. Beyond her influence there are really clever moments that stand out. Ichabod's approach seen through the bottom of a beer stein. Wheat and lettuce morphing into gold coins and greenbacks as Ichabod fantasizes about Katrina's fortune. Ichabod pulling down his dream bubble of Katrina to kiss but planting his lips on the feather duster he'd been fidgeting with. Brom seeing double of Ichabod and the doubles commence dancing with each other. Exquisite work during the dance, with shifting perspectives and sweeping movement. And of course the amazingly dimensional scene in the forest with the ghost made of a hollowed out tree and two fireflies, the shape of the clouds mimicking the creepy trees and a hand closing in on the moon and obscuring it. It is some of the strongest, most artistically provocative and unexpected artwork that we have seen yet in a Disney feature.

The Story:

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream.
Wait. No. That's not right, is it?
5/10. As with all of the package films of the forties after the South American duo early on, there isn't much to thread the stories together. Here, there really isn't even an attempt to. They both happen after we enter into a library through a stained glass window depicting a book. Wind in the Willows is removed from the shelf and Basil Rathbone, famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, narrates the tale as other voice actors portray the characters. The telling of the story opens with illustrations from the book giving way to traditionally animated scenes. It seems to me to be a rough ride going merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily on its way to nowhere in particular. Big chunks of story are told through newspaper headlines awkwardly thrusting us forward in time. The story moves very fast and seems to be leaving out a lot. So much was going on, from police chases to hijinks in Toad Hall, that it all became white noise for me because it never drew me in to begin with. It feels like if they were going to tell the story well, they should have made it a full-length as they had originally planned, and given it room to breathe. I felt like I was rushed through with bright colors flashing and people shouting at me and yet was somehow still bored more often than not.

Mary Blair's Headless Horseman.
Then we transition back to the vague library, where "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is pulled off the shelf and Bing Crosby settles in to spin us a moon tonight. Everything that is wrong with "Toad" is right in "Ichabod". The single voice of Bing gives a welcome sense of consistency. The story is muscular and lean, told with an economy that makes it fit comfortably in a half an hour time frame. It is genuinely eerie, with enough levity interspersed that it doesn't get too intense for most anybody. The art, which undoubtedly becomes abstract, eschews being literal in ways that really support the story and not just for show. Even the sound design, with animal noises mimicking warnings to Ichabod, creatively interpret psychological states. The whole scene in the woods is a trip into what fear looks, sounds and feels like. There is a sense of sophistication that makes this half feel more like a special even and less like something between an over-bloated short and an over-edited feature. 

The Characters:

The site of my favorite hidden Mickey.
5/10. The characters across the board are well-designed and animated. All the anthropomorphic creatures of "Toad" are done with the requisite craftsmanship that we have come to expect from Disney, even if there is nothing surprising in the designs. The problem lies in the fact that I feel like I don't really get to know them over the course of the jerkily told plot except in the most basic of terms. Toad is reckless. Cyril is goofy. Mole is the gay...uh...I mean sweet one. Ratty is uptight. Badger is Scottish. The people in the court like to yell. Winky is weird and the weasels are mean. That's all we get. When there are that many characters to cover in half an hour, some are bound to get the short end of the stick, but in this case it seems like they all did. This is a lot of why I felt so uninvolved in the story. They characters felt like quirky shells rather than dimensional characters.

