Saturday, July 27, 2019

Walt Disney, part XIV: You can't reason with a headless man


Half a masterpiece is still something to celebrate, and Disney closed the 1940s out stronger than it had been in years.

Directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, and James Algar

Spoiler alert: moderate

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was the last chapter of a hard era.  There would be other bad times for the Walt Disney Studio and its successor entities—one that would drag on for twice as long, another that would see the company abandon the very art it was built to practice—but I don't think there's been any other time in Disney's history that truly mirrors the sheer no-exit bleakness of the decade that elapsed between 1940 and 1949.  Surely, no other period came as close to snuffing out the flame of American feature animation entirely.  Between the twin failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940 and the salvation still to come in 1950, the studio danced on a razor's edge, with any misstep potentially fatal—and, of course, Walt kept making them.  Somehow also the most brutely productive decade of their seventy-two year existence, Disney made thirteen feature-length films with significant animated material during the 1940s.  No more than four of them were genuinely commercially successful.  Most of the rest treaded financial water; at least two others, besides Pinocchio and Fantasia, outright bombed.  Of the eleven post-Fantasia films, only one—Bambi, one of the commercial disappointments—wholly lived up to Walt's original vision of what Disney animation ought to be.

This was the cold and unforgiving world that Ichabod and Mr. Toad entered in 1949.  And it was not, in its moment, particularly successful either.  It was just another package film compilation of shorts—the sixth to bear the company's latterday imprimatur of "canon," and the second, after 1947's Fun and Fancy Free, to rob the graves of a couple of dead projects for its raw material.  In objective terms, it was another grab at enough box office cash to keep the lights on and the animators fed.  And, grossing only $1.6 million worldwide, it's not likely it helped achieve that goal.

Yet from our vantage point, seven decades on, it doesn't feel like any dying gasp.  It feels resolutely alive, and of the six canonical package films (indeed, of all the package films, canon or not), it is the best.  Seizing the baton handed off by Fancy Free, which I hold was the studio's first consistently good movie since Bambi, Ichabod and Mr. Toad is more energetic and hopeful still (even if it's also not as consistently good).  So, whether it's hindsight or not, you can see the renewed force of it.  By the time the best part of it was put into animation, Walt's last crazy gamble had gone forward, and the advent of the first "real" feature since 1942, Cinderella, doubtless played some role in inspiring the best animation and all-round best storytelling of the whole Package Film Era.

But, then again, it's a very backloaded "best."  In resurrecting a pair of would-be-features-turned-long-shorts, and placing them within a marginally-acceptable framing narrative, Ichabod and Mr. Toad reflects the structure as well as the industrial origins of Fancy Free.  To its credit, this time the framing narrative is almost invisibly minimal, yet also better-interwoven into the animated sequences.  Gracious, it's even facially logical, though you can still detect the arbitrary pairing of two stories that began as a polyglot once called Three Fabulous Characters, before reality pared it down to just Two.  (The other would've been Mickey Mouse, in the guise of Jack against the giant, but he wound up in Fancy Free.)  And so we find Ichabod and Mr. Toad to be organized by the very tenuous theme of "fabulous characters from English-language literature," and we begin inside a library as an unseen Basil Rathbone ponders the greatest literary creations of his country (that is, Great Britain).  Somehow managing not to put any particular emphasis upon "Sherlock Holmes" as he rattles off a list of famous and not-so-famous characters, ultimately he arrives upon the creature he asserts is his real favorite.

That's our segue into the first segment, "The Wind and the Willows," based on Kenneth Grahame's children's novel—making this the second time that Grahame had been adapted by Disney, following the titular short from The Reluctant Dragon.  Walt had always had his doubts about it, despite authorizing production in 1940; when animation resumed on "Willows" in 1946, these doubts had crystallized further, and it had been pared down to a short.  The result is a sharp narrowing of the focus of the novel, specifically upon its agreed-upon most fabulous character—a certain J. Thaddeus Toad (Eric Blore).

