Tag Archive | The Wind in the Willows

Disney’s version of “The Wind in the Willows”

Mr Toad and Horse

My girlfriend and I enjoyed a fun treat tonight — watching the Disney version of The Wind in the Willows. When I was a kid, I’d loved “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland, and now that I’m older I’ve also had a chance to appreciate the original book by Kenneth Grahame. Yet somehow through all that, I’ve never had a chance to see the entire cartoon by Walt Disney — at least, not since I was a kid. So tonight, I was finally going to get to watch it.

There’s a fascinating history behind the movie. Walt Disney started animating the film in 1941, and it would’ve been only the fifth feature-length film ever released by the Disney studios, according to Wikipedia. But of course, World War II reached the U.S. at the end of the year, and some of Disney’s animators were drafted. Even his finished cartoons were impossible to distribute overseas in the biggest markets. So the project was put on hold…

It didn’t start again until 1945 — and by then, it was trimmed down until it was just half of a two-story movie. (The other half being The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.) This leaves the movie feeling kind of lopsided — although it also feels more like a storybook instead of a Walt Disney cartoon, with Basil Rathbone providing the narration.

“If you were asked to choose the most fabulous character in English literature, who would it be? Robin Hood? King Arthur? Becky Sharp? Sherlock Holmes? Oliver Twist, perhaps? Well, any one of them would be an excellent choice. Still, for the most fabulous character of all, I would nominate… a toad….”

I think I was most disappointed by the fact that there is no wild ride in the movie. At least, not with a motor car. But at least there is one delightfully reckless scene where Toad crashes through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage — singing a duet with his horse! This is the moment that catches the giddy joy of the character that I’ll always remember, as he sings — with his horse — that “we’re merrily on our way, to nowhere at all!”

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Robert Ingpen

I just finished reading a fun book that’s beautifully written and full of surprises. It’s a classic “chapter book” for young readers, following the lives and adventures of a society of animals. I once called it the perfect book for springtime, because the author obviously appreciates the beauty of the great outdoors. It opens with a mole who decides he’s tired of cleaning his underground hole — so he throws down his brush and runs out into the sunshine, where the fields lead him to his very first glimpse of a sparkling river.

The mole is welcomed to the river by a friendly water rat, and a few chapters later he meets the wise old badger who lives in the nearby woods. But of course, they talk about that grand yet frivolous Mr. Toad who lives in the exquisite manor that’s just around a bend in the river. The toad flits from one passion to the next — when the book opens, it’s boats, and then later, it’s horse-drawn wagons. But the toad is absolutely spellbound by the newly-invented automobile, and starts purchasing (and then crashing) several of them…

I love the story about the book’s author, Kenneth Grahame, who had retired from his job as a secretary at the Bank of England. He’d just gotten married, and as he settled into a comfortable life on the river, he didn’t publish any fiction for the next 10 years, according to Wikipedia. But when his wife gave birth to a son, Grahame would entertain him with bedtime stories, and it was the little boy’s energy which ultimately inspired the character of Mr. Toad. Grahame described the impetuous frog as dreamy, audacious, frivolous, and triumphant — and he ultimately collected all the animals’ adventures into a novel-sized book.

It’s a book that’s beloved by adults as much as children, since it’s really two different books rolled into one. That opinion comes from the original Christopher Robin himself, in a book called The Enchanted Places. (Winnie the Pooh was written by A. A. Milne, who based the character of Christopher Robin on his own son, Christopher Robin Milne.) When he grew to the age of 54, Christopher Milne wrote The Enchanted Places, remembering that The Wind in the Willows was much loved by his family when he was growing up, and was often re-read. Ultimately his father A. A. Milne even created a stage play based on The Wind in the Willows!

Another fan of the book was the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. At the close of his presidency in 1909, he took the time to write Kenneth Grahame a thoughtful note of appreciation. “Indeed, I feel about going to Africa very much as the seafaring rat did when he almost made the water rat wish to forsake everything and start wandering,” the president fondly tells the author. And just six weeks later, Theodore Roosevelt left the presidency behind – and embarked on a safari of Africa.

I guess I’m saying that this book is powerfully written, and its left a strong impression on people who’ve read it!