Monday, October 31, 2011

Let’s Review a Movie: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949)


Happy Halloween everybody!  And in honour of All Hallows Eve I’m taking a look at a short film that completely freaked me out as a kid.




That can seem odd considering that child friendly and family entertainment are the first things that come to mind when one thinks about what Disney is, but seriously this thing was so creepy and scary to me as a young kid that I refused to watch it again until I was in my late teens. 

Well, that was my loss because this is a wonderful short film.  The animation is top notch as usual for Disney of course, with the occasional flub like an extra mug of beer, and Brom’s invisible sandwich, but still wonderful.  Especially the headless horseman chase, that was wonderfully animated, by the action animator if you will of the Nine Old Men, Woolie Reitherman.  The shots of the horseman galloping towards the viewer in particular give the scene great tension, also the flaming pumpkin flying at the audience at the end is a very memorable image.  (And mad props to whoever gave the headless horseman his voice.  They have a cackle to rival that of Vincent Price.) For the rest of the movie the colours are a nice fall palette complimenting the Halloween theme of the story, and watching the film many times lets the little details of the animation sink in too, like that the background artists kept consistency between Katrina’s house the first time we see it when Ichabod takes in her shopping, and the way it looks at the Halloween party later.  The stairs remain in the proper spot and they kept the two-way door too.

Bing Crosby provides a wonderful narration of the tale, and now that I know who Bing Crosby was this actually was an interesting comment on the movie industry.  By that I mean that it is interesting to watch older movies and realize that what is sometimes thought of as a modern problem in films, having a celebrity in your work to increase ticket sales whether they are appropriate for the project or not, is actually something that’s been around for a long time in Hollywood.  Maybe the reason we don’t notice it as much for older films is because a modern audience isn’t as familiar with older stars, or that older filmmakers used celebrities that complimented their movies better?  Thinks about Richard Pryor in Superman III…well so much for the latter theory; in any case Bing Crosby works well because he was a very talented man and his talents were used to great effect here.  This is a musical so it makes sense to have the narrator be a singer.  I also find it funny that a long lanky character such as Ichabod has such a deep voice.  Like Sleeping Beauty dance moves are incorporated into character movement to further cement the song and dance style.  For example Ichabod walks in fifth position when he enters Sleepy Hollow for the first time, and slides into third position when he stops the black cat from crossing his path.

I like that the mystery of Sleepy Hollow is maintained in this version.  We see in the opening scene that Brom is a skilled horseman, and that his horse is black like the headless horseman’s is.  So, the audience is given some clues that the man terrorizing Ichabod on his way home from the Halloween party is really him, supported by the fact that Brom told the story of the headless horseman knowing it would set Ichabod on edge.  But we also see Ichabod look down the horseman’s jacket and see apparently nothing, and the horsemen jumping with his horse in that gorgeous shot against the moon that isn’t physically possible, leaves us with the impression that this is all supernatural.  In the end we can’t totally be sure what happened and that’s part of what makes it such a good story.             

Watching this film where I no longer hide behind the couch I’ve noticed something else I love as an adult about this movie: all the characters are jerks.  Now normally I would hate this kind of story choice.  Anyone who has read my review of Star Trek can plainly see that, but here it works.  Brom is the most obvious example of jerk-ass behaviour with playing pranks on Ichabod, and possibly killing him, but Ichabod isn’t just a victim of Brom, but a man who looks down at the people of Sleepy Hollow, thinking of them as country bumpkins.  He is biased as a teacher and he is also greedy, in wanting the Van Tassel farm and fortune; and shallow in that he seems to love Katrina for her looks and nothing else.  He daydreams that he will protect the ‘poor little rich girl’ as if she is nothing more than a china doll he can put in a display case.   

In reality though Katrina isn’t just some pretty prize for the boys to fight over, totally clueless as to their antics; as is so often the case in love triangles, but is instead a person who deliberately inflames their rivalry for her own amusement.  As the lyrics say: “Katrina will cut and run, to her a romance is fun.  There’s always another one to start.” Leading to the hilarious scene of Brom and Ichabod at her house where Brom gets smacked by the door. I think having the characters like this counts as a positive for me because this is a short film based on a short story.  There are no sweeping character arcs or great revelations in worldviews, there doesn’t need to be, and so these negative qualities enhance the characters; giving them dimension, rather than making me want to punch them.  Having a character with flaws is fine.  It’s when the character was supposed to change and the arc was unconvincing to me and yet I’m still supposed to sympathize with assholes that I have a problem with jerk-ass behaviour, and that’s not the case here.

In closing, what was once a film to be avoided like the plague has now become one of my annual Halloween staples.  It has wonderful music and a great narrator, rich fall colours, wonderful animation, terrific voice acting and the terrifying visuals of the headless horseman still truly invoke the spirit of this spooky holiday.

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