Saturday, March 5, 2016

Disney Classic Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949)




Due to the fact that this film has been reenacted so many times throughout the years, most audience members interpret the story in different ways. However, whenever I read Washington Irving's classic story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", I always recall Walt Disney's cartoon of the same name. Released in 1949, the short was originally paired up with a retelling of The Wind in the Willows under the title The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, an overall unusual little film that retains a Gothic atmosphere throughout. What makes these shorts unique is that they do not follow the typical Disney formula, in that they are retellings of classic literature rather than popular fairy tales or legends. Add the talents of Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes himself) and Bing Crosby, and you have a fantastic coupling of stories with a Victorian feel. In fact, the film opens in the hall of a shadowy library, with nothing but a candle flame to light the way. 





Now it is a well-known fact that Walt Disney and his creative team were not strangers to the art of horror stories. Two of their previous films, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio, were very frightening, sometimes intolerably frightening. And The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is no exception. While its partner short The Wind in the Willows depends on dark humor, the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman has a dark charm and boasts dynamic visuals that were very innovative at the time. For this reason and a few others, I have decided to focus on this part of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

One of the film's best aspects is its narrative style. Magnificently told by Bing Crosby, the whole movie feels like a legend told around a campfire at the very witching hour of night. An ominous sense of dread and anticipation creep over you as Crosby builds suspense for the horrors to come. I believe another reason this atmosphere is achieved so well is because of one simple fact: none of the characters share full dialogue. Most of the time, we are observing Ichabod Crane as he interacts with the Sleepy Hollow residents and supporting characters' reactions to his presence. I am a huge fan of stories that convey powerful messages through limited dialogue (e.g. The ArtistUnder the SkinFantasia), and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the best examples I have seen in years. With the absence of full speech, you can grasp the weight of Crosby's words and appreciate the atmosphere. 



On that note, the atmosphere of this story is perfect. I particularly love the lighting selected by the background artists. A clash of light and dark exists throughout the film, drifting from a rosy dawn to a lazy sunset before transforming into a hideous, terrifying nocturnal landscape. In this way, the film takes its time to build up the suspense both figuratively and literally. Thus, when the really scary stuff happens, we are caught off guard and scared even more. 

The sound mixing in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is pure genius. After Ichabod leaves the harvest party and enters the haunted woods, we feel like we are sharing this horrifying experience with him. The wind, the shrieks, and howls echo throughout the night, and continue to scare me to this day. One of the best parts is when the bullfrog croaks, "There's a horseman...there's a horseman..." before a night bird screeches, "Here he comes!". These are simple yet effective touches that add to the quality of this horror story. In fact, I still jump when Ichabod rides into the ghostly tree with the firefly eyes! Spooky!

The soundtrack by Oliver Wallace is another marvellous addition to the film. As characters move and interact with each other, the music mirrors their expressions and emotions. As Ichabod enters the town, his face buried in the pages of a book, the playful melody steps in tune with his floppy strides. And when the darker parts of the movie take place, the music intensifies into a whirlwind of brass and strings. 

As I explained before, this movie has incredible characters. I have a special connection with Disney's Golden Age cartoons, but the character designs in this film stand apart for several reasons. Each character moves with a fluidity and grace seen in Renaissance films like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Add to that the talents of veteran animators Wolfgang ReithermanFrank ThomasOliver Johnson, and Milt Kahl to the mix and you have one dynamic creative team. 

As a whole, each character is pretty straightforward. Despite being arrogant, Ichabod is funny, loping around like a hyperactive heron. Katrina, for the most part, is forgettable but moves with a graceful beauty. Though he is a bully, Brom Bones is enjoyable to watch, and sings that memorable song we can never get out of our heads. 


But by far my favorite character has to be the Headless Horseman himself. With his chilling laugh and powerful presence, he stands out as one of the darkest and most memorable Disney villains. Plus he's got a simplistic, dynamic design, which allows for amazing movement of shadows and lighting. What a great character! In fact, I'm surprised he doesn't make it on any top ten lists. 

Speaking of which, I am now brought to the best part of the movie: the chase scene. What I particularly love about it is how the directors carefully mixed horror with humor. This is one of those few scenes where I am cringing with fear, clapping with excitement, and laughing hysterically at the same time. My favorite part is when Ichabod smacks into a branch, flips upside down, and lands on the phantom horse. And, of course, I cannot leave out the part where Ichabod and the Horseman collide, and Ichabod glances down the Horseman's collar...to find nothing! The Disney animators took liberties to establish that the Horseman really was a ghost, contrasting with Irving's novel, and we loved them for it! 



What Ichabod does see when he glances down that shadowy cape is all left to the imagination. Let's just say it's probably not as G-rated as the
rest of the film! But that is what makes this adaptation so great. It pushes boundaries of what children are fascinated and terrified by. After the Horseman throws his flaming pumpkin at Ichabod and it bursts into a flash of fire, we never know what happens to the schoolmaster. Crosby simply states that Ichabod was never seen again, the mystery is left for us to interpret. Now that is a scary and intelligent film for children! 

 If this movie teaches anything, it's that a good story can be told without being cramped by too much dialogue. All we need is upbeat music, a great narrator, and one awesome climax. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my favorite Disney cartoons and continues to be one of my favorite movies altogether. Pair it up with The Wind in the Willows or watch it by itself. You will not be disappointed. 

Just remember, as Bing Crosby put it...

"You Can't Reason with a Headless Man!"








The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is available on a DVD/Blu-ray collection, paired up with Fun and Fancy-Free. It includes a bonus short "The Reluctant Dragon". 


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