Which is where the fun and the revulsion alike enter the picture: for Toad, that emblem of English aristocracy in an advanced state of rot, is a total asshole.  He's been burning through his inheritance and amassing debts all 'round the country with his low-class enabler Cyril Proudbottom the horse (J. Pat O'Malley), and this has left his poor business manager Angus MacBadger (Campbell Scott) a veritable nervous wreck.  (I can find no evidence for it, but I theorize story development was overseen by Roy Disney.)  MacBadger tasks Toad's close friends, the stodgy, joyless Ratty (Claude Allister) and the sensitive, mindless Mole (Colin Campbell), to try to rein him in, which they effect by way of some false imprisonment in Toad's ancestral mansion, Toad Hall.  But Toad's "manias" cannot be contained by such inexperienced jailers, and, as he has been recently struck by a new such mania, he simply must have one of those new motorcars.  Escaping his confinement, he immediately buys a stolen car from a troop of weasels, landing him in prison.  He really did come by it honestly, though, or at least as honestly as he's come by anything else, even if the judge and prosecutor and even his friends can't believe that he truly traded the very deed to Toad Hall for a car.  Yet that is exactly what he did, and it'll take a real jailbreak, and a battle with the weasels, to prove it.

The thing about "Willows" is that it's very hard for me not to resent it for being in the way, and while I often watch Ichabod and Mr. Toad in its entirety (for reasons that I suppose I'd attribute to some bullshit "integrity," either on behalf of the work or myself), I have to say that I've enjoyed "Willows" less and less each time I do.  Which is a shame, because at one point I liked it a great deal, and though I remember being a kid who still didn't like it as much as the second short, I recall getting a real kick out of Toad carving a sociopathic streak across rural England.  And there is a fair amount here to like, Toad himself being one of those things: his complete lack of empathy, and his complete inability to change his ways for any longer than his tactical situation dictates, manages to get across Grahame's satire, even if the segment itself has no obvious interest in it; and, naturally, it's also fun to latch onto his irresponsible energy.  Mostly, then, it's just that "Willows" isn't calibrated to always transmit that energy properly, being the kind of zany comedy that, while it usually works, does get less effective the more you've been exposed to it; and the second half of Ichabod and Mr. Toad has ensured that I've been exposed to it a lot.

Best, then, to cling to the most interesting elements of it, which are substantial, maybe especially the really quite excellent character designs—Toad's giant leering eyes and toothless amphibian face were made for "mania"—or the amusingly unstressed way that our anthropomorphized animal gentry are still more-or-less their proper, real-world size, and therefore interact with humans that dwarf them but who also don't seem to find any of this remotely strange.  Meanwhile, "Willows" climaxes atypically well, when Toad and company's bid to get the evidence of his transaction turns into a crazed, anarchic running battle through Toad Hall.  (They apparently never thought of looking at the county clerk's, but story logic is no priority at all in "Willows," notably in that while Toad does indeed clear his name for grand theft auto, somehow nobody minds him breaking out of prison, or hijacking a locomotive, in the process.)  That wonderful climax, though, involves the application of Disney-style character animation and backgrounds to what amounts to essentially a series of Warner Bros.-style situations—the little detail of Mole barely outrunning a storm of daggers, and reaching back to check the sharpness of the closest blade, is a real gem—and it's good enough that you kind of wish there were more things like it, only not nestled within such a brainlessly dumb truncation of Grahame's celebrated novel (which, to be fair, might be pretty dumb itself for all I know about it). (6/10)

As Rathbone takes his leave, a more-personable, less-stuffy kind of narrator takes his place, and—without intending any disrespect—things get way, way better.  Bing Crosby's voice enters the library to confirm that the British Isles have produced all manner of interesting fiction, but America has our own traditions and own characters to be proud of.  Bing proves his point by citing one of the first American novels (or novellas) that people still read today, Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which he practically proceeds to read aloud to us, inasmuch as the second half of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is probably the single most completely faithful adaptation of anything that Disney's ever taken on, managing to compress the plot of Irving's 100-some-odd page book into 33 minutes (and even adding many flourishes of its own) without it ever seeming like the slightest thing of importance has been obscured or lost.

