Plus or Minus is a series detailing and analyzing every feature film now streaming on Disney+. It combines the unique history all these films share, their cultural impacts, and their qualities, or lack thereof. From timeless classics, to acquired hits, to DCOMs, no stone will be left unturned.
After an era of package titles, full of short after short, we come to the end. Let’s finish things off with a Plus or Minus on The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. What makes this unique out of all the other package films is the number of segments. Rather than a wide variety, or two big ones with small framing devices, there’s just two 30-minute segments. And apart from a barely there framing device of a library, there’s nothing that really connects the two.
At first glance, it seems strange this film exists, but there are compelling reasons. Outside of Disney’s wartime troubles, this was a case of making lemonade out of lemons. The Wind in the Willows was set to be one of Disney’s next films after Snow White, but it failed to go anywhere for a bevy of reasons. Notably, its length, as the story was just not strong enough to warrant an hour runtime.
It wasn’t until after the war the film got production back up and running, but shortened down to about 35 minutes. And when another 35 minute short, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was finished at the same time, it only made sense to combine them together and get some major celebrities to take part in the narration.
It’s certainly a sound economical decision, but do these two shorts truly work well enough? Thankfully, yes.
The Wind in the Willows
Narrated by Basil Rathbone, this Kenneth Grahame short story is a charming one. Mr. Toad, voiced by Eric Blore, is an adventurer. He loves to get into trouble, but he most especially loves fads. Whenever the shiny new item hits the market, Mr. Toad can’t stop thinking about it. This is to the detriment of his estate and his friends. This soon leads to Mr. Toad becoming obsessed with motor cars. And that obsession leads to Mr. Toad framed over car theft, with his estate and himself in total jeopardy.
The strengths of this short is its characters. Mr. Toad is a buffoonish, yet still entertaining lead, and his friends Moley and Ratty have a likable dynamic with one another. The way each character plays off one another is great. Watching Angus MacBadger, the one who tries to keep Mr. Toad in check, slowly lose his temper is hilarious to see, and the climax especially has all the leads bring memorable moments.
Better yet, the final few minutes are what really makes the whole thing works. While the short is consistently funny throughout, the climax is where the hardest laughs arrive. The slapstick is consistently on point, and the madcap plot keeps the segment’s energy and creativity alive during the entire 35-minute runtime. And the animation is pretty impressive, with a consistent fast pace and distinct designs. The lead animals have a great look, and while pairing them up with a cast full of humans is odd at first, it makes this goofy film even goofier. Definitely a fun one.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
In the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow, a lanky schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane comes to town. Despite his odd behavior and appearance, Ichabod becomes the talk of the town and beloved by the ladies. This frustrates the town hero Brom Bones, and Bones tries to belittle and embarrass Ichabod to no avail.
But at a Halloween party, Brom Bones tells the story of the Headless Horseman, a superstition about a ghostly apparition trying to find a new head to replace the one he lost. And while it may seem like a falsehood, when Ichabod is lost in the woods, his greatest fear becomes a reality.
The atmosphere in this short is especially great. Helped by the smooth and wry narration by Bing Crosby, there’s a very distinct autumn breeze throughout the entire breeze. The colors are muted, the landscapes are empty, but it also has distinct designs and characters to it that gives it a lot of personality.
Of course the one sequence everybody remembers from this short is the climax. The Headless Horseman is on a quest to kill Ichabod and it’s an absolute joy to watch. It’s consistently hilarious, the nighttime views of the forest are haunting and foreboding, and the build-up is truly incredible.
There’s a distinct slow pace, as the short slowly reveals the return of the Horseman. There’s a few fake-outs here and there, but it’s clear something is going down. And it makes the pay-off all the better. The chase between Ichabod and the Horseman is tense and hilarious all at once, and it’s absolutely a thrill ride from start to finish. It’s honestly worth watching the whole movie just for this sequence.
The Connecting Tissue
What’s kind of interesting about The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is how the two fit well with one another. There are a few obvious reasons of course. Both are adaptations of classic short stories, and both have distinct autumn themes and backdrops. However, what really makes these shorts so unique is how detestable their leads are.
Mr. Toad endangers everyone around him and his obsession with fads creates horrors for everybody. Ichabod is obsessed with marrying the beauty of the town solely so he can get his father’s profits. It’s kind of bold really, how irredeemable these figures are. Yet that kind of makes it all the more interesting. Outside of the fact both see consequences for their abrasive, unlikable actions, it is kind of funny to see just how much of a bastard these two act. It’s hilarious to see how they interact with others and it’s fascinating to see Disney take this kind of risk, and still lead to the “heroes” being likable in their horridness.
It’s an odd detail to point out, but it just makes these shorts all the more unique. They’re kind of unlike anything else when it comes to Disney characters and it’s fun to see this kind of off-beat personality type. And really, it just makes these shorts all the more memorable and humorous.
Plus or Minus
Choosing between Plus or Minus for The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was a pretty easy one. Really, this what was needed for the package era of Disney. Films like Saludos Amigos or Melody Time just felt like obligations. The shorts weren’t awful, but they failed to serve as anything unique, fun, or engaging. Most of these films and their segments were “in one ear, out the other”, with little to stay invested in.
Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the complete opposite. Both shorts have distinct, cinematic animation. All the while, feature plenty of laughs and compelling stories that offer something for everyone. It was a blast to watch throughout and shows the value of quality, well-made shorts and how you can use a brief runtime to your advantage. It’s a pretty strong Plus, though I wish this came sooner.
NEXT TIME: A single narrative finally returns with the iconic 1950 Cinderella. Is it still a Plus or Minus 61 years later?