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Ichabod at 70: Looking back at Disney's Sleepy Hollow

Ichabod at 70: Looking back at Disney's Sleepy Hollow

This past Saturday, October 5th, was the 70th anniversary of the release of the Disney animated film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It was the 11th feature released by the studio, and the last of the “package films”–or a feature comprised of multiple short segments, typically connected by a theme–produced during the 1940s. This one only has two, each running about a half hour, plus a short introduction. 

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The first segment is based on The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, and is condensed down from the book a bit to the main throughline of Thaddeus J. Toad (Eric Blore) and his misadventures in motorcar mania. Beautifully animated, the film is brimming with various character models, from woodland creatures to full-sized humans. It includes a merry song, a courtroom drama, and several well-executed chase scenes. While I appreciate it from an animation point of view, the story doesn’t quite capture me, quite possibly because I’ve never read the book. The narration by Basil Rathbone is fantastically energetic, which helps a lot, but my fondest memories related to it are undoubtedly of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in the theme parks. That ride, sadly closed at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, is noteworthy if only because it follows the story of the film pretty well, but you end up in Hell at the end.

The second segment, an adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” however, is one of my favorite entries in the Disney animated canon, and one I revisit every October, sometimes multiple times given its short half hour runtime. The original story has always been a favorite of mine, and I think the combination of the design, music, and tone of this adaptation has always stuck out in my mind, making it the perfect accompaniment to apple cider, s’mores, and other autumnal treats. 

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The entire segment is narrated by Bing Crosby, in his only collaboration with Disney. His voice helps ground Sleepy Hollow in its American setting. The way the film handles the late setting is one of its strongest aspects. Well before we get to Halloween in the story, the art direction delightfully reflects the setting of an upstate New York fall. The rolling farmland, the vibrant colors, and even the depiction of the food, make Sleepy Hollow feel like a lived-in town more than a backdrop, which sometimes happens with Disney’s fantasy-based output. Walt Disney actually took a trip to Tarrytown, New York (North Tarrytown officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow in the 1990s) to help with research while he was overseeing the production of the film. Disney, born in Chicago and raised there and in Missouri, always seemed to have his eye on the West when it came to Americana, but this is one of the few examples I can think of Disney animating New England. If I could live in this artwork, I would.

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One of the other design choices that adds to the storytelling is in Ichabod Crane himself. He is ridiculously thin and lanky, his face exaggerated to the point of nearly being grotesque. A truly great cartoon creation. Despite this, he is quite a charmer among the women in the village, and the only thing he might love more than their attention is food. He’s a strange fellow to be the hero of a story, but there’s something charming about the schoolmaster with ‘shovels for feet’ in the way he pursues his goals of a luxurious lifestyle. This adaptation strongly suggests that Ichabod’s admiration of Katrina Van Tassel is based as much or more on his potential inheritance of her father’s wealth than it is on the girl herself. While this doesn’t excuse the underwritten women in this story, it at least acknowledges that Ichabod’s motives are impure. This makes his comeuppance all that easier to revel in at the end of the story. 

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Ichabod’s rival for the affection (and inheritance) of Katrina is Brom Bones, a local bully of sorts, though he seems mostly harmless until Ichabod comes between him and Katrina. Bones is shown to be more muscular and confident than Crane, a nice visual contrast which emphasizes their different temperaments and personalities. Animator Andreas Dejahas has said that Beauty and the Beast's small town bully was strongly influenced by Brom Bones’ depiction. Said Dejahas, “Milt's animation shows just the right amount of dash and bounce. Although the style of the film is pretty cartoony, Brom Bones's physique required careful and somewhat realistic draftsmanship in terms of anatomy…” He even wears Gaston’s signature red and gold color scheme during Sleepy Hollow’s Halloween party.

Everything comes to a head at the party, where Crosby-as-Bones sings the spooky “Headless Horseman” song as an attempt to scare the superstitious Ichabod into leaving Sleepy Hollow. Crosby’s voice is nicely non-threatening, which only emphasizes how much the skittish schoolmaster overreacts, and the animation perfectly balances the distortion of the room to fit the song and reality. 

But it is Ichabod’s journey home from the party that shows the animators pulling out all the stops, to the point where some of the animators quit over the segment’s difficulty. There are a ton of moving elements, points of view, and layers to create an environment that feels both realistic and reflects Ichabod’s feelings. The first part of the segment demonstrates Ichabod’s paranoia and fear in the darkness of the woods, where each new fear trigger is shown to be innocuous. My favorite example is the cattails slapping a log sounding like a galloping horse, as the sound and animation together is perfect. Then the Horseman shows up, and things intensify. Wearing all black with a purple cape and wielding a sword, his laughter is both mocking and menacing as he chases Ichabod. The chase itself does a great job mixing terror and comedy, which helps this as a Halloween watch for younger viewers. 

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While the ending is accurate to Irving’s original story, with the only thing left of the schoolmaster being his hat and bits of pumpkin, Disney’s animators were the first to depict the Horseman as using a jack o’lantern for a temporary head, which has since become part of the iconography. I love how this adaptation faithfully recreates Irving’s ambiguity when it comes to the identity of the horseman. By not coming down one way or the other, it is possible to read it as an actual ghost story, or the ultimate play by Brom Bones. 

Either way, Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a fantastic adaption, and I highly recommend adding it to your Halloween viewing this October (along with Over the Garden Wall and the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from Fantasia, two of my other spooky animated faves).

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