Because while "Willows" cannot be described as anything but an ordinary cartoon, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" takes on a somewhat unusual form, albeit one presaged by "Bongo" from Fancy Free (and I presume that Disney's best director during this period, "Bongo's" Jack Kinney, was also the strongest guiding hand behind "Sleepy Hollow," though he shares the credit with Clyde Geronimi).  That form is also somewhat demanded by the novella itself, which has but literally one proper line of dialogue ("Who are you?").  So what happens is that Bing stays with us throughout to narrate and comment upon the action, as well as sing several songs (in conjunction with The Rhythmaires), whilst the characters themselves operate in what mostly amounts to a pantomime, though in one or two cases Bing supplies them with a voice.  And it's to this that I attribute a significant amount of "Sleepy Hollow's" magnetic, virtually-irresistible appeal, for Bing's is a warm and friendly voice through which to mediate this spooky tale, and his delivery is so lilting and lyrical that no matter how many times I watch it, I tend to retain the (very incorrect) impression that the whole thing is completely sung-through in rhyme.  But it remains a highly musical work, more attuned to the rhythms of score and song than most of the avowed music videos in Make Mine Music and Melody Time.  And the combination of Irving's prose (often reproduced with but marginal adjustment) and Bing's very casual, very 1940s sensibilities turns out to be a remarkably dynamic and profitable one.

The story here, of course, is the tale of Ichabod Crane, the schoolteacher who arrived in the bucolic Dutch village of Sleepy Hollow, up the Hudson from Tarry Town, and who sought the hand of the beautiful Katrina von Tassel, which put him into competition with her other suitor, Brom Bones, and, ultimately, placed him in the path of the specter that had haunted Sleepy Hollow since the days of the American War of Independence, the fearsome Headless Horseman.  What it adds, or rather intensifies, is the curious manner in which the utterly strange-looking yet somehow-elegant Ichabod became the most eligible bachelor in town, melting every petticoat in sight without even trying; and one of the most reliable elements of "Sleepy Hollow's" extremely resilient comedy is the way this drives Brom to distraction, for heretofore he had been the unquestioned king of his town, in every boringly obvious way a man could be.

The comedy of "Sleepy Hollow" begins with possibly the most flawless humanoid character designs any Disney film had boasted to date—if we limit that to "male humanoid character designs," there's no "possibly" about it, though Katrina is quite great too, despite her face being recycled from "Pecos Bill" and "The Martins and the Coys"—and it continues with the most expressive and subtle character animation of the Package Film Era.  (It's absolutely fantastic how closely they ride the line with Ichabod: he's clearly a truly ugly man, but never crosses the boundary into "Disney grotesque," the constant danger with such a figure; he was animated by many, but principally by Ollie Johnston, and it's one of his greatest successes.  But Brom is impressive too—his animation was also led by Johnston—more restrained in his evocation of chunkheaded alpha-ness than his constantly-mugging spiritual successor, Beauty and the Beast's Gaston, and, frankly, so much more enjoyable for it.)

Still, what really makes "Sleepy Hollow" sing is the sheer quality of its physical gags, always timed to consummate perfection and usually revolving around Brom managing to be completely stymied every time he tries to apply the slightest amount of physical violence to his weakling challenger, which somehow always results in Ichabod casually besting him, almost by accident, and in the most complexly humiliating ways.  An undercurrent that may or may not be obvious from these reviews is that I don't actually think most of Disney's attempts at comedy are especially funny (to my mind, only the shorts with Goofy ever manage to reach "comedy classic"); it's just not what the studio was best at.  Yet this is funny, and while I have no hesitation in naming it the most laugh-out-loud funny thing in a Disney feature up until, probably, The Rescuers Down Under, I feel like that's setting the bar too low, because it's the funniest by a very substantial margin.

