Monthly Archives: October 2015

By the Book: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Last time I discussed the first part of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, so let’s discuss the second part this time around. It is after all the fitting topic for Halloween.

1. The Setting

One of the things which always puzzled me about the short was that especially Katrina’s clothing reminded me of tradition Dutch attire. Reading the story it makes much more sense, since it is explicitly set in a Dutch Valley near New York. This knowledge made me see the dynamic in the story and the Disney version with other eyes, because in this setting, Ichabod Crane is pretty much the outsider – and apparently not of Dutch origin. This might sound like a minor point nowadays, but it certainly had a meaning when the story was written.

2. The Animation

What is always noticeable about those package movies is how much the animation can change from segment between segment. Most of the complains I have for the Wind in the Willow segment are no issue here, with the exception of the shaky stills. The style is still somewhat basic, but it deserves a lot of credit for the sequence when the headless horseman attacks, even though the trick used is very simple: Whenever the horseman comes close, the background is tinted red, signalling danger.

3. The Characters

To be frank: Ichabod Crane is an a-hole, in the Disney version even more than in the story, though in both it is pretty clear that he is mainly interested in Katrina because she happens to be a beautiful heiress. But in the Disney version, he even goes so far to dream in great detail about Katrina’s father dying and him taking his place. That is cold. Very cold. He is also portrayed as the kind of character who would help a woman and then turn around in order to steal one of her pies. Though a certain sneakiness is also present in the original story.

Brom van Brunt (better known as Brom Bones according to the story) on the other hand is portrayed as a rough character with a good heart. In the Disney version he often seems to be a bully. But I am honestly not sure how much of the impression is based on values dissonance, and how much is intentional. After all, having mussels and being generous towards everyone is not really a bad thing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he originally was supposed to be more a lovable rogue. And what is the worst Brom actually does in the Disney version? Being jealous and telling a story. Those are only bad things if you see them as the act of someone who thinks he already “owns” the most sought after woman in the valley. But in neither version his motivations are explicitly stated. It is entirely possible that he is honestly in love with Katrina and just wants to protect her from Ichabod Crane. The short story is not really clear about this point, either.

And then there is Katrina van Tassel, whose thoughts are everyone’s guess. Is she really impressed by Ichabod? Or is she playing a little game in order to make Brom jealous? Or does she just feel sorry for Ichabod? It is impossible to tell, especially in the short story. There it is entirely possible that Ichabod was too optimistic all along. But in a way, it doesn’t really matter, she is just the McGuffin of the story.

4. The Plot

This might be the closest adaptation Disney ever did. The narration even contains direct quotes from the source text. And the story is told very faithfully, with the exception of two mayor points. One is the fact that Katrina already refused Ichabod before he leaves the party and meets the headless horseman. The other is the fact that in the short story it is heavily suggested that Ichabod’s cruel fate is an old wife tale (it is practically called that way), and that the true culprit was Brom. In the Disney version, Ichabod looks directly into the costume of the rider and reacts terrified, so it looks like this headless horseman is real after all. Both versions are interesting in their own right. The short story plays with the legend aspect and is practically a commentary on how this kind of stories start in the first place. The Disney segment on the other hand plays perfectly on the horror aspect. The first scenes, when the characters are introduced, are pretty harmless. Then Brom tells the story of the horseman (in a very catchy song) and the mood becomes more sinister. And finally the scene in the forest plays on the fears such a places causes. Even though the chase has some comedic elements, it never stops to keep the viewer on the edge.

5. The Soundtrack

I already discussed the main song of the short when I talked about narrative songs. There are two others of this kind in the segment, both designed to introduce characters. First Ichabod Crane:

Who’s that comin’ down the street
Are they shovels or are they feet
Lean and lanky skin and bone
With clothes a scarecrow would hate to own

You don’t even need to see the animation to immediately have a funny picture in your mind. In addition it emphasises that Ichabod’s look is also in-universe very peculiar.

Yet he has a certain air
Debonair and devil-may-care
It’s the new schoolmaster
What’s his name
Ichabod Crane

Well, at least the perception of the men. The woman apparently see more.

