Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Dissection of Mr. Toad's Staring Role and Ichabod's Film Encounter

Film is a very intense way of story-telling. Being the visual medium that it is, it depends less on interpretation and more on wowing the audience and presenting certain images to foreshadow or represent something/someone as a metaphor. Of course there are a good amount of films that challenge the viewers in unique ways but the majority of films aren't very intellectual endeavors. The audience sits in front of the screen and watches images set before them. That doesn't take much thought. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad stems from two great works of literature and presents Disney with a unique challenge, especially when it comes to Ichabod's story. Adapting book to screen is always hard. In this blog I want to talk about both sides of this film...Ichabod's and Toad's. I will first start out with Ichabod and discuss the visualization of the headless horseman. I will then move on to Mr. Toad and discuss why Walt Disney might have chosen this character out of all the other main protagonists in The Wind in the Willows to represent half of this package film.

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There are plenty of examples of literary works where the author literally invites the reader to write their own version of the story, and no I don't mean fan fiction. I mean the author leaves the reader with questions that allow them to imagine what might have happened. This challenges the reader to understand character psych and writing style and create their own ideas. For example, why did Alaska really drive into another vehicle (Looking for Alaska by John Green)? How will Nick handle his relationship with Amy after all that has happened (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn)? Did Pi truly survive on a lifeboat for most of the year with a Bengal tiger or was it all just a metaphor he created in his subconscious (Life of Pi by Yann Martel)? And in the case of Ichabod, we the reader have to ask - did he really see the headless horseman or was it all just an illusion (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving)? As readers, we are invited to take guesses and work out reasons why our guess is valid. But film takes on such a different tone because the story is no longer just words and images we created in our head. A film is a literal picture and leaves no room for interpretation in this way. Of course many great films know there are ways to distort an image to make the audience think but it is still visual and never quite like a book. In Ichabod's case, we are entirely dependent on the animation we see before us to tell us the story.
Disney does not try to be like the source material and leave the audience guessing in such a way (and it could be argued that they couldn't do such a thing in the same way the book does) but they do create their own interpretation and therefore drop hints to the audience as to what they were intending. A great movie knows that they have to show the audience and not tell. A great example is the film Clueless. In the film, main character Cher has a crush on new kid Christian. Through subtle hints during their interaction, the filmmakers drop hints that let us come to our own conclusion that Christian is gay. It is only when Cher needs to be let out of the dark when another character actually voices this fact. In Disney's adaption of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow we are never actually told who the headless horseman is. We are given many clues that it is Brom Bones but at the end of the day still wonder if it could have been a demon. While the book offers a much wider gap for interpretation, the film does a good job tapping into a similar spirit and should be applauded for doing so. 

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The choice of who is going to be the main character to represent a film is a hard one. As discussed earlier, a film depends on visuals and requires more wow factor because audiences can often be shallow. The main characters in The Wind in the Willows are Rat and Mole. Toad is more of a plot point and side character - the trickster character which was discussed on the most recent episode of Talk Magic to Me (listen at the end of this blog post). So why did Disney choose Toad to be one of the faces to represent this film?
The obvious answer is that Toad is very interesting. All of Rat and Mole's adventures are slow and would be quite boring to a child audience. But when Toad comes along, things become fast paced and suspenseful. The reader is constantly wondering - how will Toad get out of this situation? Naturally, this makes Toad an interesting character and a good face for a film. But I believe there were other motivations for Toad's casting as well.
When I read The Wind in the Willows for the first time (actually I listened to the audiobook), I found that Toad reminded me of Walt Disney himself! That may sound weird because Walt Disney didn't steal cars or go on train chases...but he was very obsessed with the newest pieces of technology. The similarities between man and character are most apparent when Toad sees the motor car driving up the road and becomes mesmerized. Even when his friends restrain him, Toad can think of nothing else but that motor car. He goes through many lengths to get that car. Walt Disney was the same way. He was straight forward and knew what he wanted and didn't try to hide it. When he saw his daughters reading Mary Poppins, he knew he would go to all lengths to make that story into one of his motion pictures. Mary Poppins was his motor car. Both cross boundaries yet at the end of the day we love them and route for them. I'm sure Walt saw some of himself in Toad.

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There is so much more that can be said about this film but I will end it there. Be sure to listen to our newest episode of Talk Magic to Me where we discuss this very film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad!

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