Dude! You are all up in my grill! Chillax!
Now that doesn't mean that their counterparts in "Ichabod" walked out of a Tennessee Williams play, but there are some layers there. Ichabod is a superstitious, gangly, bookish, rather unattractive man who nonetheless gives heartthrob Brom Bones a run for his money where the most eligible bachelorette in the town is concerned. Brom seems to be attracted to her genuinely if overzealously while Ichabod seems only to want her for her money. Katrina just seems to love the attention, but seems to have feeling for them both. And boom! We have a genuinely intriguing love triangle with a town full of interesting bit players, including the girthy lady with the awful bangs who takes a shine to both the men herself. It's a manageable amount of characters to flesh out sufficiently in the time frame and they do it beautifully. The character designs here are fascinating. Katrina is a Liberty Bell bombshell. Brom has the body of a god and the capacity to do the work of a devil. Ichabod is all odd angles and proportions but carries himself as though he is the most attractive creature in town. And we mustn't forget the Headless Horseman, all shadows and a cape the color of a deep wound riding a horse with burning red eyes. He is one of the most chilling designs of any Disney villain and makes maximum impact with a minimum of screen time.

The Music:

I love that his ponytail is supporting his upper body.
5/10. I enjoy the music in this film quite a bit. We open with a funky little jazzy ditty that introduces the whole shebang. Then we stumble into "Merrily On Our Way", which is actually my favorite part of "Toad". It's appropriately non-sensical and captures Toad's freewheeling spirit perfectly. The sequence is also one of the most cleverly animated, with a real sense of joy and humor, including roads that literally run perpendicular. Once we get to "Ichabod", where our sole narrator is Bing Crosby, music becomes a more integral part of the story and it is fitted to Bing's unique sound. It works like a charm. The songs may not fit the period, but I'll be darned if they aren't fun and don't feel perfectly appropriate for telling the story. The hook into the story was telling it in a more modern, for the time, fashion and the musical sound supported that. Ichabod, or "Icky" as Bing says, even charms the ladies with his Bing Crosby-like vocal stylings. The songs themselves are very good. "Katrina" allows for some really funny animation that really gives us insight into the characters. Undoubtedly, though, the musical centerpiece is "The Headless Horseman", which Brom sings to wig Icky out. It's bouncy, jazzy, fun and yet completely creeptastic at the very same time. It is now a Halloween time classic and should be considered a classic for the "You can't reason with a headless man" lyric alone. Brother...you're preachin' my life...

The Gay Scale:

Hopefully they are assuring Mole
that it gets better.
5/10. First off, a working title for this movie was actually Two Fabulous Characters. Uh, hello! Outside of that, however, there is a decent amount of material we can scrutinize under the microscope of gay. In "Toad", it seems pretty obvious to me that not only is Mole a gay, but he's totally crushing out on Toad. When we first see Mole, he is looking longly at a butterfly while being described as a "gentle creature, kind and sympathetic". From then on, it becomes clear in the way that Mole reacts to Toad that he is the sweet, quiet gay boy who is totally into the rebellious bad boy. You see it in the way that Mole becomes shy around Toad. The way he always keeps his focus on him, hoping to catch his attention. The way he climbs up onto the wagon to join Toad's adventure before being pulled back by Ratty and waves at Toad in the courtroom to make sure he is aware of his presence. It's actually quite sweet. I also find Winky a bit suspect with his fancy curled hair and moustache and his spiffy pink and purple outfit. And of course, there are some drag antics with his horse Cyril Proudbottom (Proudbottom, eh?) and Toad as grannies.

Swoon! You manly beast, you.
On Icky's side, we have one major piece of eye candy in Brom Bones. He is one of the ultimate Disney Dreamboats. He is like the hot American cousin of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. He is cocky, tall, muscular and terribly handsome. And for a villain he isn't really that villainous, especially considering the Headless Horseman is in the picture. (When there's someone waiting to chop your head off, getting angry at a rival paramour and spooking him with a scary story pales in comparison.) That means I don't have to feel guilty about salivating over a bad guy. I'd be more than willing to let him to tell me ghost stories by the fire if he promises to snuggle up with me afterwards and assure me that everything is gonna be OK.

