Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: 'The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad/Fun and Fancy Free' Blu-Ray


Despite its reputation for taking disturbing stories like “The Little Mermaid” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and cutesifying them for toddler consumers, Disney has produced some of the scariest sequences in children’s cinema. Millions of kids remember the wicked queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the demon from Fantasia, or Dumbo’s nightmare hallucination giving them their first serious scare at the movies.

Such moments have always been my favorites in Disney films, which is why my favorite of all the studio’s cartoons is the relatively underrated The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Disney’s short adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” brings that story’s climactic chase between a cowardly schoolteacher and a headless horseman to life with punishing intensity. The horseman’s first appearance on screen with a blaze of crazed cackling, stinging music, and a zoom that forces the viewer into his saddle is as scary a shot as you’ll see in any film for young or old viewers. The subtle, windy, Halloween night atmosphere that precedes it builds to that horror magically.

Most viewers come away from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad remembering the chase scene above all else. The film has a lot more going for it than that, particularly some surprisingly memorable songs sung by Bing Crosby (“The Headless Horseman” song is a Halloween carol that should have been), and even more surprising considering Disney’s overstated reputation for diluting the classics, an incredible degree of faithfulness to the original story. Crosby’s narration even reuses a good deal of Irving’s text. And let’s not short change the other terrific animated short that comprises The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Based on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Mr. Toad’s wild adventure enjoys the same painterly animation and extra-relish narration (Basil Rathbone, to compliment a very British fairy tale) as “Ichabod”. The segment’s Christmas setting makes the package great to split up and savor on our two most popular national holidays.

A less beloved package film is 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free. An adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s “Little Bear Bongo”, in which a circus bear escapes to the wild where he falls in love, is less eventful and artfully illustrated than the usual Disney cartoon. But that’s why your remote control has a “next” button. The following cartoon short, “Mickey and the Beanstalk”, is a big improvement with more atmospheric animation and some of the old Disney spookiness back in the mix (in one delightfully demented passage, Donald Duck tries to axe-murder a cow!). The cross-talking narration by too-precious child actress Luana Patten, puppeteer Edger Bergen, and his wooden charges is kind of annoying, though, as are the spell-breaking live-action interludes in which they appear.

Disney’s new blu-ray edition of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is available solo and as a package with Fun and Fancy Free. Ichabod is a startling upgrade from the previous DVD edition, which suffered from washed-out color and an almost constant invasion of white specks. The blu-ray intensifies color, wipes out the vast majority of those specks, and maintains a healthy grain. The animated segments of Fun and Fancy free are less textural but still perfectly presentable. The live-action bit, however, suffers from so much heavy-handed noise reduction it almost looks animated too.

The one big gap on the new edition is the lack of “Lonesome Ghosts”. This 1937 short in which Mickey, Donald, and Goofy play amateur ghostbusters against a quartet of spooks was the highlight bonus feature of the 2000 Ichabod and Toad DVD. It’s a shame “Lonesome Ghosts” could not have received a similar hi-def buffing for the new blu-ray (a few other minor extras aimed at very young viewers didn’t make the transition either). In its place is an admittedly substantial bonus feature film with material based in part on another Kenneth Grahame story. The Reluctant Dragon is generally more concerned with showing off Disney’s new Burbank studio than spinning cartoon yarns, but the live action backstage tour hops with cornball nostalgic fun (and looks a lot better in hi-def than Fun and Fancy Free). Because it shares DNA with “Mr. Toad”—and because the two films were released as a Grahame-centric package in 1955—The Reluctant Dragon is a most appropriate bonus feature for this blu-ray. I just wish Disney could have made room for the mere eight-minutes of “Lonesome Ghosts” too. Nevertheless, the new edition of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is well worth checking out for its vastly superior picture quality.

Get The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad/Fun and Fancy Free on Amazon.com here:
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