Disney’s Masterclass in Animated Terror

One of the best parts of Disney+ is that we get access to all manner of little known animated classics that aren’t part of the Princess Collection, or lost to changing styles and tastes. It also gives us a special little treat in family friendly Halloween fare, and brilliant piece of nightmare inducing animation that will haunt your children as they lie awake at night.

We’re talking about the second half of the animation package film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The first part of the package, based on The Wind in the Willows, was kept in the public consciousness with the popular Disneyland ride ‘Mister Toad’s Wild Ride’. The more unique half of the equation is perplexingly based on the short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

It’s not like Disney to base their animated films off horror stories, but damn if they don’t commit to the piece.

The story of Sleepy Hollow and its newest resident Ichabod Crane is narrated for us by musical legend Bing Crosby, reading from a book from off camera. Post American Revolution, the story takes place in the picturesque town of Sleepy Hollow, looking every part the classic Disney Americana. The newest arrival to the community is school master Ichabod, whose gangly figure lends itself perfectly to the fluid motion favoured by early Disney animators. Ichabod is unconcerned with the taunts of the local menfolk, instead forming a strong relationship with his students and their families to indulge in their home cooked meals.

Part of the effectiveness of this tale is how well their establish and normalise the setting and characters before the horror starts. It’s only in the final few minutes that things turn dark, prior to that it’s a love triangle in a charmingly animated village. Shortly after arriving Ichabod falls in love with Katrina van Tassel, daughter of a wealthy local farmer. Equally smitten is town tough guy and local hero Brom Bones, beloved by all for his roguish and carefree attitude.

Although Katrina is a shallow archetype, both Ichabod and Brom are both given shades of good and bad. Ichabod is a charming and harmless dandy, but often dwells on collecting the potential inheritance that marrying Katrina would bring. Brom, on the other hand, is easily charismatic and widely admired, but quick to temper and aggressive in his pursuit of Katrina. In their rivalry for Katrina they mostly get in their own way rather than each others. The largely dialogue-free story is expressed through physical comedy and exaggerated movements and will produce a fair few chuckles.

It’s only when Brom learns of Ichabod’s superstitious nature (nicely telegraphed early in the film when Ichabod lopes into town) and decides to give the teacher a fright. Brom sings of the legendary Headless Horseman, who rides through Sleepy Hollow on Halloween night seeking out a victim to behead. The movie’s visuals take a shift into the macabre at this point, with jagged shadows reaching across the screen and embers exploding from the fireplace. It’s the perfect set-up for the upcoming sequence.

Our final act, the real show, involves Ichabod riding home through the woods. If you want to know how to build tension in a visual medium, this is worth a study. It features perfect pacing and pay-off as Ichabod makes his terrified journey through the creepy woods. With a background of rich purples and greens, and a layering of sound effects, the tension slowly builds until we’re given a couple of quick jump-scares in the form of distorted and menacing looking trees.

Once the landscape and situation is well established, the film-makers give us a reprise and plays with our expectations when Ichabod comes to realise that his mind is playing tricks on him. The hoofbeats he heard following him were simply cattails drumming against a hollow log. Ichabod breaks down in almost maniacal laughter at his own foolishness…right up until a terrifying laugh cuts through the night and joins him.

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We suddenly go from the charming, rustic town and the spooky forest into a blood-red backdrop, a demonic steed and a the brilliantly deigned headless horseman himself. It’s startling how much Disney committed to creating a genuine monster here.

Strangely enough, the horse bears a resemblance to Brom’s horse, giving the viewer the plausible suggestion that this is an elaborate prank. On the other hand, the Horseman is here for blood as he immediately takes a swipe at Ichabod’s neck. For all the physical comedy included in the Horseman’s pursuit of his victim, the threat of death is ever-present and disturbingly real. The movie has established an exit for our meek hero…if he crosses the covered bridge he’ll be safe. And although the film lets us believe this is going to get a happy ending, it most certainly does not.

Whilst the modern trend in horror is computer assisted distortions of reality and ear-drum shattering jump-scares, this film uses the most basic tools of film-making to build a sequence that will stay with you into adulthood. Colour, pacing, playing with expectations and not pulling any punches. Any fan of horror, animation or film-making owe it to themselves to put aside 30 minutes of their Halloween to enjoy it.

Sleep tight!

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