Tim Burton’s 1999 Sleepy Hollow was truly one of the most disheartening missed opportunities in all of film—a ground-up genre pulp riff on Hammer films by way of Washington Irving that not only bore no resemblance to its alleged source material but also had no personality, soul, or narrative heft. Burton’s “adaptation” is more like a badly related story from a dorky kid who claims to have read the book but can only rely on third-hand information: “Yeah, it’s about a headless horseman…and he kills people…and stuff.” Hence, it’s a monotonous series of elaborately (read: dully) staged beheadings, with endless lines of Burton’s child-scrawled scarecrow grotesques dotting the landscape. At least we still have the real deal: Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, thirty-five minutes of clever, tuneful, and surprisingly gripping animated joy, originally packaged alongside The Wind in the Willows (also excellent) for the 1949 release The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Even as it’s greatly geared towards the kiddies, Legend of Sleepy Hollow manages to be more, satiric, exhilarating, and evocative of its story’s time and place than Burton’s backbreakingly art-directed fluff, which seems to have spared no expense.
While it may not be the Greatest Pumpkin of them all , Disney’s Sleepy Hollow trails a close second to Linus’s faithful night in the pumpkin patch in the animated Halloween Olympics. Narrated completely by (a probably soused) Bing Crosby, it’s Disney at the top of its craft; made when the studio was in somewhat of a downslide after the war, the film was one of a series of shorts within omnibus films that they were making at the time, almost exclusively. With other subjects such as Pecos Bill and Johny Appleseed, Disney was constantly propagating Americana throughout the decade, for better and for worse, but Sleepy Hollow remains the best of them, a perfectly pitched example of Disney’s penchant to condense literature into an accessible package, without sacrificing nuance or detail. In fact, a lot of care seems to have gone into adapting Washington Irving’s highly allegorical tale: Irving’s gently sarcastic omniscience becomes Crosby’s sassy, tuneful narration (complete with a host of toe-tapping numbers filled with ironic remove); and sketchy schoolmaster Ichabod Crane’s voracious opportunism is reimagined as a slapsticky, rapacious appetite for women and food. In this passage from Irving’s book we see the makings of Disney’s literalized metaphors: “He was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region.” Though thin as a rail, he’s often seen wolfing down entire roasted chickens and swallowing pies in one nasty gulp.
Most impressively, the film maintains the ambiguity of its story’s central Dutch-settled, New American mythmaking. The Headless Horseman, a spirit summoned up by fireside storytellers to scare children—as well as itinerant teachers given to local superstitions—represents new-old-world cold comfort at its least forgiving. Is the horseman, supposedly beheaded by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War, more fearsome because it might be a vengeful human in disguise or because it might not be? (The bullyish local Brom Bones drives out Ichabod, not just because he’s stealing the eye of the thoroughly flirtatious, loathsomely manipulative Katrina, but also because Ichabod represents an unwanted intrusion to the enclosed community.) Not just faithful, the film is also exquisitely designed to terrify: even before Ichabod’s final fateful Halloween ride through the midnight woods, there is an exquisite use of multiplane animation in which the branches and trees of the nighttime forest literally close in on Ichabod, with overlaying animated cells. It’s a beautifully cartoonish evocation of fear, and exactly what children’s filmmaking should do: boil things down to their primal core, with simple visual metaphors.
Then, the slow, suspenseful build-up (far off hooves clomping ever closer; the moon cupped by the hands of grey clouds; frogs croaking out Ichabod’s name in foreboding) to the deliriously exciting finish—Ichabod’s desperate face, the Horseman’s headless indifference, the race to the hallowed ground of the bridge and church. It’s simply thrilling, with more of an understanding of basic narrative mechanics that Burton could ever grasp. Then, the shattered pumpkin.
Happy Halloween, everybody.