“The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” and “Fun and Fancy Free” are being billed as a 2-Movie Collection, but this release could just as easily have been called a 3-Movie Collection. Also included is “The Reluctant Dragon,” completing a Disney trifecta of 1940s animated shorts that were stretched or cobbled together to create full-length features.
The film that most naturally fills the space is “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” which is really a pair of literary adaptations—one a retelling of Washington Irving’s famous Halloween story of the headless horseman, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and the other a film version of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” With Bing Crosby narrating and doing a bit of crooning as well, “The Adventures of Ichabod Crane” still stands as one of the best versions of Irving’s famous tale. The way that Ichabod is rendered makes him a humorous figure with almost every move he takes, and that establishes a comic undertone that makes the frightening chase at the end a little less traumatic for young viewers.
Crosby tells the story of a gawky schoolmaster who nonetheless seems to win the hearts of women. A rivalry over a beautiful girl named Katrina develops between the strongest man in the village and this dandy, and it all comes to a head (so to speak) at a Halloween party. What happens when Ichabod heads home through the old cemetery is well known. He encounters the legendary Headless Horseman and is never seen again. There’s speculation about what really happened, as happens with legends, but you won’t convince the kids that he wasn’t offed by the ghost rider. The film has the easy flow of a legend and serves as an early example of Disney’s somewhat daring willingness to mix styles of animation design.
“The Adventures of Mr. Toad” follows a rich old toad with a penchant for doing wild things and tells of the trouble he gets into when he trades his mansion, Toad Hall, for a motorcar. Children who’ve been to Disneyland or Disney World will make the connection to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Basil Rathbone narrates the story of how Toad’s friends stick by him, despite his arrest and conviction for car theft, and they all help him clear his name. Kids today won’t find it as “wild” as previous generations might have, but it’s still a solid Disney adaptation and together, with “Ichabod,” the runtime is stretched to 68 minutes.
With “Bongo,” singer Dinah Shore narrates the story of a circus bear who’s mistreated and finally escapes to the great outdoors, finds the girl bear of his dreams, but almost loses her to a mean alpha bear because he doesn’t understand how bears communicate to each other in the wild. Some of the songs and animated sequences will seem like detours to young viewers, but not nearly as bad as what we get from “Mickey and the Beanstalk.” That cartoon short is noteworthy because it’s the last time Mickey was voiced by Walt Disney himself, but an engaging Disney take on an old Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale is ruined by a self-conscious storytelling structure that now seems horribly dated and intrusive.
Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen sits in a living room with his two dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, and a little girl (Luana Patten) in a party dress. It’s her birthday, and we don’t know why she has no other friends or parents at her party—just this old fellow whose lips you can see move and his creepy dummies with buck teeth and a monocle. The whole situation now just seems weird, and interruptive. He “tells” her the story and the visuals shift from confined live action to animation. And just when the story starts to pick up steam, there’s a cutaway back to this pathetic birthday party and we have to endure more of Bergen’s ventriloquist routines. It’s a shame, because despite a clever ending that merges the live-action and cartoon worlds, the framework no longer works as well.
It was clearly the way they did things in the ‘40s, though, because the bonus film, “The Reluctant Dragon,” is a cartoon that’s also stretched with a live-action sequence. The premise is that humorist Robert Benchley takes a children’s book to the Disney studio at his wife’s insistence to sell Disney on the idea of making a movie out of it. He goes from department to department, and at each place we get a demonstration of some aspect of how animated cartoons are made. Kids will probably be bored, but adults who love Disney will find the tour infinitely superior to the animation we finally get to see in the projection room. The dragon is drawn in an unimaginative way, and it just doesn’t have the energy of some of the other cartoons. But that studio tour? It was a way for Disney to show off his brand new Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., and this 1941 look behind the scenes is pure gold . . . if you’re an adult fan. Just seeing a very young Walt Disney tuck one leg up on a seat in the projection room is worth it.
“Dragon” itself is padded with three additional animated shorts that are used to illustrate the animators’ techniques: one on the train, “Casey Junior” from the movie Dumbo, a storyboard turned movie about “Baby Weems” (a baby who can speak at birth and is treated like a celebrity), and a Goofy segment on “How to Ride a Horse.” The total runtime is 73 minutes, 40 of which are cartoons.
It’s the first time these titles have come to Blu-ray, and they look very good. But because they’re presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio and there are times when the images have a strong horizontality, that means there are also times when you wish these were filmed in widescreen. Some of the cartoon features show their age with a little grain and slight fading, but for the most part they’re a big improvement over the DVD releases. And the live-action segments are better by leaps and bounds. They look as if they could have been filmed today, rather than in the ‘40s. One caution, though. My copy froze in several places during the “Fun and Fancy Free” cartoons, so you might make sure yours works before “misplacing” your receipt.
Disney went with a now-standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1 on all these titles, and the distribution of sound across the speakers is good but unspectacular. The closest you come to raising your eyebrows in admiration is during the effects demo that accompanies the showing of “Casey Junior” or with some of the sound effects used during the Headless Horseman chase scene. Additional audio options are in French and Latin Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.
This release comes with a DVD of each title but no Digital Copy. Since there’s nothing in the way of bonus features, Disney is counting “The Reluctant Dragon” as an extra, and it’s here too for the first time on Blu-ray.
It would be a stretch to call this double (triple?) volume a Disney classic—more like vintage Disney, the sort you’d see on the old “Disneyland” TV series. It’s hit and miss, but overall worth adding to your collections. Some collectors will want to buy this title just for the 1941 half-hour tour of Walt Disney Studios, which looks fantastic in HD.