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.



10 responses to “By the Book: The Wind in the Willows

  • The Animation Commendation

    I read the book about a year ago for the first time. The secondary plots kinda surprised me since almost no film adaptation of this book shows those plots.

  • smilingldsgirl

    Why can’t a movie be a collection of shorts? You occasionally see this in both live action and animation. Like Paris, je t’aime, Twilight Zone or Fantasia.
    Anyway, I’ve never read Wind in the Willows but always liked the story of Toad of Toad Hall. I think that is partly because I love Mr Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. I always thought the main lesson was to not be obsessed with things. For Toad at first it is rigs and then motorcars. He will do anything to get his hands on his latest obsessions and it is a cautionary tale against such behavior.

    • swanpride

      It can if the shorts are properly connected to each other, like it is the case with Fantasia or Winnie the Pooh. But there is really nothing which connects Wind in the Willow and The Legend of Sleeping Hollow. One is based on a British book, the other based on an American Legend. One has exactly one song, the other is practically sung and rhymed nearly all through. And that is true for nearly all of the package movies, just thrown together shorts which have next to no connection to each other. The exception is Saludos Amigos, and that one disqualifies as a movie because it doesn’t really have the required movie length. It doesn’t even come close to one hour running time.

      • smilingldsgirl

        I guess I dont need that connection with the shorts for it to be a movie. I’d say Make Mine Music and Melody Time both have connections between all the pieces. Fun and Fancy Free has Jimminy Cricket and Edgar Bergen connecting the shorts. I guess it depends on your definition of movie but to me the package films count. It was just the era of that particular type of movie

      • smilingldsgirl

        Plus back in the 40s it was common to have shorter films and there’d be a double sometimes triple feature at the cinema. 45 minutes an hour, collection of shorts was quite common. It was just a different era for movies

      • swanpride

        I know, but I still rather judge the segments separately, either as shorts or features. Considering how awful the connecting sequences are, they actually get away better that way.

      • smilingldsgirl

        I actually agree with that. I recently had that same feeling with the film The Prophet. The shorts were amazing but the framing device was weak

      • swanpride

        I have to watch it at one point…but I am currently to busy going through animated movies I might have consider when I do my personal “best of 20th century award.

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