The Bottom Line:

5/10. There is a big discrepancy in quality between "Toad" and "Ichabod" in my eyes. If I had to break it down, I would give "Toad" a 4 on its own and "Ichabod" a 7. Many people would probably disagree with me, but I was just plain kind of bored during "Toad". It may be a disconnect with the story itself. I have never read the book and I get a little bored during the stop motion version of the story that was made much later, too. In the later version, however, the stop-motion animation helps keep my interest. I feel like in "Toad" I've seen it all before and done better. If it were a short, it would be passable though forgettable, but it fails to make a case for why it shouldn't fall squarely in the bottom ranks of the animated classic canon.

More Mary Blair awesomeness. Just cuz.
It's buoyed, however, by "Ichabod" which is artistically experimental, thanks in great part to the inspiration of Mary Blair, skillfully told and genuinely creepy, without being too frightening for young viewers. I enjoyed it much, much more this time around than I did before, when I thought the two were pretty much on par with each other. It is somehow able to mix periods (late eighteenth century viewed through the lens of a forties cultural sensibility) so well that it, in effect, emerges as a timeless and classic retelling of an already timeless and classic tale. It is no wonder that they were so often released and shown separately since there is no real cohesion between the two in any way.

The whole experience is kind of like when you ask a friend to go out to dinner and they're all like "Sure, but do you mind if I bring ---insert name of other person who's a total drag--- along?" and you're like "Oh. Sure. Of course." even though you really don't wanna hang out with Boring McSnoresalot. You just suffer through so that you can hang out with your friend. Luckily, with a DVD, you can just fast forward through the parts you don't much care for. At dinner, however, you're on your own.

The Miscellanea:

Characters from "Toad" show up a few times in later Disney films. They play several supporting roles in Mickey's Christmas Carol, which makes complete sense considering it is another adaptation of a British classic. Mr. Toad and Cyril Proudbottom also make cameos in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, as do the weasels, who bear a striking resemblance to the Toon Patrol. There was also a live-action adaptation of the story done in the nineties with Monty Python alums, called Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and distributed in the States by Disney. It did not do terribly well despite good reviews. Below is a song from it. I can't say it has me convinced, but I'm not a terribly big fan of the story in general. If you are, it's probably worth giving it a shot.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the Disneyland (and former WDW) attraction, "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride". In my adulthood, I've only ridden it twice at Disneyland. I'm sure I rode it as a child at WDW before it was closed, but don't have any recollection, which isn't surprising since I have a memory like a sieve. In my terribly humble opinion, the dark ride tells a more effective story in a few minutes than the thirty minute film does. It is one of my favorite of the classic Disney dark rides and the best part is the weird finale that literally sends you straight to Hell! It's a deliciously twisted cherry on top of a wonderfully weird ride. I would usually include a ride-through video, but none that I could find does the ride real justice. They are all very dark and you can't linger on the awesome details, like my favorite hidden Mickey (in Mr. Toad's eyeball in the queue), the fantastic and detailed show building and the lighting effect on the floor that makes it look like the cars are emerging from the fireplace. Suffice it to say, all of it is amazeballs.

I've already expressed how much I enjoy the music from "Ichabod". I wanted to throw in two more versions of the "Headless Horseman Song" for your Halloween playlist. The first is from a story and song record released by Disneyland Records in the sixties with the vocals of none other than Thurl Ravenscroft (the bass bust of "Grim Grinning Ghosts" fame and the Enchanted Tiki Room's Fritz among many attraction appearances and most famously the voice of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"). It's a great arrangement with some bangin' rockabilly acoustic guitar. The second is a more swinging version done by Kay Starr. Both are fully awesome. You're welcome.

We have come to the end of the forties and the package film era. I must say that, on the whole, I don't look back fondly on this decade in Disney film history. These films seem to me to be far below the level of what Disney is capable of, but I understand why this period happened and appreciate what it allowed to come next. It also gave us a bunch of amazing work from Mary Blair, Joe Carioca (my green-feathered crush), and some moments of real brilliance here and there. Starting next week with Cinderella we get back to one story per feature (with only a few exceptions) and I cannot wait to take you to the ball and bestow some fancy but breakable footwear on you as we tear into the second golden age of Disney animation!

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