The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is definitely the most famous of the package films. Like Fun and Fancy Free, the film only consists of two segments, but unlike any of the other package films before it, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad has two narrators found within the film’s framing device: Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby. Though Fun and Fancy Free was based on a short story for “Bongo” and a fairy tale for “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is based on two classical works of literature: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. So what exactly connects these two seemingly unrelated tales? According to IMDB, the film was originally going to be called “Two Fabulous Characters,” making the reason the two stories are connected the fact that the two main characters of both stories are “prone to disaster” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041094/trivia). Pretty weak logic if you ask me, but at least both segments are strong in different ways.
First off we have the “fabulous” Mr. Toad. It’s a solid story, and the character of Toad is rightfully the star. His animation, his vocal performance, and the arc that surrounds the character are so perfectly conceived to tell the tale of a bored, rich guy not used to being told “no.” His recklessness is a valuable lesson to us all. Truth be told, when I watch this film, I’m not thinking about the animation. I’m thinking “theme park.”
This segment inspired one of the most memorable, exciting, timeless dark rides to ever emerge out of Walt Disney Imagineering: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I remember going on it as a kid and loving how fast it was in comparison to Peter Pan’s Flight and it’s a small world. The most coveted seat in the motorcar was the front seat with a wheel that actually turned. What was unique about Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was that there were two possible paths you could go. One landed you in jail being stared down by a bunch of angry judges and the other pits you against the business of a train where you lose and wind up in Hell. That’s right. There’s a Disney ride that sends you to Hell.
Sadly, Mr. Toad no longer drives around Disney World, as they shut down the attraction to make way for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Was I upset at the time? Yes, and I was not alone. There was a veritable uproar among Disney World fans for the loss of this favorite attraction. But during my training to become a cast member at Disney World, the logic behind the move was explained and I came to understand why Mr. Toad had to go.
As great a ride it was, people just weren’t familiar with the characters. Heck, if you stopped the average Disney World guest and asked them to name three characters from The Wind in the Willows, they would probably look like you had grown a second head. While you’ve got their attention ask them to name three characters from Winnie the Pooh. They will probably choose three of the following: Tigger, Pooh, Christopher Robin, Eyore, Rabbit, Kanga or Roo. As much as I hate to admit it, Disney World is a business and they want their guests to absolutely love the attractions. If that means refurbishing a ride that centered around obscure Disney characters to be centered around some of the most famous characters on the planet, then so be it.
That doesn’t that Toad doesn’t live on down in Florida in spirit. If you look closely the next time you ride The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, you might spot a familiar fabulous face posing with Owl in a photograph. Also, the next time you exit The Haunted Mansion, take a closer look at the little pet cemetery outside. At the very top row is a monument to a fabulous friend long gone from Orlando. Now while I’m lamenting Toad’s loss here on the East Coast, everyone on the West Coast are asking themselves, “what is she talking about? Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is still around.” And they would be correct. Mr. Toad’s crazy jaunt in a motorcar is still hugely popular over in Disneyland. Unfortunately, I can’t make my way to California very often, but when I do, boy howdy, I get my Toad on.
From England to America, we come across the tale of one Ichabod Crane. This is one of the darker products to emerge from the package films, with arguably one of the coolest Disney villains ever taking center stage. I speak, of course, of the Headless Horseman. He easily makes the climax of the story the strongest part (as well as the most famous) of this whole film. I would even go so far to say that it might be the most powerful and influential moment out of all of the package films.
The scene in question is the Headless Horseman chasing Ichabod Crane through the woods. The buildup is suspenseful in a way that takes a cue from horror films. The background music is ominous and sufficiently puts the audience on edge almost as much as Ichabod is. We have no idea what to expect as far as the Headless Horseman goes; all the audience has is that haunting name and the horrible images our mind conjures up when we think of such a creature.
My favorite moment is when Ichabod thinks that he hears hoof beats but it turns out to be reeds thumping against a log. He starts laughing hysterically and eventually his horse joins in. Even through the laughter, the audience becomes acutely aware that there is no background music playing, giving the scene a quiet calm before the storm resonance. Suddenly through the nervous laughter, Ichabod, his horse, and the audience hear a sinister cackling laugh break through and all of the above adopt an “oh crap” face.
And there he is looking ridiculously badass on a scary black horse wielding a sword in one hand and a flaming pumpkin in the other. The way that the Headless Horseman and his steed are colored is amazing: they’re both painted almost entirely black that they would practically be silhouetted characters were it not for a few strategically placed hints of color. What follows is the most exciting action sequence in a Disney film that had been released by then. In fact, I would say that the scene that managed to surpass this one was Prince Phillip’s fight against the dragon in Sleeping Beauty.
But again when I think of this segment, I don’t completely think about the film itself. I think, “parade.” Now I’m not a parade person; I always take advantage of the shorter wait times at the theme park attractions while everyone is watching the parade. But there is one parade at Diseny World that I love, love, love to death. It is the parade shown during the seasonal favorite, Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. I would love it even if it didn’t have those awesome songs, the amazing choreography of the dancers, and that really great part where the undertakers from The Haunted Mansion scrape their shovels across the ground creating sparks. It’s worth seeing the thing just to see the Headless Horseman spearhead the whole show.
I’m not talking about a float either. I mean there is a guy – who for all intents and purposes appears to be quite headless - riding down the parade route on an actual horse with a glowing pumpkin in one hand. I can describe it all day long, but I can guarantee that it is so much more awesome to see in person. So if you ever get the chance to attend Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, seeing the Headless Horseman actually ride will make the whole experience worth the price of admission alone.
As iconic as the segment is, it’s not perfect. The animation and backgrounds strive to achieve that look of 18th century America, but the music detracts from this in copious amounts and it’s very distracting. The songs sung by Bing Crosby, the townspeople, and even the music playing in the background is all so modern. I know that there are plenty of Disney films that feature songs done in a contemporary style, but for the most part, they would fit into the world their films were trying to portray. Something here though just didn’t mesh. The music didn’t match the story they were trying to tell.
So here we are at the end of the package film era for Disney. These were neither the most important films that the studio has created, nor were they the most profitable. But they were a reflection of what was going on in the world at the time, and at the very least they made the animators hungry. Animators received very little to no artistic satisfaction working on the shorts for package films and by the time 1950 rolled around, they were wanting to jump back in the saddle and do another feature length film again. Say what you will about the package films, but I think that if the animators had not had this time to really hone their skills and ready themselves for a proper feature, then we might not have had the quality of the films that came afterwards. The animators of 1949 had no idea that some of the revered work they would ever do was yet to come.