Ichabod, what a name
Kind of odd but nice just the same
Funny pan
Funny frame
Ichabod Crane

Ichabod may be quaint
May be odd and maybe he ain’t
Anyway there’s no complaint
From Ichabod
Ichabod Crane

I especially like the last verse. Ichabod Crane might look odd, but he doesn’t care that he does. And most likely because he doesn’t, and approaches women with confidence, he is considered attractive despite not following the common idea of good looking. This stands in stark contrast to Katrina.

Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah
Once you have met that little coquette Katrina
You won’t forget Katrina
But nobody yet has ever upset Katrina
That cute coquette Katrina
You can do more with Margaret or Helena
Or Ann or Angelina
But Katrina will kiss and run
To her a romance is fun
With always another one to start
And then when you’ve met that little coquette Katrina
You’ve lost your heart

To put it in blunt words, Katrina likes to flirt, but she won’t promise anything. And yet everyone falls in love with her, because she is beautiful. But it is notable how much those line infantilize Katrina, by calling her “little” and “cute”.

6. The Conclusion

When I reviewed the other segment of “Ichabod and Mr. Toad” I bemoaned that it wasn’t a full length feature. This segment on the other hand is perfect the way it is. There is no reason to put more into the story, because there is no more to the story in the first place. Disney did a perfect adaptation of the source text. And now is the perfect time of the year to watch it. But not shortly before you have to take a ride through the woods.

11 Headless Horseman

By the Book: The Wind in the Willows

I have said it before and it bears repeating: It is my opinion that the package movies Disney did during the war time aren’t really movies but collections of shorts. But a lot of the segments are, if you have a look at them isolated, well worth a watch. And Disney knew that too. When I was a child I never saw the “Wind in the Willows” segment as part of the “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” movie. Instead I saw it separated with a nice introduction by Walt Disney himself. It wasn’t until way later that I learned how this segment came to be. It also was my first introduction to the story. Therefore I might be a little bit more forgiving towards the adaptation than I should be. But let’s take a look.

1. The Setting

One reason the original book is so popular are the descriptions of Thames valley. While the Disney version doesn’t really show much of the landscape, it manages to capture the laid back feeling of the original. What doesn’t work so well are the rules of this world. In a way, the book with its anthropomorphic animals is made for an animated adaptation. But at the same time, every adaptation of it looks odd due to its tendency to mix those animals with human characters. I know, I know, Disney does this all the time. But usually there is a clear distinction between the human and the animal characters. Even in Cinderella, the movie, which blurs the lines the most, at least the size differences are taken in consideration, and while the mice wear human clothes, they are still mostly mice with mice habits and treated like mice by everyone but Cinderella herself. In The Wind in the Willows, animals can own houses, drive cars, they are subject of the human court, in short it is a really odd mix. And seeing it on screen bring this point across even more. I mean a horse in the witness stand? A toad driving a human (or at least weasel) sized car? Ooooookay…..

2. The Animation

Well, it is Disney. They always deliver a certain level of quality. There are some nice landscapes, the characters have nice design and the movements are fluid. Mostly. There are two things which are really noticeable. For one, whenever a clos-up on a document of a paper is shown, it ends up as a weirdly shaky freeze frame. And two, there are some moments in which the movements of the characters are at odds with the situation. For example, when McBadger tells Ratty and Moley about Cyril, he has a wide grin on his face. Why? There is nothing good about the situation at hand. There are also some continuity mistakes, especially in the chase scene at the end, but they are easier to overlook.

3. The Characters

One thing the book does very well is that it gives all its characters faults. Not just small faults, like being a little bit unpunctual, but real faults. They get angry with each other, they make up, in short, they feel like real, layered characters. In the Disney version, Thaddeus Toad is the only character with a distinctive personality. Angus McBadger, the Ratty and Moley are simply the “good guys” (and is it just me or do the latter ones look as if they are inspired by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce? I always felt that way, and looking it up I realized that the former one was the narrator of the segment). By simplifying them to the voice of reason, they are way less interesting than in the book. And you can say that about all the characters who turn up, perhaps with the exception of Cyril, who is a bad influence on Toad as well as a good friend. But overall, all the characters are painted in very broad strokes, fairly one-note, only created for one purpose. The role of Cyril is a little bit expanded in order to cut out some of the original characters and the weasels have a slightly bigger role, too, but everyone else is reduced to a shadow of the original book character.

