Film Friday: Walt Disney's 'The Adventures of Ichabod And Mr. Toad' & 'Fun and Fancy Free'

By Daniel S Levine,

For the past few summers, Disney has released a wave of catalog titles, pairing animated films with direct-to-video sequels and putting out movies that only die-hard Disney geeks would care about. Considering I'm a member of that group, this year's wave brought one of the most exciting Disney Blu-ray releases probably since the Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 set. This month, Disney surprisingly released two package features on Blu-ray – The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) and Fun and Fancy Free (1947).

These two films come from the darkest period of the Walt Disney Studios during Walt's lifetime. After the studio's Golden Age crashed and burned with the start of World War II and the crippling animator's strike, Disney was left with several story ideas for full-length feature films. Several movies were put into production even as work on Bambi (1941) wrapped. Many never saw the light of day, but some lived on with the package features. Disney decided it would be more economical to make longer-than-usual shorts and string them together as feature-length movies than actually making a single 90-minute film. While these movies today are dated beyond reason, featuring names only people who lived during the 1940s would know, they are important parts of Disney's history. In the long run, these allowed the studio to go on another great run through the 1950s, beginning with Cinderella.

Now that we got the boring history out of the way (confession: that history is hardly boring to me), let's look at the actual movies in this pack. Chronologically, Fun and Fancy Free is first and it's historically important, but the lesser of the two movies. It is made up of two stories – Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk.

Bongo, despite being based on a story by Pulitzer Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, is one of the worst animated projects to reach the screen during Walt's lifetime. It has aged poorly and is sadly poorly animated. Before the War, the thought was that Bongo would be a full-length feature and possibly a Dumbo prequel with the same circus animals in the 1940 classic. Thankfully, that never happened. Instead, we get a 35-minute short narrated by singer Dinah Shore that is gutted of its meaning. Lewis may have had a point about a trained circus bear wanting to live in the wild, only to learn that he's not really prepared, but with so little time to work with, the story loses that focus. Instead, his fight for his love interest is the story here.

Next, our narrator Jiminy Cricket takes us to Edgar Bergen's house for a little girl's birthday party. Yes, Candice Bergen's father's jokes with Charlie McCarthy are cony as possible, but they are funny. Bergen tells the little girl (Luana Patton) the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, only replacing Jack with Mickey, Donald and Goofy for their only appearance together in an animated theatrical feature. The story is pretty straight-forward and it's sad to see that the same level of intricate detail we saw in The Brave Little Tailor (1938) is no longer there. But this is fun and still more enjoyable than Bongo. This is historically important because it's the last time Walt voiced Mickey. He actually recorded the dialogue back in 1941, which goes to show how ideas never died in the Disney offices.

Disney's next feature was 1948's Melody Time, which was filled with much short shorts. The studio is probably going to pair that with 1946's Make Mine Music, so we can wait for it next year.

That brings us to Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the last and best of all the package films. Both stories in this were planned for features initially. Up first is the super fast paced adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind and the Willows, which centers on the eccentric Mr. Toad and his friends' fight to prove his innocence. It turns out that in his insane pursuit of a motor car, he gave away Toad Hall to a bunch of swindlers, who had stolen the car. This short moves by so quickly that you do wish it could be longer. We can only imagine what a full-length version of The Wind and The Willows would have been.

While Basil Rathbone brings dry British wit to his narration of The Wind and The Willows, Bing Crosby is all about smooth singing and relaxed humor as he tells Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Now, this is real Disney animation at its best. It's the marriage of music and visuals, with Bing singing every part. The animation is also often extraordinary, especially during Ichabod's frightening chase with the Headless Horseman. It just goes to show that the animation team always had some extra magic left in its sleeve.

As a surprising bonus, Disney included The Reluctant Dragon, the 1941 film that's more or less a tryout for the package features. It finds Robert Benchley on a journey through the Disney studios, with animated shorts in between. There really are no specific links between the two other features and Dragon, other than the fact that the title story was based on a Grahame story. Still, this makes up for the lack of any other bonus material on the disc. It's even in high definition!

Overall, this two-pack should be for a wider audience than just older Disney animation fans. Both will keep any younger child entertained for the two movies' short lengths and are fine examples of great Disney animation, save for Bongo. I only wish we could have a longer documentary on the making of the package features. It is an important part of the Disney story and not something they should shy away from.

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