What's truly strange about "Sleepy Hollow," however, is that it is perhaps the most nihilistic thing in Disney's whole canon, although I suspect this is even one of the things that makes it so hilarious: it has absolutely no moral than I can identify, and it's concerned solely with the bad behavior of three resolutely shitty human beings.  ("Bad behavior" being the closest that this package film ever gets to really tying its two shorts together.)  Now, Bing invites us to like all of our leads—even Brom Bones!—presumably because he's just that preternaturally easy-going.  But we are never actually expected to.  Brom's masculine toxicity explains itself.  But Ichabod is almost as big of a dick, driven by arguably even baser concerns than the rapey guy.

Despite his scarecrow-like frame, Ichabod's an inveterate glutton—one of the biggest laughs is how he steals a pie by sleight of hand, and another is when we learn he keeps chicken drumsticks in his pockets—and this dovetails with his tendencies as a golddigger, for his chief and almost only interest in Katrina is to secure for himself her rich inheritance, with which he will likely purchase many more delicious pies and chicken drumsticks.  As for Katrina, even she's pretty awful: her subtle leers make it plain that she gets inordinate satisfaction out of setting Ichabod and Brom against one another; when Bing calls her a "coquette," it's obvious enough he means "gendered slur."  It's kind of ecstatic, in the context of a Disney film, just how low-key nasty "Sleepy Hollow" gets.  Nor does it surrender the possibility in Irving's text, that there is no ghostly agency behind the Headless Horseman—introduced here rather later than in the novella, but in a very catchy song sung by Crosby via Brom's "performance" of it—and, in fact, this animated adaptation heightens the (frankly barely-present) ambiguity of the novella, simply by being a lot subtler about it than Irving was, using a mismatched shadow on the wall to allude to the Horseman's true identity.

Which is the biggest thing to love about "Sleepy Hollow," though it remains a mystery and a bit of a miracle how it could ever possibly work: it is 100% an unusually-cynical rom-com for about 26 straight minutes, right up until the moment that Ichabod leaves Katrina's party and makes his fateful ride home, whereupon it veers directly into genuine horror.  And it is also the most effective bid for horror in the Disney canon—there are other things that are scarier, in their way, Dumbo's "Pink Elephants On Parade," Hunchback of Notre Dame's "Hellfire"—but nothing that captures the haunted house tingles of a great ghost story like "Sleepy Hollow" does.  It's in Ichabod's animation, of course—we feel his overwrought fear, and for this we must thank John Lounsbury—but it's also in the atmosphere created by Disney's background artists and effects animators, especially an all-time great moment where a group of clouds surround the moon like a pair of hands crushing out its light, though I'm also deeply impressed by the smidgen of multiplane that smashes Ichabod's forest journey into a claustrophobic hell.  (For that matter, I love the backgrounds throughout "Sleepy Hollow," particularly the paintings, so simplistic that you can see the brushstrokes, that represent the farmland surorunding the town.  But they're easy to overlook when you know you're barrelling into a climax that offers such a master-class on background design, much of it under Mary Blair's controlling eye for color.)

As for the Horseman himself—animated by Wolfgang Reitherman, the hand behind so many of Disney's early monsters—he is a prodigious and unforgettable presence, though once he actually arrives to take Ichabod's head, "Sleepy Hollow" swerves back out of pure horror and into the kind horror-comedy that's funnier than it is scary (maybe ever-so-slightly too funny, in the only bad thing I'll say about the short at all), but is still pretty darned scary, and very darned thrilling.  Released in the October of 1949, somebody must have predicted the absolute Halloween essential that "Sleepy Hollow" would—eventually—become. (10/10)

And so you can see why The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, unlike every other package film Disney released in its flailing years, remains popular, while the rest languish, sometimes virtually forgotten.  It alone stands next to the true feature films, and doesn't have to feel ashamed; even if it can boast of being only half of a masterpiece, well, that's still halfway closer than a lot of "real" Disney movies ever get.

Score: 8/10

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