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

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Here we have an outstanding value for fans and collectors of classic Walt Disney animation. Though officially billed as a double-feature, the Blu-ray debut of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) and Fun and Fancy Free (1947) also squeezes in a third feature-length film, The Reluctant Dragon (1941). It’s relegated to the “special features” category, but this live-action/animated release is worthy of more prominent billing. Times have changed drastically and these films may not find strong favor with today’s youngest generation of animation buffs. But each has plenty to recommend. Longtime admirers won’t want to miss this release.

For a time, Disney animated features did not always present one, standalone story. In the case of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the 68-minute film is split between adaptations of literary works: The Wind in the Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Later split and aired separately on television as shorts, they’re presented here in their original form. The Willows segment, narrated gravely by Basil Rathbone, finds Mr. J. Thaddeus Toad (voiced by Eric Blore) wrongfully accused of stealing a car and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Much of the film centers on the trial itself and the aftermath of Mr. Toad’s eventual prison break. A terrifically atypical (by today’s standards) tone makes this segment a charming winner.

The more gentle narration approach of Bing Crosby sets an entirely different tone for the Sleep Hollow segment. This one gets off to a much too slow start, with impossibly lanky Ichabod Crane (also voiced by Crosby) courting a pretty young debutante. I wouldn’t blame any younger audience member for getting a big heavy-lidded during the first half, but Crane’s encounter with the Headless Horseman is definitely an unforgettable sequence. The animation throughout the entire feature is never less than inventive, but it reaches a peak during the climax of Sleepy Hollow.

Too much of the obliquely-titled Fun and Fancy Free is given over to its first segment, Bongo. It’s a fairly charming, if slight, love story between two bears. The titular male is a trained performer who longs for life in his natural habitat. Once there, he meets Lulubelle and falls head over heels. Add in Lumpjaw as a villain and Bongo becomes a mildly entertaining “fish out of water” story in which a bear must adapt to life in the wild. Dinah Shore provides narration for this adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Little Bear Bongo.

Immensely more effective and memorable is the classic Mickey and the Beanstalk, which turns the traditional Jack and the Beanstalk over to the all-time Disney triumvirate of Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney himself, for the last time), Donald Duck, and Goofy. Inspired animation and humor that still inspires laughter after all these decades ensure a startling sense of freshness for this relic. Only the bizarre insertion of live-action sequences starring narrator/ventriloquist (who visibly moves his lips while speaking for his dummies) Edgar Bergen. Why on Earth these sections were deemed necessary is a real mystery.

The Reluctant Dragon rounds out the package with a combination of live-action segments (some in black-and-white, others in color) and animation. Basically, Dragon offers us a staged behind-the-scenes look at Walt Disney studios. We see everything from artists sketching a live elephant to demonstrations of voice-over and foley work. Animation segments include bits with Donald Duck and Goofy, a short called Baby Weems, and the centerpiece—a 20-minute adaptation of the book The Reluctant Dragon. It’s a terrific faux documentary with some priceless animated sequences. This film is every bit as enjoyable as the main features.

Reluctant Dragon.jpgSurprisingly the best-looking 1080p, high definition transfer is the so-called “bonus feature” (and the earliest piece) The Reluctant Dragon. The color is vivid, the B&W is sharp as a tack, and overall there is nothing worth raising one’s hackles over. Of the two main features, it’s a somewhat mixed bag that mostly falls on the positive side. I didn’t really realize how scrubbed of grain Fun and Fancy Free is until the live-action scenes, which are smooth and most un-filmic. The overall look of both features, however, is suitably presentable if never stunning. Both main features receive the DTS-HD 5.1 surround treatment, with a bit of harshness present on Rathbone’s Willows narration. Surround channels are mostly reserved for music. Dragon is offered in lossy Dolby Digital mono only, but that’s a minor gripe if anything, given the visual sumptuousness of its transfer.

No other features are included on the Blu-ray disc, which means this edition loses some features included on the previous DVD edition (including a 15-minute documentary about Fun and Fancy Free). Good news, though, for anyone looking to jettison their previous DVD editions—they’re included in this three-disc package. The standard DVDs here are the same as the old standalone releases, with the Fun and Fancy Free making-of featurette and “Mickey and the Beanstalk Storybook” included. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Storybook” is found on the Ichabod and Mr. Toad standard DVD. It should also be noted there are no digital copies included in this package.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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