Rixflix A to Z: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Director: James Algar, Clyde Geronimi and Jack Kinney // Walt Disney; 1:08; Color
Source: Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows and Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Cast Notables: Bing Crosby (narrator - "Legend"), Eric Blore (Mr. Toad), Basil Rathbone (narrator - "Wind"), J. Pat O'Malley (Cyril Proudbottom), Colin Campbell (Mole), Campbell Grant (Angus MacBadger), Claud Allister (Rat), Ollie Wallace (Winky), John McLeish (Prosecutor), Leslie Denison (Judge/First Weasel), Edmond Stevens (Second Weasel), The Rhythmaires (additional voices)
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

Does anyone read The Wind in the Willows anymore? I was struck by this thought at Disneyland a couple weeks ago when I overheard a kid of around 9 or 10 ask a question of her parents as they were heading to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Their conversation went as follows:

Girl: "Who's Mister Toad?"
Father: "He's a frog that drives a car."
Girl: "Well, I've never heard of him!"

Despite the stamping of her spoiled brat foot, the girl seemed intelligent enough, so perhaps it is merely her parents' fault for not subjecting her to the simultaneously pastoral and lightly comic charms of Kenneth Grahame's classic novel of small furry animals in the English countryside. Of course, the character that has most struck a chord with Americans is the brash Mr. Toad, a jolly, rich fellow who lives his life to the fullest degree, sometimes at the expense of his dear friends Rat, Mole and Badger. It is also not a surprise that when Disney took to adapting the book to film in the '40s that he removed much of the book's gentler content, focusing mainly instead on Toad's crazed misadventures (which in the book occur every other chapter), a scandalous series of events which will land him in the gaoler's keep and lose him his beloved Toad Hall until his friends rescue him.

Though my immediate reaction was one in which I imagined such a scenario of Wind resistance to be silly, after I thought about it for awhile, I recalled that I myself did not confront the tales of Toad and friends until I was well into my teens. I knew about them, but I had not read them. After all, The Wind in the Willows, while revered justifiably as a classic, is not necessarily the English childhood tome of choice for most American households. That honor could sometimes go to either Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, but far more often it is Winnie-the-Pooh and its sequel The House at Pooh Corner. It is rare to find the toddler these days that isn't smothered in Pooh bed linens, Tigger teething rings and Eeyore pajamas. But do you see Ratty dolls, Mole pillows or Badger underwear? It possibly exists somewhere, but in not even a 1000th of the profusion that Pooh does. Unfortunate, since Ernest B. Shepard (most famous for bringing Milne's Pooh to illustrated life) also did a brilliant version of Wind, which was first published just after Grahame's death. And Wind was animated by Disney almost 20 years before he did a similar thing for Pooh, and even before he did the same for Pan and Alice. So, two prime elements of Pooh's long-running and huge success, the illustrations of Shepard and the animation of Disney, were there, too, for Mr. Toad and pals. Everything was there for this crew to be absolutely as well known in America as Milne's bunch.

But they aren't. Perhaps they are in England – I can't answer this – but they certainly are far back in the pack here. Strange, since the Disney version is readily available on DVD (and around on VHS for eons). And there is that ride. You know... the one with the frog that drives a car.

There isn't a ride at Disneyland with Ichabod Crane, which you think would be an excellent pairing with the Haunted Mansion if Disney ever had the balls to do it. The Headless Horseman chasing you through the dark, threatening to heave a flaming pumpkin at your skull? Sounds like family entertainment to me. This particular scene has haunted me since I was a child (having seen it yearly on The Wonderful World of Disney), and it probably bothered me more than it would have if I hadn't grown up with woods all around me and a great many very darkened walks home alone from the bus stop. Along with constant trouble from Sasquatch and werewolves, the Headless Horseman was one of three main reasons that I ran home a lot. All I had to do is envision the bit with the cattails bumping on the side of the log for me to run like a maniac down the long driveway to our home.

The Sleepy Hollow story took on an even greater hold over me as an adult when my friend Shane did a startlingly good reading of the story every now and then at Halloween, though hearing the original story and seeing the Disney film, as always, are two closely related cousins but nothing more (though this one comes off closer than usual).

The consensus amongst my multiple personalities? The animation, as it always shall, remains top-notch and Toad's adventures, even condensed to only half of Grahame's intent and story, are great, if not slight, fun. Nothing like an unrepentant sinner to liven up the party (even if he does repent eventually – mostly…) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow more than holds up today as a prime example of horror animation, memorably brushing each note in the story onto the screen smoothly but precisely. It may not be seen as horror, since people don't often think of that when they hear the name Disney. But what is Pinocchio if not the sort of morality play that props up horror even today? And if Snow White is not contrived of setpieces as frightening as anything seen in film up to that time, then I am clearly seeing the wrong film. Disney had his moments as far as terror went – any child who buried his head into his mother's shoulder during Bambi will tell you that – and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow lives up to his tradition of scaring the snot out of kids. Especially those who parents decide to locate their homes far too close to the woods.

If only I had Mr. Toad's wild ride in my possession at the time. The Headless Horseman would have been my bitch if I drove that car. (Besides, the cars on that ride are some of the only ones that I can drive legally...)

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