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
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
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

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2 responses to “By the Book: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

  • anii654

    I loved this short, and it was the only one I praised when reviewing the WDAS films last year. It was amazing how simple but somewhat in depth the short and the characters are when it comes to plot, setting, and characters. People need to give it more attention. I feel like the characters are more developed and dimensional than so many other characters in the canon. It is a brilliant creation.

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