4. The Plot

The book consists of one main story and a couple of short stories. Disney naturally concentrates on the main story only…somewhat. Well, they got the basics right. There is a Toad. The Toad acts irresponsible. It is arrested, flees in the disguise of a woman and finally reaches its friends. Together they get Toad Hall back from a couple of weasels. So far, so good. The main difference though is that in the book Toad is guilty. He did steal the car. And while the sentence he gets for his crime is way over the top, it does irk me that he simply has to say sorry at the end of the book and everything is okay again.

I have to admit, the plot as a whole doesn’t really work for me, I guess it is supposed to be a cautionary tale about appreciating true friends, but the way everything is just okay at the very end feels a little bit contrived. Disney naturally shuffles the guilt of Toad to another character, and the plot of the second half of the segments end up being about proving his innocence. In a way, this works better, if not for one little detail: The whole thing with the contract makes no sense at all! The only way Winky can claim Toad Hall is the contract. He can’t show the contract because this would prove that he lied in court. So why holding onto it in the first place and revealing himself as the boss of the Weasels? As fun as the scene when everyone is hunting for the right contract is, it only works when you don’t think about it too hard.

Another big difference is the ending. In the book, Toad has learned his lesson. The Disney version, he first acts contrite, but, true to his character, ends with yet another crazy obsession nevertheless. Which is not exactly a happy end…and yet, I might actually like it better. Because the narrator is right, a small part of us wants to be like Toad.

5. The Soundtrack

There is really not much to the soundtrack. The background music underlines the scenes properly, but is nothing to write home about. Otherwise, this is one of the Disney’s entries which isn’t a musical. The one song in it is justified. And, to be honest, not lot to write home about.

Mr. Toad: Tally Ho! Tally Ho! Tally Ho!
Are we on our way to Nottingham,
To Brittingham, to Buckingham
Or any hammy hamlet by the sea? NO!
Cyril: Are we on our way to ‘Devonshire’, to ‘Lancashire’ or
Worcestershire, I’m not so sure we’ll have to wait and see!
Mr. Toad: Oh, are we on our way to ‘Dover’, or going merrily over,
the jolly road that goes to ‘Plymouth’ Ho!

Mr. Toad and Cyril: NO! We’re merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
merrily on our way to nowhere in particular.
We’re merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
merrily on our way where the roads are perpendicular.

Cyril: We’re always in a hurry.
Mr. Toad: We have no time to stall.
Mr. Toad and Cyril: We’ve got to be there, we’ve got to be there,
but where we can’t recall.

Whoo! We’re merrily, merrily, merrily,
merrily, merrily on our way, and we may
be going to Devonshire to Lancashire to Worcestershire.
We’re not so sure, but what do we care, we’re only sure we got to be THERE!
We’re merrily on our way to nowhere at all!

I could try to analyse the song, but there is really not much to write. It is kind of an “I want”-song, but it really doesn’t add anything to the character we don’t already know and is mostly there to fill some time. The lyrics are really, really simple and on the nose.  There is really nothing easier than throwing in random towns for a cheap rhyme. (Thankfully the sequence when Cyril narrates the story of Toad’s car later shows a little bit more finesse.)The tune is catchy enough, but honestly, Disney can do better.

6. The Conclusion

After taking a close look, I have to say that the segment is okay. It is way shallower than the book, but also a little bit more fun at parts. And despite Toad never being “cured”, I like the Disney version of the character better, because it is more innocent in its wrongdoings. Disney also shows some understanding why a character like this appeals to people by pointing out that we all wish deep down to be able just to do what we dream of instead of holding ourselves back because of pesky consequences. Perhaps if this take on the story had more layered characters and a few kinks less if Disney had been able to do it in a full-length movie instead of just a segment. As it is, though, it is a fun children’s cartoon…but sadly nothing more. But at least the ride which was based on it is still a lot of fun.