Disney’s last multi-story effort before diving back into full-length animated features, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, covers the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Wind in the Willows, respectively.
The introduction borrows a page from Winnie the Pooh, the camera browsing through a collection of storybooks while the narrator sets the scene. But instead of talking about the importance of friendship, this narrator talks about the wealth of great characters in American folklore.
It’s a theme continued from the company’s release the previous year, and once again chooses a cheery style of animation to retell classic tales. Knowing that the following year’s release, 1950’s Cinderella, was in co-production with these stories, it’s no surprise that B-level artists and story-tellers were relegated to drawing Ichabod’s cumbersome nose and Mr. Toad’s spastic explorations of the human world.
The Wind in the Willows segment, though, continues a longer tradition of Disney re-using key stocks of animation in later features.
This scene, in which the deed to Toad Hall is up for grabs to both good guys and bad guys,
is the exact sequence that later appeared in 1967’s The Jungle Book during Mowgli’s rescue from King Louie (start at the 5:30 mark):
The most notable part of Disney’s return to animation artistry, though, is his refusal to include live actors in this production. Even the introduction is almost stop-motion in its drift through the library with its narrator wishing every audience member wistfully on their way through the story. The New York Times review at the time noted that “a supporting cast of ‘live’ players is refreshingly absent” from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, though rightfully criticizes the artistry for often being “stilted, awkward creations.”
Disney does nothing without purpose, though, and some of the characters in these films could even be considered prototypes of characters that would later be fully developed by the team working concurrently on Cinderella. Katrina bears a strong resemblance to Cinderella herself, and Cyril the Horse from Wind in the Willows is not unlike the horse who drives Cinderella to the ball. And while we’re drawing these comparisons, the Rat and Mole team in Wind in the Willows calls to mind Basil and Dr. Watson in The Great Mouse Detective.
Neither Danielle nor I have any real childhood attachment to this film, though both of us readily recognize the animation and chase sequences involving the legendary headless horseman (a decidedly less sinister embodiment of the legend than would later hit North American cinemas). But this is what Disney was doing in the 1940s: slowly rebuilding after the war, becoming profitable again, rebuilding the studio’s reputation as an art house and training a new generation of storytellers who would be able to carry the studio forward for another generation.
This is the last of the films from the 1940s and the next release, Cinderella, kicks off four decades of consistently high quality. The 1940s hurt almost everyone, but Disney managed to recover admirably.